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West African Sweet Potatoes
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West African sweet potatoes are medium to large in size and have an oblong shape with one bulbous end tapering to a slender, pointed tip. The cream-colored skin is semi-rough, covered in brown spots and patches, and bears a few medium-set eyes that are scattered across the surface. Underneath the thin skin, the pale white to cream-colored flesh is dry, slightly sticky, firm, and starchy. When cooked, West African sweet potatoes have a fluffy texture with a slightly sweet, earthy flavor.
West African sweet potatoes are available year-round in Africa.
West African sweet potatoes, botanically classified as Ipomoea batatas, are the tubers of leafy, creeping vines and are members of the Convolvulaceae family. Sweet potatoes are a staple crop in Africa and are mainly produced in Tanzania, Uganda, and Nigeria. Cultivated for processing into flour, slicing into chips, or used in everyday cooking, West African sweet potatoes are favored by local farmers as a source of ground cover for gardens and for their extended storage capabilities. The tubers are also readily available at fresh markets and roadside stands, providing locals with a filling ingredient that can be boiled and served on its own, or used in soups and stews as a nourishing meal.
West African sweet potatoes contain vitamins A, B6, and C, manganese, potassium, copper, iron, and phosphorus.
West African sweet potatoes are best suited for cooked applications such as boiling, pureeing, mashing, baking, deep-frying, stuffing, and steaming. In Africa, sweet potatoes can be served at any meal of the day and are commonly boiled and consumed plain or served with a peanut-tomato sauce. West African sweet potatoes can also be cubed and mixed into soups and stews such as mafe, which is a traditional stew made with seafood, meats, or vegetables, or they can be fried, mashed, flattened into pancakes and fritters, or sliced and baked into French fries. In addition to cooking, West African sweet potatoes can be peeled, dried, and ground into flour for extended use. In Nigeria, the leaves are also consumed and are boiled into a tea to help reduce symptoms associated with asthma and gastrointestinal issues. West African sweet potatoes pair well with peanuts, meats such as chicken, lamb, smoked fish, and goat, broccolini, kale, okra, green beans, eggplant, coconut, tomatoes, onions, garlic, and ginger. The tubers will keep 3-6 weeks when stored in a cool, dry, and dark place.
In Africa, sweet potatoes have a polarizing reputation with some referencing the tuber as “poor man’s food,” while others reminisce and associate the tuber with positive family memories. Sweet potatoes are a common ingredient boiled for breakfast for children to keep them full during the school day and many families would eat the tubers for multiple meals. In Zimbabwe, the sweet potato is beloved as a nourishing culinary item, but it has also become a term of endearment for loved ones. Zimbabweans recall using the term in everyday speaking as an affectionate descriptor for a family member, spouse, or friend, and it has even been used in love letters.
Sweet potatoes are native to South America and were introduced to Africa in the 1600s via Portuguese trade routes. While the exact origins of West African sweet potatoes are unknown, the tubers are widely spread across tropical Africa today, found in home gardens and cultivated on a small scale for sale at fresh markets.