Jewel sweet potatoes.
Jewel sweet potatoes.
Image: Supplied

Much like many of our local, starchy “staples”, sweet potatoes are not indigenous to SA, but rather to South America and were introduced by the Portuguese trade routes to SA. However, the lovely Ipomoea batatas has been part of South African tables as long as our Xhosa mothers and aunts have exclaimed “weh batata” over whatever news they were sharing while preparing a meal or indulging in one.

This root vegetable takes us back to our roots in so many special ways. When I first made this side dish for Sunday lunch and my dear uncle Pat kept exclaiming, “I can taste the tambryn (a Cape Town-ism for tamarind)”, it really made us think just how mixed our taste heritage is in this country.

Tamarind is also not from here and has, too, travelled many trade and possibly slave routes to make it to our tables. My cousins in the Western Cape would buy little packets of the tart treat, bite a hole in the corner and suck on it as they strolled the streets after school.

Some root vegetables get more dues than others. The humble potato gets all the credit a lot of the time. Then the no-carb warriors came for it with a vengeance and it lost favour, albeit still tops from a flavour point of view. For those less carb averse, the sweet potato was a good glycaemic alternative, but only really featured in the sweet-potato fry version.

My mother was always an early adopter of healthy food alternatives for us and all our meals were well balanced. Then, when my dad was diagnosed with diabetes when I was a preteen, the sweet potato made quite the appearance on our plates. Strange looking and complex to understand the flavour profile at first, but once she started roasting it with cinnamon, that changed it completely for me.

Were I to be an influencer, sweet potatoes may be where I play

I now love a sweet potato. Were I to be an influencer, sweet potatoes may be where I play. A jewel sweet potato is a particular favourite and I’ve found the ones from Checkers to be a firm favourite (this is a sadly unsponsored punt).

How do I like them, you may ask? Mainly roasted, though fried, mashed, stuffed and a wedge still do feature on occasion. Though my pinnacle is whole-roasted, crispy on the outside and steaming soft inside with butter melting and some cinnamon, because, well, these two just go so well together.

During hard lockdown, I worked on this dish a bit, because I had time, for starters. Fortunately, I had a glorious group of family and friends willing to taste this little experiment and its iterations. I use butter, because why would I not? This is a flavoured butter, so simple, you would never expect it. 

RECIPE: Date-and-tamarind-flavoured butter

Ingredients: 

  • Soak two pitted dates in warm water
  • Soak an index-finger length of tamarind in hot water (along with the dates)
  • 125g softened salted butter
  • A squeeze of lemon
  • ¼ teaspoon of cinnamon
  • Square of waxed paper
  • Food processor
  • Silicone spatula to wipe down the sides

Method:

  • Place the softened butter, soaked dates and tamarind into the processor.
  • Save a little of the water from the soaking dates and tamarind and pour a little into the mix (a teaspoon).
  • Pulse until combined, can be as chunky or smooth as you like.
  • Pour the mixture onto the waxed paper and role it into a little log and freeze it so it can harden.
  • When ready, take out of the freezer and use as you desire.

 

RECIPE: SWEET POTATOES

  • Preheat oven to 200°C and place baking paper on a baking tray on the second shelf from the top.
  • Wash three jewel sweet potatoes (depending on the number of people), dry, place on the baking tray and bake for 1.5 hours, turning once halfway through the cooking time.
  • Once roasted, take out the oven and cut down the middle, squeezing the sides to really let the inside flesh crumble and then add a circle or two of the date-and-tamarind butter.
  • Cut the sweet potatoes in half.

Green herb drizzle:

While the sweet potatoes are roasting:

  • Chop a handful of basil, Italian parsley, ¼ onion and a small red chilli (optional) and place in a bowl.
  • Pour about four tablespoons of olive oil into the same bowl.
  • Squeeze in about ½ a lemon.
  • Sprinkle some salt liberally and add a dash of pepper, and a pinch of cumin and cinnamon.
  • Mix it all up and drizzle over buttered sweet potatoes and serve.
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