Cheap Eats:
Salade de Patates Douces
  (Sweet Potato Salad)

If you call them yams, you're probably wrong, at least if you're in the US. What you're probably looking at is a sweet potato. Sweet potatoes are true roots, members of the morning glory family, and are entirely unrelated to yams.

Sweet potatoes are among the numerous foods indigenous to the New World, and though Columbus would never have seen a white potato, he was quick to discover the sweet potato. He was served three or four kinds of sweet potato at a feast given by the king of the islands of Saint Thomas, and was impressed with their size and variety. Columbus and his crew found sweet potatoes on the menu on most islands, with a wide variety of names. In Arawak (Taino dialect, to be precise), it was called batatas, which eventually evolved into our word potato. The original term is still reflected in the plant's scientific name, Ipomoea batatas.

All species of sweet potato are indigenous to the New World. It was widely cultivated in South America, especially Peru, by 750 b.c., then spread across South America and the Caribbean. It was growing in Spain as soon as Columbus got home with some plants. Quickly gaining popularity in Europe, it began to pop up on menus and in literature, and even gets mentioned in Shakespeare (William just refers to them as potatoes—it wasn't until 1775 that they became known as sweet potatoes, with "potato" alone meaning a white potato.)

Oddly, though initially popular, the sweet potato is not now grown or used in any particularly significant quantities in most of Europe. However, its popularity exploded, and remains high, in Africa, the Pacific Islands, and parts of Asia. It is believed that China received the sweet potato from Spanish traders, and there are those who say that China was able to support a larger population with the sweet potato than it could have without it. From China it moved to Japan, where it became not only a food source, but also a source of starch and alcohol.

Sweet potatoes are remarkable for their sugar content—3 percent to 6 percent. They have more minerals and vitamin A (as beta carotene) than white potatoes, but have less protein. They are also tremendously high in fiber, which is a great bonus. However, they do not store as well as white potatoes, so only buy what you need, if you're cooking with them.

Now, I don't know about you, but I was always horrified by sweet potatoes when I was growing up. They would always arrive covered with marshmallows or swimming in syrup. I could tell they weren't a "real" vegetable—you wouldn't do that to a vegetable—but I also knew they weren't dessert. I didn't like them at all. Then I grew up and found out you weren't required to eat them that way, and I was finally reconciled to the sweet potato. Now, that doesn't mean you can't enjoy the goopy version and still enjoy the alternatives, but I want to underscore that, even if, like me, you disliked sweet potatoes in the past, you might want to give them a try in this new and completely different guise.

This recipe comes from Chad—or République du Tchad—a country in west central Africa that was an important crossroads for many centuries. (You may notice that their word for sweet potato is just a little closer to the original batatas.) This dish is infinitely better than you can probably imagine from simply reading the ingredients. I love the intensity of the flavors. It makes a good side dish with something from the grill, or works nicely alone as a light lunch. Enjoy.

Salade de Patates Douces
(Sweet Potato Salad)

4 large sweet potatoes

1 medium onion, chopped

3 Tbs. lemon juice

⅓ cup olive oil

1 tsp. salt

½ tsp. ground black pepper

2 medium tomatoes, coarsely chopped

Boil sweet potatoes in their skins until tender (takes about 25 minutes). When done, run potatoes under cold water to cool, then peel and slice. Place in a large bowl, add onion, lemon juice, oil, salt, and pepper, and stir, making sure the potato slices get separated and everything gets coated with oil and lemon juice. Add chopped tomatoes and stir.

Serves 6‑8.


For this recipe, you will probably want to use a nice, flavorful Extra Virgin olive oil, if you have it.

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