Tuesday, October 19, 2010

INGREDIENTS - Sweet Potato (Batata-doce)

The lowly sweet potato (batata-doce in Portuguese) is one of the oldest-cultivated foods in the history of the world, and in the area of its origins, the high Andes of Peru, remnants of sweet potatoes have been found that date back over 8000 years. Long before Europeans even dreamed of continents on the other side of the Atlantic, Native Americans passed techniques for cultivating sweet potatoes along trade routes between the heights of the Andes and the tropical forests of Brazil, and the sweet potato became a primary nutritional source for many native populations in the areas that today constitute Brazil. It also spread elsewhere in the New World, including the rest of South America and throughout the Caribbean islands, which is where Columbus was introduced to this tuber. The Spanish took the local Taino name for this plant, batata, into their own language, and later applied that name to another non-related tuber, the common potato, thus engendering linguistic confusion that exists to this day. To make linguistic matters worse, when the yellow-fleshed variety of the sweet potato was introduced into the southern sections of the United States, producers and shippers chose to differentiate it from the original white-fleshed variety by calling it "yam", which is the name of an entirely different tuber of African origin. In fact, the tubers that are sold as yams in the USA and Canada are actually yellow-fleshed sweet potatoes and are not yams at all. Because of this USDA regulations require that the label "yam" always be accompanied by the words "sweet potato", although this is often disregarded in shops and markets, at least in my personal experience.

In most of Brazil, the yellow-fleshed sweet potato, the one that is mislabeled yam in the USA and Canada, doesn't appear at all in markets and supermarkets. The sweet potatoes I've seen in this country are invariably purple skinned and with a greenish white flesh. Yams (inhame) are also eaten in Brazil, having been brought from Africa with slave populations, but there's none of the confusion that exists in English between these two tubers.

Sweet potatoes are highly nutritious, and a valuable addition to the Brazilian diet. In 1992, the Center for Science in the Public Interest compared the nutritional value of sweet potatoes to a number of other vegetables. They looked at fiber content, complex carbohydrates, protein, vitamins A and C, iron and calcium, and the sweet potato scored highest of all the vegetables studied, with a score of 184. The standard score, 100, represented the nutritional value of the common potato.

In traditional Brazilian cooking, the sweet potato is served in many ways and in many dishes. It can be simply boiled or mashed, it can be roasted, it can be added to soups and stews, and as in the southern US (sweet potato pie) it can be an ingredient in desserts. The sweet potato is an essential ingredient in many dishes that bear African influence, as the slaves who cooked in the great houses and shanties of sugar-cane plantations arrived in Brazil already familiar with the yam, which can be used in very similar ways.

Today, in Brazil, the sweet potato is enjoying a bit of a renaissance. Long considered a low-class and low-interest vegetable, batata-doce dishes are coming out of some of the most creative and inventive restaurant kitchens in the land. The next few posts here on Flavors of Brazil will feature a couple of the many faces of this delicious and extremely-nutritious tuber.


  1. that's a lot of info to take away... thanks for it... www.chackoskitchen.com

  2. would you use Batata Doce for a traditional sweet potato casserole like we would in the states?

  3. Yes, you can substitute batata doce for most recipes for US-style sweet potatoes. Just remember that the color won't be the same though - the flesh of the batata doce is a greenish-grey, not orange or pinkish.

  4. Thank you for the clarifying post! I was breaking my head trying to find out the name of Yam in Portuguese, and Google searches would only come up with inhame.