I don’t know about you, but I grew up in a potato world. An oblong spotty ball swimming in an infinite sea of mash, with little salt and vinegar chips whizzing by. All orbiting a white hot baked potato, wrapped in blinding tin foil.
Things are a little different in these parts. Sure the classic spud can be found in any market, but it is not an integral part of Asian cuisine. It is actually the leaf of the sweet potato that is a staple. It grows fast, abundant, and hearty. Its vines split and one sweet potato can easily provide 100 or so leaves, every 3-4 weeks. It doesn’t sound like much, but that’s just from one potato.
When lightly steamed, it looks and tastes like mild spinach, although not as sandy. It is full of iron and vitamins, a good source of fiber, and it’s just as good raw as it is cooked. It requires as little effort to grow it as it does to prepare it and eat it. It’s a miraculous source of cheap nutritious food.
I’ve always wondered why it never took off in the west. My only guess is that we grew up with the idea that potato leaf is poisonous, even deadly if consumed. In the book, Into The Wild, it was the consumption of wild potato leaf that ultimately led to Alex’s horrible death. We have ever been watchful of the sprouting eyes of the potato.
Perhaps we are just afraid of rot. What is that disgusting albino plant growing in the dark corner of the crisper or cupboard? An alien root growing in total darkness. We are quick to chuck out these things, swearing next time to keep a better eye on our shopping and fridge.
The strange thing is that in Toronto, you can see sweet potato leaf growing in many of the public planter boxes that are all over the city. It is a pretty plant that grows light green to dark, and there is also a purple variety. It is ironically grown because it is cheap and requires little to no attention. Mere civic decoration at a low cost.
I personally have 3 sweet potatoes in my small garden. I won’t say that I no longer buy the leaves, but every few weeks I have to cut them back and generally have enough for a decent side dish for 2. To grow, it is as easy as taking a sweet potato and plunking it in soil–roots on the bottom. That’s really all there is to it. Within a few days, there will be leaves.
If you’re wondering which kind of sweet potato to use, it doesn’t matter. All varieties (there are at least two here in Taiwan) will produce edible leaves. If purely grown as a decorative plant, its large leaves will keep the soil moist and lush in the hot months. Therefore it’s a good plant to grow next to flowers that require a lot of attention in the summer months. Just be sure to trim it back every so often, as it is a vine that can potentially strangle other plants. And don’t chuck the leaves. Eat them. Prepare them as you would spinach.
Or you can cook it Taiwan style, which is my favorite. In a medium sized pot, heat around half a cup of water. Throw in a few roughly chopped cloves of garlic, a teaspoon of salt, a tablespoon of both soy sauce and sesame oil. When fragrant, throw in a few handfuls of raw sweet potato leaves and toss in the hot watery sauce. The leaves will almost instantly reduce to half their original size and become much darker. Spoon out onto a plate and enjoy.