The Ugly Duckling: Okinawan Purple Sweet Potato

The Okinawan purple sweet potato is one interesting tuber. From the outside, its tan, light brownish colored skin makes it a plain old root vegetable, and its thin, irregular shape puts it at the ugly end of the spectrum. (Not that any tuber can be considered remotely good looking, but some are not particularly ugly, like baby potatoes.) At first glance you might disregard it as another dirty root vegetable sprung from the ground; I definitely wouldn’t know it’s got anything to do with purple if it wasn’t labeled as such. In fact, given the price (over 2 dollars per pound) I might just roll my eyes and pick up a typical, cheap as dirt, sweet potato.

Purple potatos?

But! Never judge a book by its cover, or, er, a potato by its skin! Because underneath this very unassuming exterior hides a most majestic interior – a deep purple lightly speckled almost like a gem of sorts – that is deliciously rich, slightly moist, and very sweet. I didn’t believe it when first introduced, but the purple sweet potato is the Cinderella of root vegetables, and tastes as beautiful as it looks (inside).

Purple sweet potato

The purple sweet potato was introduced to Japan in the 1600s from China. Today, outside of Japan, it is mainly grown in Hawaii. In your Asian supermarket, you will find it falsely labeled as “Hawaiian Purple Yam“. According to this source the purple sweet potato is not the same as the ube, which is a yam that also has purple flesh but red skin. (And this Nerd really shouldn’t have to explain to her dear readers what the difference between a yam and a sweet potato is, should she now? ;-))

Although both the purple sweet potato and the ube is pureed into a purple mush to create various kinds of purple-colored desserts like cakes, pies, and ice cream, I think it is great to enjoy it as is. The best way to prepare it is not by baking, but steaming. Despite being sweet, it doesn’t have as much moisture as the normal sweet potato, so baking doesn’t quite produce a soft and moist potato but dries it out. (This was baking 2 hours at 375F – the thing was still hard and not mushy unlike baking a sweet potato.) On the other hand, steaming it on a plate sat on a water-filled pan or wok, is much faster and retains a bit of the moisture. From experience, not all are sweet, and skinnier potatos that don’t have giant bulges (or at least have a somewhat uniform diameter throughout) seem to be sweeter. But I am really no expert, so you might want to buy more than one in case I am not right.


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