The sweet potato, now firmly rooted in our traditional Thanksgiving feast, is actually a transplant from Central and South America and is only distantly related to the potato. This member of the Morning Glory family is utterly unrelated to the yam which is native to Africa and Asia. Facts rarely inhibit the soul of merchandising. Some decades ago, North American producers used the term yam in an attempt to differentiate between the white and orange fleshed sweet potato. They were so successful that their legacy of entrenched confusion still reigns. Ambiguously, U.S. government agencies now permit the use of “yams” in the labeling only if it also identifies the tuberous vegetable as a sweet potato. So much for the clarity of authority.
In the southeastern U.S. the sweet potato retains its longstanding status as a staple. Thanks to questing chefs, eager to expand the palates of the population, the sweet potato has re-emerged in many other areas of the country and is a gaining significant, wholehearted following. The far sailing Polynesians are probably responsible for bringing the sweet potato to the Cook Islands and then help spread its Pacific popularity from there to New Zealand, the Philippines and Hawaii. The 18th and 19th C Dutch and Portuguese maritime merchants introduced several varieties, including a purple fleshed one, into China, Japan and Korea, where they still thrive. The Japanese created an alcoholic drink called Shōchū from the tuber. They also fashioned a colorful dessert pastry made with sweet potato.
The sweet potato is a sociable sort. It has apparently never met a flavor or a cooking method it couldn’t befriend. It is a ready flavor compliment and companion of butter, coconut butter, coconut milk, sesame oil, peanut oil, white miso, rosemary, thyme, brown sugar, maple syrup, molasses, bourbon, dark & light rums, smoked salts, allspice, cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, chili, cilantro, coriander, lime, oranges and tangerines. (Now some would claim that marshmallows belong in that list, but for my money, marshmallows belong on sticks.) The sweet potato can be roasted, baked, grilled, fried, steamed, boiled, tempura-ed, pickled or sautéed.