Will the Real Sweet Potato Please Stand Up?

published Jan 16, 2014
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(Image credit: Stephanie Barlow)

Sweet potatoes. Orange-fleshed root vegetables great for baking and terrific sprinkled with brown sugar, right? Well, sometimes. Usually the qualities that distinguish a sweet potato from their not-even-related-cousin the yam are subtle. But when you’re trying to recreate a recipe made specifically with sweet potatoes, that difference becomes huge.

(Image credit: Stephanie Barlow)

I had a vague notion of the difference between sweet potatoes and yams (hint: they’re not even part of the same family), but figured it was slight since they look quite similar. While visiting Singapore last year, I took a cooking class and learned to make a dessert called ondeh ondeh. These sweets were like nothing I’d tasted before — hollow sweet potato dough balls cooked just long enough to melt the sugar inside to a caramel consistency and then rolled in fresh grated coconut. The dough somehow felt light and the liquid caramel center burst with the first bite. I couldn’t get enough of them.

Besides having a difference appearance than yams, sweet potatoes have a different nutritional makeup as well. The dough felt the same as I kneaded rice flour and sugar into the steamed and mashed sweet potatoes. However, once cooked, the dough expanded and took on a dense, stringy feel when eaten. (Classic yam behavior, I have since learned.) Needless to say, I only got through about one half of one ondeh ondeh (would that be just ondeh in this case?); it just didn’t taste good.

So began my search for the real sweet potato. First, just try googling the difference between the two and see if you don’t get confused. The North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission explains:

The sweet, orange-colored root vegetable that is often thought of as a yam in the United States is actually a sweet potato. All so-called yams are sweet potatoes. Most people think that long, red-skinned sweet potatoes are yams, but they really are just one of many varieties of sweet potatoes.

So I had someone managed to find the only yam despite all of this? Or did I end up with an orange sweet potato that just didn’t act as a green one would? I looked harder and located a white-fleshed sweet potato at a Whole Foods in New Jersey. Surely this was it. It was a little easier to mash and the flesh was starchy after cooking, more like a potato, and not stringy like the yam. The ondeh ondeh were light and not dense and chewy as before. Success! Now if I could just figure out the filling, I’d have something.

Have you ever tried to find a real sweet potato?