Sweet potatoes have become increasingly popular in the UK in recent years. Sales have been rising alongside trends in healthy eating and plant-based diets. In Cuba, sweet potatoes have been grown and eaten for millennia and can be found across the island, everywhere from restaurants to food markets.
Here are seven fun facts to whet your appetite and spark your intrigue:
It was first grown in Cuba a long, long time ago
Estimates vary among scientific researchers and the world history of sweet potatoes is still hotly disputed by academics. In relation to Cuba, it is generally considered to have been introduced to the island several thousand years ago from Central or South America.
Cuba's climate was well suited for the crop as it flourishes in warmer temperatures. Cuba's year-round warm and sunny weather plus lack of nighttime frosts has meant that it grows much easier here than in countries with colder climates. Also, the favourable conditions in Cuba mean that each sweet potato plant produces a high yield, sometimes as many as eight or more per plant.
The Cuban variety of sweet potato has yellow flesh
Unlike the orange flesh varieties that can now be found ubiquitously in the UK, the variety that you will come across in Cuba has a paler, yellowy tinge. The flavour is also different, it is a bit less sweet than the orange-fleshed variety, and has an almost chestnut-like taste. Orange and yellow sweet potatoes are so closely related that they are both botanically classified as "Ipomoea batatas", and from a culinary perspective, both can be used interchangeably.
That said, they are significantly different enough that it is not uncommon for Cubans abroad to lament that the orange variety does not taste as good as their native crop! Note, throughout this article, I will use the term "Cuban sweet potato" when referring to the specific yellow-fleshed variety that is found on the island.
Sweet potato is not actually a type of potato
In British English, the term "sweet potato" is used as they were originally assumed to be botanically similar to a potato but just with a sweeter taste. However, this was an error - potatoes are members of the nightshade family, whilst sweet potatoes are members of the morning glory family.
In some parts of North America, the orange-fleshed sweet potato is called a "yam", but it is technically not a type of yam either, which belongs to a completely different family! In Cuba, though, there is no linguistic confusion here. All you need to remember is the word "boniato" when you want some Cuban sweet potato and you will be universally understood.
It is used in both savoury and sweet dishes
Cuban sweet potato is most often used as a savoury accompaniment to the main dish. This may be sliced and boiled, steamed, mashed, or fried in a similar fashion to a potato. Ovens are not present in most Cuban households, so while you may see a roasted sweet potato in a restaurant, you are very unlikely to see it cooked in that manner if you are eating at a "casa particular" (homestay).
Cuban sweet potato is also used to make a traditional dessert known as "boniatillo". This is a sweet pudding that different cooks make in different ways, but always including the main ingredients of pureed sweet potatoes and plenty of sugar. With so much sugar cane and so many sweet potatoes, it is not surprising how this dessert came about in Cuba.
Similar deserts can be found on other Caribbean islands, for example in nearby Jamaica the same variety of sweet potato as in Cuba is featured in the popular desert known as "sweet potato pudding", though this differs from the Cuban dessert in that it is much dryer and can be picked up by hand. Boniatillo, on the other hand, requires a spoon.
It is a popular baby food
Cuban sweet potato is a popular choice as affordable natural baby food, mashed with a fork or blitzed together in a blender along with various other vegetables such as taro, squash, banana, and perhaps other available vegetables and chicken too.
It is over three times more abundant in Cuba than potatoes
Whereas the Cuban sweet potato has been present for thousands of years and is well suited to Cuba's climate and terrain, potatoes have had a harder time. Historically speaking there was a lack of varieties that were well adapted to Cuba's climate.
This changed during the 20th century with new seeds brought to the island, new irrigation methods and techniques, but the potato is yet to catch up with the volume of sweet potatoes grown on the island (though to be around 550 thousand tons annually, compared with 130 thousand tons of potatoes). That said, potatoes are very popular, especially when cooked as chips, something that you will inevitably encounter as a tourist.
It is a very nutritionally dense food
Sweet potatoes increasing popularity in the UK has been connected with its nutritional benefits, and the Cuban sweet potato is no exception. Sweet potatoes are a good source of vitamin C, potassium, fibre and a range of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. It is also considered a "complex carbohydrate".
The yellow-fleshed Cuban sweet potato has a lower beta carotene content than the orange-fleshed sweet potatoes that are popular in the UK, but if for some reason you are in desperate need of beta carotene during your stay in Cuba, there are plenty of locally grown squashes, carrots, bell peppers and leafy greens to top you up! In fact, Cuba is an island full of locally grown nutritious produce.