The Okinawan Sweet Potato

This purple wonder is delicious, easy to grow locally and might just be part of the secret to a long life.

Okinawan sweet potatoes

When I was little, I never really liked sweet potatoes or yams that much. I would pick through the soft orange flesh with little interest, even though they were grown all around my small Louisiana town. They suited me a little better when Thanksgiving came around and they were baked in a casserole topped with marshmallows. As I grew older, I began to appreciate their sweet taste, as well as their health-enhancing qualities.

Living in Alabama, a sweet potato state for sure, most of us enjoy the vibrant orange sweetness of our local taters. (Recently, Gov. Kay Ivey signed a bill naming the sweet potato our official state vegetable.) Baldwin and Cullman counties lead the state in sweet potato production; in fact, there are farms in Baldwin County that ship their sweet potatoes all over America. 

Down in our part of the country, growers started referring to the tubers as yams — softer fleshed and sweeter than Northern varieties. Everything is sweeter down South, of course.

Sweet potatoes come in a wide variety, from cream-colored, yellow-fleshed Hannah variety to the deep orange of the Jewel yam. All of these varieties are replete with vitamins and nutrients, can help improve blood sugar numbers and offer significant antibacterial and antifungal properties. 

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The Okinawan sweet potato, however, is rapidly gaining in popularity. This purple powerhouse of sweet potato comes to us from the Pacific island of Okinawa, home of some of the longest-lived people in the world. National Geographic magazine has invested time and resources in studying these long-lifers and found that nearly all of the Okinawans regularly eat this purple potato. Maybe you have heard of the five areas of the world, called the Blue Zones, where people live very long and healthy lives on into their 90s and 100s. Experts who study such things believe that this exceptional Okinawan sweet potato is a major contributor to those extended lives. 

The outer skin is tan in color, similar to a russet, but inside is the sweet surprise of a magenta-colored flesh that can be baked, roasted, steamed, broiled, candied, scalloped or mashed. In addition to its sweet creamy flavor, and that vibrant purple flesh, this beni-imo (as it is known in Japan) is packed with antioxidants, vitamins and minerals that can help strengthen the immune system.

The More You Know

These magenta beauties are purple cousins of the well-loved orange sweet potato, but they are actually members of the morning glory family. 

The Okinawan’s primary nutritional benefit is its high antioxidant levels. The antioxidant, anthocyanin, is the pigment responsible for the brilliant purple flesh, the same pigment that colors blueberries, red grapes and red cabbage. The Okinawan sweet potato has 150 percent more antioxidants than blueberries. Even the leaves carry antioxidant properties and can be included in flavorful soups or stews.

The good news is that it’s not hard. Slips can be ordered online or cut from your own potatoes and should be planted in full sun a few weeks after the last frost, about March 15 in coastal Alabama. They can be planted in spring or fall, when the soil has warmed, or in containers. Clay containers or whiskey barrels would work just fine. They will thrive in loose, well-drained, nutrient-rich soil. In 90 to 120 days, when the vines begin to yellow and die back, it’s time to harvest.  

Dooley Berry is a Master Gardener, a cook who is ever learning and a writer of numerous articles in newspapers and lifestyle magazines. She lives, gardens and writes with her husband, Scott, in Spanish Fort.

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