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Rediscovering Sweet Potato Greens

At a time when fears of chemical residues are everywhere, a tasty, nutritious and inexpensive green vegetable is making a comeback

By Ian Bartholomew

Crispy-skin Salmon with Chickpeas and Sweet Potato Greens is a quick dish that shows off how sophisticated sweet potato greens can be.

In Taiwan, vegetables don’t get much more humble than sweet potato greens (地瓜葉). Until quite recently, they were regarded as food for pigs, and many among Taiwan’s older generation have memories of resorting to sweet potato leaves has a last bastion against hunger in the day’s before the island’s economic miracle.

After years of media reports about the excessive use (and harmful residues) of pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers of more upmarket vegetables, the health-conscious are beginning to rediscover sweet potato greens as a relatively uncontaminated vegetable. And the very reason for its new appeal is the fact that this low cost vegetable is robust enough to survive the pestilential Taiwan summers with little aid for modern agricultural science, and is much too cheap to warrant the use of expensive chemical aids.

In fact, sweet potato greens often don’t even warrant display space in the larger stalls of traditional markets, and are sold by old ladies with a small harvest of vegetables from their own plots on the fringes of the more established grocers.

According to a study by the University of Arkansas, “sweet potato leaves are comparable to spinach in nutrient content,” with “levels of iron, calcium, and carotene rank[ing] among the top as compared to other major vegetables.” (https://www.uaex.edu/publications/PDF/FSA-6135.pdf) There is also considerable literature on the antioxidant and chronic disease prevention benefits of the vegetable.

That said, it is important to point out at this point that eating sweet potato greens is not just some concession to faddish ideas of healthy eating. They taste delicious, and are not at all difficult to prepare. No less a figure than Mark Bittman, food writer and New York Times columnist has extolled the virtues of this vegetable, only lamenting the difficulty of obtaining it in North America (http://www.thebittenword.com/thebittenword/2010/10/saut%C3%A9ed-sweet-potato-greens.html). In Taiwan, it can probably be found at any traditional market for next to nothing, but to those who have not encountered it before, an unknown vegetable can be a little intimidating.

Sweet potato greens can be stir fried with garlic in conventional Chinese fashion and will taste pretty good, but the leaves may express a dark liquid that makes the dish look unappealing. One way around this problem is suggested by Taiwan’s favorite TV chef, Cheng Yen-chi (鄭衍基), better known as Ah-chi-shih (阿基師), is to use lemon juice, to counter the oxidizing tendencies of the vegetable. My own favorite method is to sauté very quickly with shallot confit (油蔥酥) and thick soy sauce, making for a simple dish that can be prepared in three or four minutes (for both shallot confit and soy sauce, which are both integral flavoring agents, a high quality artisanal brand is highly recommended).

This preparation of a humble vegetable makes a perfect accompaniment to white rice and can be enjoyed as a simple meal in itself, but it can also be used as a wonderful (and insanely cheap) replacement for spinach in many recipes. It should be noted that sweet potato greens cook down considerably, and unlike spinach, they don’t have the same degree of oxalic acid that can often produce an unpleasant astringent taste in spinach dishes. Sweet potato greens, despite their lowly origins, can provide both nutrition and flavor at a minimal financial and environmental cost.

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