What The Fork: Kunal Vijayakar Says Hello to the Virtuous Cousin of Potato, You Can Too

Wonderfully delicious but notoriously ill-reputed as the potato may be (as a type of carbohydrate that the body digests rapidly, causing blood sugar and insulin to ‘surge and dip’) and whose abuse eventually contributes to obesity, diabetes and heart disease, its close kin, the sweet potato, is not only far more inculpable, it’s rather virtuous and in fact your friend and bosom buddy.

I know we all cannot resist potatoes, and there is nothing that compares to big fat chips. Long wedges of potato fried till the outside is crisp while the inside remains soft and tender — what are now commonly called ‘French fries’. How many of us can resist a hot baked potato lathered with butter and sour cream or a velvety potato mash with butter, parmesan and cream?

There is no better fast food than a Batata Vada Pav, and a yellow Sukha Aloo Puri beats the hell out of a Chole Puri, and no chaat is complete without at least some potato in it. Then there is Aloo Paratha, Kashmiri Dum Aloo, Bihari Aloo Chokha, Aloo Tikki, Aloo Methi, Aloo Gobi, Aloo Palak, Jeera Aloo, Dubke Wale Aloo, Aloo Tuk, Aloo Bhaja, aloo in Masala Dosa, aloo in mutton, aloo in chicken, aloo in Biryani, and I can go on and on with this never-ending saga of aloo. As unhealthy as it may be, we all love potato. Meanwhile, we have completely ignored its near cousin, the shakarkand or sweet potato.

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Known as ‘Ratala’ in Marathi and ‘Rataloo’ in Gujarati, I discovered sweet potato quite late in life and first as a street food. Conventionally, our street food has a terrible reputation of being swarming with germs, bacteria, human grime, sweat; or otherwise, fried, greasy and packed with trans fats that result in instant heartburn. But here at the corner of the street was a solitary cart, piled with what looked like a collection of odd-shaped knobby roots that the vendor was roasting over live coal with their dark brownish muddy skins intact.

With immense curiosity and because I could not resist the aroma, I stopped at the cart and bought half a kilo of roasted sweet potato. The vendor roasted a fresh batch, cleaned off the charred skin, chopped the tuber into cubes and sprinkled it with black salt and chaat masala, squeezed some lemon and handed the piping hot sweet potatoes in an old newspaper. The flesh tasted slightly sweet yet savoury with a lush soft texture, a result of slow roasting, the zesty seasoning of the chaat and lime, and that earthy taste of the soil and the smoky flavour of the coals it had just been smouldered on. It was impetuous, and I was sold.

You may not be aware of this, but the sweet potato, which has all the taste qualities of the potato and more, is also one of the healthiest foods you can eat. It is a great source of fibre, vitamins and mineral, and is rich in antioxidants. The fibre and antioxidants in sweet potatoes are great for gut health; they are also one of the richest natural sources of beta-carotene, a plant-based compound that converts to vitamin A in your body. What’s more, the sweet potato is full of energy rich good carbs, high water content and is a healthy alternative to normal potatoes and has been scientifically proven to help in weight loss. Do you need to know more?

One of my favourite ways of eating sweet potato is either just boiled in the pressure cooker with a bit of salt or sliced, brushed with a little butter, laid on a greased tray and baked in the oven. Better still is a creamy sweet potato mash, made in the same way as you would make mashed potatoes. All I’d add is – easy with the cream and butter. You can, exactly like you would make an Aloo Chat, make a Sweet Aloo Chat, replacing the boiled potatoes with the shakarkand. You can make great Aloo Tikki with sweet potato as you would Aloo Parathas. In fact, wherever you use potatoes, you can use sweet potatoes. Like in a Vrat Rataloo Khichdi – this gluten-free khichdi is made with grated sweet potatoes, tempered with green chillies and lemon juice and is quick to make. Or, a Sabudana Wada or Sabudana Khichdi with sweet potatoes. Just imagine soft-soaked sabudana cooked with a tempering of jeera, curry leaves and green chillies, stirred in with small pieces of sweet potato and garnished with peanuts, freshly grated coconut and coriander, with just a squeeze of lime.

It’s amazing how unseeingly we lead our lives, and often miss some wonderful and healthy things that are just under our noses. I’ve decided that I am now going to get out of my comfort zone and discover that which has always been there but out of my mind, my sight and my taste.

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Kunal Vijayakar is a food writer based in Mumbai. He tweets @kunalvijayakar and can be followed on Instagram @kunalvijayakar. His YouTube channel is called Khaane Mein Kya Hai. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.

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