Key Ingredient


Wednesday, July 25, 2001


For Okinawans, no produce item is as precious as the purple sweet potato. Like potatoes for the Irish, the Okinawan sweet potato is the staple that saved many from famine and starvation in the typhoon-laden southern Japanese chain of islands.

In Hawaii, the sweet, creamy spud has a strong following, not only for its appetizing flavor, but because it's as a good source of vitamin C, fiber and is said to possess an antioxidant quality.

The basics: Sweet potato was introduced to Okinawa around the 17th century from China.

A number of varieties were planted, but no other variety became as popular as the purple tuber, also referred to as tumai kuru or beni imo (colored potato). The potato has a light, whitish skin with lavender flesh. Locally the potato is grown primarily on the Big Island by the same farmers that grow our prized ginger. Another purple sweet potato variety grown on Molokai with red skin and a deep, dark purple interior is often confused with the Okinawan variety, but is more like the Filipino yam known as ube.

Selecting: Look for medium-sized potatoes without bruises or browning. Potatoes should smell fresh, not musty or moldy. They may range in size from small, thin finger potatoes to large, bulbous tubers. Mark Teruya of Armstrong Produce says this is because weather conditions and other factors sometimes limit crop yield, so various grades of potato may be marketed.

Storing: Ideally, potatoes should be stored in a cool, dry place and used as soon as possible. But in Hawaii's warm weather, potatoes tend to sprout faster and thus refrigeration may be necessary. Store in the refrigerator for no longer than five days.

Use: The best way to enjoy the Okinawan sweet potato is as a snack freshly oven-roasted or boiled.

Recipe contests held in recent years, however, have yielded a number of dishes using the potato in croquettes, stews, breads, pies, tempura, mochi and even ice cream. A number of recipes can be found in "Okinawan Mixed Plate" (2000, Hui O Laulima).

Where to buy: Okinawan sweet potato is generally available year-round, however peak season is September through the end of the year. Right now prices run from $1.69 to $2.79 a pound.

Food Stuffs: Morsels

Contact Eleanor Nakama-Mitsunaga
online at

Asterisk (*) after nutritional analyses
indicates calculations by
Joannie Dobbs of Exploring New Concepts,
a nutritional consulting firm.

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