Over there, in New Zealand, these sweet potatoes, known as kumara, are one of the basic ingredients used in many recipes, including kumara chips, aka sweet potato fries.
The New Zealand diet
The New Zealand diet is strongly influenced by English cuisine, not only because it was a former colony of the British Empire, but also for similar climatic and geological characteristics. Fish and chips are everywhere even if despite the wide variety of fish and shellfish, New Zealanders prefer meat dishes, but not Maori who prefer fish and seafood.
New Zealand incorporates Maori, British and Asian dishes into its gastronomy. The cuisine is influenced by all the ethnic groups that are part of the population.
The Maori of New Zealand are indigenous Polynesian populations of New Zealand. They settled there in successive waves from the 8th century. Today they are more than 740,000, or about 15% of the New Zealand population.
When the native Maori arrived in New Zealand from tropical Polynesia, they owned a number of food plants, including kumara, taro and ti (cabbage-palm or cabbage tree).
The best known specialties in New Zealand are therefore divided into two main families: the ones with Maori origins and the others.
In Maori cuisine, food is usually cooked in underground ovens filled with hot embers or heated volcanic stones. In ancient times, these ovens were used for cooking all foods.
The most representative dish of Maori cuisine is hangi, and its ancestral method of cooking since it is also cooked buried in a pit. The traditional hangi consists of wrapping meat (lamb, chicken, or pork for example) and vegetables and/or kumara in a damp cloth and burying it in this pit for slow cooking.
Lamb chops are popular in non-Maori Kiwi cuisine and are usually eaten with a delicious mint sauce. Another widely popular specialty in the country is fish and chips, a tradition imported from the United Kingdom, but the availability of other species of fish makes New Zealand fish and chips taste a little different.
As for sweets, the two hugely popular desserts are pavlova and Afghan biscuits. Pavlova, the origin of which has been the subject of discussions with the Australians for decades, and Afghan biscuits, which are not really from Afghanistan.
What is the origin of kumara?
In New Zealand, you will never hear of sweet potato, but rather of kumara. Indeed, many words in English have been replaced by their Maori equivalent.
The Polynesian name kumara, which encompasses all varieties of sweet potatoes, comes from the word in Quechuan, the language of the Andean plateau of South America. Sweet potato is also called kumara on the Peruvian coast.
Sweet potato (kumara)
Sweet potato is associated with potato more for its external appearance than for its botanical properties. It is very widespread in Oceania and lends itself to the most varied recipes.
Despite the undeniable similarity to the potato, sweet potato has no botanical family connection with the best known and most common potato.
Generally oblong in shape, often pointed at one end, it has an average size larger than that of potatoes and can reach up to 12 inches in length and 6 lb in weight. It is characterized by its compact and starchy consistency.
The skin has a wide range of colors, depending on the variety: red, purple, but also brown or white. Its pulp can range from whitish to orange-yellow, from red to brown.
It can be eaten fried, baked or boiled, eaten by itself or as a salad. True to its name, it has a sweet taste, often associated with that of chestnuts.
What is the origin of sweet potato?
The history of sweet potato is ancient. Native to the tropical regions of the Americas, where its culture was already recorded over 5000 years ago, it was imported into Europe by Christopher Columbus following the discovery of the New World.
Presented to Queen Isabella of Castile, it was initially considered exclusively as a botanical curiosity and it was not until the first decades of the 19th century that its use as an edible food spread.
China is the largest producer of sweet potatoes in the world today with nearly 100 million tons produced annually.
Back in the 16th century, when Europeans explored the Pacific, sweet potatoes were already grown there, from New Zealand to Hawaii.
The most likely hypothesis is that transoceanic contacts took place between Polynesia and South America, perhaps on the initiative of the Polynesians, known for their navigational skills.
I made those kumara chips for a lunch with the kids, and I served them with a hamburger. Classic and simply delicious!
- 3 sweet potatoes
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- Rub the sweet potatoes to remove any dirt, then cut them into thin sticks of the same size, no thicker than a quarter of an inch.
- Then place them in a large bowl and cover with cold water.
- Let them sit in cold water for an hour. Change the water twice to remove any excess starch.
Preheat the oven to 430°F / 220°C.
- Drain the sweet potato sticks and dry them completely in a clean cloth.
- Transfer the sweet potatoes to a large baking dish and coat them by hand with olive oil.
- Make sure the sweet potato sticks are evenly distributed on the baking sheet in a single layer, without overlapping.
- Cook in the center of the oven for about 40 minutes, turning them halfway through cooking to ensure that all sides are cooked evenly.
- Once the sweet potato fries are cooked, turn off the oven and leave them inside for another 5 to 10 minutes.
- Season with salt and serve hot.