I have probably seen the leaves of sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas) in various Farmers’ Markets many times before, but was formally introduced to them by a fascinating (and quite challenging to shop for) book called Cooking with Asian Leaves. The book provides detailed descriptions of thirty herbs and leaves used in Asian cooking, and two recipes for each. There are many that you would expect–curry leaves, shiso, chrysanthemum, Thai basil–and many that are unheard of outside of Asia (or expatriate communities) like boxthorn leaves, agathi leaves (a.k.a. West Indian pea tree, white spinach), noni leaves (a.k.a. morinda, Indian mulberry), and ponnangani (a.k.a. sessile joyweed). I imagine that most of the leaves are available somewhere in the Bay Area, but have thus far not gone on a systematic leaf quest.
The sweet potato is one of the world’s most cultivated crops, and is grown all over the world, but especially in Asia and the Pacific. The leaves are good forage for domestic animals, so consumption by humans is looked down upon in some places as the food of the poor. However, because some varieties of leaves are high in protein, they can serve an important place in a diet that is based on tubers and other grains. Chinese herbalist lore says that the leaves can improve the respiratory and renal system function.
Like spinach, chard and other greens, sweet potatoes leaves are highly versatile. Cooking with Asian Leaves has two recipes: sweet potato leaves in a coconut milk sauce, and stir-fried sweet potato leaves. Since it was still close to my Eat Local month, I used the second one as my inspiration. I found the leaves to be quite tasty: tender, a nicely balanced flavor, not even a hint of bitterness, and none of that strange astringency that greens like spinach and chard possess.
Here is my version of stir-fried sweet potato leaves:
One bunch of sweet potato leaves (volume of the untrimmed bunch was 6-10 Qt.)
1-2 hot dried red chilies
1-2 cloves of garlic
Salt, soy sauce, pepper to taste
- Fill a pot with water and put it on the stove over high heat. The pot should be large enough to hold the leaves, and there should be enough water to cover the leaves.
- Strip the leaves from the branches. The thin stems that attach the leaves to the branch are tender enough to eat, so there is no need to remove only the leaves. Wash and drain the leaves.
- Mince 1-2 cloves of garlic.
- Chop the chilies fine, and combine with the garlic.
- When the water comes to a boil, turn off the heat and carefully add the sweet potato leaves. After 2 minutes, remove and rinse with cold water. Chop the leaves. (This step was recommended by the cookbook to remove traces of natural slime from the leaves.)
- In a large skillet or wok, heat some vegetable oil over high heat. When it is hot, add the garlic and chilies. Cook for 30 seconds, stirring often.
- Add the greens, then stir-fry the mixture until the greens are tender, about 2 or 3 minutes. Add salt, pepper, soy sauce, or other flavorings to taste.
Note: Separating the leaves from stems for some bunches of leaves can be a tedious chore, but with this particular batch of sweet potato leaves, the leaves were attached to the tough branch by a long stem, and I was able to quickly strip them using a pair of scissors.