One Question Quiz
Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

KaiJune 2, 2023

Ingredient of the week: Kūmara

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

Yes, they’re phenomenally expensive at the moment. But if you manage to track down a bargain or are keen on a splurge, there’s plenty of ways to make the kūmara worth it.

As a child, there was no doubt in my mind: kūmara was the world’s best vegetable. This belief was partly because my grandma made roast kūmara so incredible it put me into a joyful, food-intoxicated haze. Her kūmara was melt-in-your-mouth soft inside, crunchy with a slick of oil on the outside, with perfect saltiness balancing the perfect natural sweetness. 

While I’ve never made roast kūmara quite as delectable as hers, I’d still put these starchy, colourful, tuberous roots in the top spot. In Aotearoa, kūmara has been grown (and presumably greatly enjoyed) for over 1,000 years, when early Maōri voyagers brought the vegetable with them from the Pacific Islands. Some of these varieties of early kūmara were no bigger than a finger.

A pile of purple coloured kūmara from a bird's eye view.
Kūmara of the purple variety. (Photo: CC0 Public Domain)

While we have deep roots (so to speak) with kūmara in Aotearoa, the sweet potato or batata plant actually originated in tropical parts of Central or South America over 5,000 years ago. In Peru and Bolivia, there are names for sweet potato such as khumara, k’umara, and k’umar, giving evidence for contact between Polynesians and Central Americans prior to the travels of Columbus. From there, Polynesians brought the worldly tuber to Easter Island, Hawai’i and Aotearoa. 

A quick note on nutrition, because I always incorrectly assumed that kūmara are a “tastes great and that’s about it” kind of veg. In fact, more than just being delicious, a 100g serving of baked kūmara provides 120% of your daily requirement of vitamin A, and a good portion of your daily vitamin C, vitamin B6, manganese, niacin, riboflavin, fibre and potassium.

Where to find kūmara

It’s been a very tough year for kūmara growers. A whopping 97% of our kūmara are grown in Northland, and this year their crops were devastated by Cyclone Gabrielle and other extreme weather events. Given the circumstances, I’m pleased to get my hands on kūmara at all – and at somewhat normal prices. 

At both New World and Countdown, red and orange kūmara are $10.99 per kg, or about $4.40 each. There’s also the brilliant alternative of buying a 900g bag of orange kūmara from Countdown for $10.99 – for the same price, you get 100g less kumara, plus an extra plastic bag. 

Pak’nSave prices are slightly lower, at $9.99/kg for both red and orange kūmara. A rarity, Supie prices are the highest of the bunch, with three red kūmara (900g – 1.1kg) sold at $12.99, and three orange, golden, or purple kūmara sold at $11.99. A bit pricier, but it’s the only option of the lot that currently supplies purple or golden varieties. 

A bowl of orange kūmara soup on a dark green tablecloth with a side plate of crusty bread.
Kūmara soup. (Image: Wyoming Paul)

How to make kūmara terrible

Initially, I’d written that as the world’s best vegetable, there’s only one way to make kūmara really terrible: undercooking. But according to various websites, raw sweet potato is a thing, with some suggesting raw sweet potato salad and using the root to make smoothies. Regardless, to me, raw kūmara is not the go. Its starch needs to break down before it really tastes good and you can digest it properly – so undercooking kūmara can lead to a pretty yuck meal and a pretty sore stomach. 

A friend told me that she recently followed a TikTok recipe where a kūmara is grated, mixed with raw egg and some salt, shaped into cakes and then pan fried for 5 minutes each side until “perfectly cooked”. Of course, it was not “perfectly cooked” – it was raw, because kūmara needs more love, warmth, and attention than that.

How to make kūmara amazing 

One question I had when I started getting into cooking was, which kind of kūmara should I use? Here’s my rule of thumb: when you want something starchy and well-structured, like a chip or a roasted mouthful with some chew, go for red kūmara. If you’re after something soft, sweet and mashable, perhaps for a soup or kūmara cake, go for orange. There’s also purple kūmara, and while it’s visually stunning, it doesn’t quite meet my sweet tooth requirements. 

Kūmara rosti. (Image: Wyoming Paul)

Obviously, my favourite way to eat kūmara has already been mentioned and salivated over: bite-size pieces of kūmara, roasted to crispy perfection. However, I have an array of beloved kūmara dishes in constant rotation, from kūmara, mandarin, rocket, walnut and feta salad (a fantastic easy dinner or side), kūmara cakes with feta, spring onion, and sour cream (also wonderfully easy and filling), curried kūmara soup with garlic bread (like pumpkin soup, but better), chickpea-stuffed kūmara (yum), kūmara gratin with drumsticks and slaw (feeling decadent), to kūmara rosti with a chilli fried egg and wilted greens (also feeling decadent, but at brunch time). 

However, my own experiments in the world of kūmara barely scratch the surface, with dozens of preparations of sweet potato around the world. In northeastern Uganda, sweet potato is sliced and sun-dried to make amukeke, which is eaten for breakfast with peanut sauce. Many East Asian countries and Egypt serve baked sweet potatoes as a street food during winter – in Egypt, they’re sometimes served as a dessert, drenched in honey. 

A dish of baked chicken drumsticks alongside a bowl of carrot flecked coleslaw and a large casserole dish of kūmara gratin with cheese on top. This is all presented on a beige tablecloth.
Kūmara gratin. (Image: Wyoming Paul)

Some parts of India turn sweet potatoes into pickles and snack chips, or into flour to make chapattis. Korea uses sweet potato starch to make dangmyeon or cellophane noodles, and in the US, candied sweet potatoes – prepared with brown sugar, marshmallows, or maple syrup – are popular at Thanksgiving. Marshmallows and kūmara might not be my thing, but with a tuber so delightful, I can see the appeal of combining them with just about anything. 

Wyoming Paul is the co-founder of Grossr, and runs a weekly meal plan that connects to online supermarket shopping.

Read all the previous Ingredients of the Week here.

Keep going!