We pass the roadside stall inviting us to stop, with the sign “Kūmara - Farm Direct Dargaville”. Definitely worth a stop. It’s our own sweet potato, enjoyed for its flavour and as a treat by visitors to our country. A favourite American relation of ours makes it a priority to grill kūmara on her visits here, a delicious barbecue meal. And it was recently declared New Zealand’s unofficial national vegetable. But our kūmara has a long history, definitely worth knowing.
Our own sweet potato
The kūmara’s large, starchy, sweet-tasting, tuberous roots make it a root vegetable. And it is native to tropical regions in the Americas. The kūmara is only distantly related to the potato. And it’s definitely not a yam.
There are many different names around the world. In New Zealand it is known by its Māori name, kūmara. In the United States and other English speaking countries, the kūmara is "sweet potato", in France, "patate douce”. We have read that in China it is "hong shu" (红薯) and in Vietnam "khoai lang”. But our New Zealand version is quite distinctive and beloved.
A legend of arrival
We have read conflicting legends about the kūmara's arrival here.
Some say that, in about the 10th century, Kupe brought the kumara here from Hawaiki. Other reports tell that, during the migration, around the 13th century, from Polynesian islands, several important Māori food plants arrived. The kūmara proved the most successful of those, maturing quickly and thriving in our light sandy soils. And so, to pre-European Māori, it was the most valuable cultivated food.
Early Māori settlers spread through New Zealand and tried to grow kūmara as far south as Nelson and North Canterbury. But groups who gardened too far south often lost their crops from unexpected frosts. Then messengers were sent north again to collect more.
And these early kūmara were bushier, and had much longer thinner tubers, compared to kūmara we enjoy today. They’ve been described as fingers. The main modern variety, red-skinned Owairaka Red, originated in a cultivar introduced here only in the 1850s, a larger South American variety brought here on whaling ships. It’s now about 75% of our kūmara crop.
A few types
There are plenty of varieties of kūmara here, but only three main varieties commercially available. The most common is the red-skinned, Owairaka Red, with a creamy purple-streaked white flesh and a mellow flavour. Then there’s gold, sometimes sold as Toka Toka Gold, with a golden skin and flesh, and a sweeter taste than red. And the third is orange, known as Beauregard, with a rich orange flesh, sweeter than red and gold.
So, if you want sweet, sweet potato, go for orange.
Dargaville’s the place
And it’s in the sub-tropical north, near Dargaville, that these tubers grow. Nearly 95% of our total crop comes from the Kauri Coast, due to rich alluvial (mud) soil and warm temperatures. Growing the humble sweet potato is huge industry in the Kaipara, providing hundreds of jobs in an area that previously relied on kauri timber and gum exports.
A national vegetable
There even was a competition last year to determine New Zealand’s national vegetable. Ireland has the potato, Italy has the tomato, but New Zealand (which we agree to be one of the world’s greatest food producers) apparently has no national vegetable of its own.
So, a poll was held. And kūmara (in a late run, to beat out the beetroot) was declared the winner, with more than 80% of the popular vote. The plan, we’ve read, is to present the kūmara petition to parliament for tuber recognition. More to come, perhaps?
You’d be hard-pressed to convince that American relation we mentioned earlier that the kūmara is not already our national vegetable. There’s so much to do with them, and lots beyond a traditional cook in a hāngī earth oven, as kūmara chips or fries, or as a key part of roast meals, served with the meat, potatoes and pumpkin. For a current favourite, a winter kūmara gratin, click here.