Boniatos are what most of the world thinks of when it thinks of a sweet potato. While not quite as sweet as the yam type sweet potatoes we are used to in the United States, boniatos are nonetheless delicious and fun to cook for their own nutty flavors and texture. Francis Lam wanted to know more about this terrific tuber. Thankfully, his good friend Doc Willoughby is a huge fan of boniatos, so they two sat down to talk about it. Try Doc's recipes for Boniatos with Mojo de Ajo and Baked Boniatos with Maple Syrup and Nutmeg.
Francis Lam: I am a fan of tubers. But there are many tubers in the world outside of the potato and sweet potato. You are here to tell us about the boniato, which is the tuber I don't know anything about. What is it?
Doc Willoughby: A boniato is what most of the world calls a sweet potato. It is a white-fleshed sweet potato with a pink-y, purple-y modeled skin; it's very bulbous, and kind of ugly.
FL: Let us be judgment free about the appearance of our tuber friends.
DW: It is charmingly ugly, let me say that. I find that to be one of its good qualities.
FL: Unusually shaped, maybe?
DW: It's bulbous; it's got little things coming out. It is amazingly delicious. It is a cross between what we think of a sweet potato – the orange fleshed sweet potato – and the white potato in terms of flavor, though it’s not related to either of them. But really, it tastes most like chestnuts, and it's aromatic. It's drier and fluffier than a white potato; not quite as wet as an orange fleshed sweet potato. You can put it in stews of any kind in place of a sweet potato or a white potato. Bake it and eat it with butter, honey or maple syrup. And it has a certain affinity for aromatic spices like cardamom, or cloves, or nutmeg. It’s an amazingly versatile and delicious vegetable that not many people in the circles we move in know about. Although, it's also called the Cuban sweet potato or the tropical sweet potato. So, in Cuba and Central America it is widely used.
John "Doc" Willoughby
Photo: Keene Vision Photography
FL: Where were you introduced to it?
DW: Oddly in Puerto Rico. I was in Puerto Rico many years ago and we were driving over the mountains headed for the west coast. We stopped at this little outdoor restaurant and I tried to order in my pathetic Spanish. The guy waiting us on us says, “You can speak English. I lived in Jersey for 20 years.” We asked him what to order, and we had roast pig. Then we had a side dish of boniatos, which I had never heard of, seen or tasted before. They were so delicious that I became hooked. I've been a fan ever since.
FL: How'd they make it?
DW: They boiled it and served it with the sort of garlic sauce. So since then, I very often boil it and serve it with Mojo de Ajo, which is a garlic and citrus sauce. I also like to roast it with a combination of maple syrup and sour cream.
FL: And go the hardcore sweet potato route.
DW: Yeah. Any time you make a stew, if you ordinarily would put a regular potato in, you can put this in instead. They are denser than white potatoes, so they take longer to cook. If you roast them at 400 degrees, they take about 60 to 75 minutes, and you have to turn them every 15 minutes because they're so dense that you don't want any unroasted pockets in there.
FL: You're just making sure it cooks evenly.
DW: Other than that, it's super simple.
FL: I love the idea that tastes like chestnuts. I've had Japanese sweet potatoes that have a nuttier flavor than orange sweet potatoes.
DW: It’s the same family. If you go to Jackson Heights here in New York, in Queens, which has a large Asian population, and a very large Latin population, you will find bins of what they call fresh boniatos, which is what we're talking about. Right next to it will be a bin of what they call either Japanese or Korean sweet potatoes; they are slightly different, but you can use in the same way.
FL: And if you don't live near Jackson Heights, where do most people find them? What do you look for? How do you select them?
DW: You can find it in pretty much any Latin market. Or if you have a big supermarket in your city that carries a lot of different international ingredients, they'll usually be there. And these things are really heavy. What you're looking for is something that is heavy for its size, which most of them are. Press them to make sure there are no soft spots. Because they're not cured like orange sweet potatoes they don't last that long; you should use them within a week of buying them. Look for the smaller or medium sized ones, because the larger ones weigh over a pound. If you roast one of the big ones, it's going to take a long time. The 8 to 12 ounce ones, which you can also find easily, are the best ones to choose.
Francis Lam is the host of The Splendid Table. He is the former Eat columnist for The New York Times Magazine and is Editor-at-Large at Clarkson Potter. He graduated first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America and has written for numerous publications. Lam lives with his family in New York City.