When our local garden centre closed recently there was a lot of teeth gnashing and hand wringing (although not so much as when the only petrol station within 5km closed). Call me shallow and single issued, but while I was concerned for the loss of jobs and the facility and the inconvenience of having to travel to the three garden centres within easy driving distance, this was not my only concern. No, my other concern was for where the man who sells kumara, who travels all the way from Dargaville during the kumara season, and who stationed himself outside of the garden centre was going to access his customers. Where was I going to find him!

To put this in perspective, kumara is almost the national vegetable, perhaps only second to pumpkin, in New Zealand. And rightly so. For where most countries might sell a kumara, or not even know of it hidden under the name of ‘sweet potato’, in New Zealand we are hugely lucky to have at least four main and very different varieties of kumara. Kumara is King – and Queen.

With typical American hyperbole Vardaman, Mississippi claims to be the Sweet Potato Capital of the World. But here in New Zealand, the North Island town of Dargaville with more modest aspirations can rightly lay claim to being the kumara capital of New Zealand.  Tangata Whenua (the indigenous people of the land) named this place Kaihu in pre-European times. Dargavillenz.com tells us that:

“Dargaville is now the hub of farming, … with the alluvial river plains that bracket the river supporting the extensive cropping of kumara. This occurs south of Dargaville on both sides of the river and on the fertile Ruāwai flats and has given the region the title of New Zealand’s Kumara Capital. As chefs overseas discover the delicate, sweet flavour and potential of this local delicacy, the kumara farming trade has grown apace. It’s a gift from those first people of the Kaipara, who developed sophisticated kumara farming and storage techniques, well before the first European settlers stepped ashore. The great kumara fields are below sea level; protected by drainage systems and stopbanks, and overlooked by a 180m volcanic plug Tokatoka and its neighbour Maungarahū.”

The kumara, as a ‘sweet potato’, has a long history and has travelled extensively. But first things first, the kumara is not a potato, rather it is Ipomoea batatas (L.) Lam., a dicotyledonous plant that belongs to the bindweed or morning glory family, Convolvulaceae, and is commonly known as the sweet potato but in NZ as the kumara. It is eaten as food in such geographically distant countries as Peru, Japan, Tanzania. Science direct tells us that the young leaves and shoots are used traditionally as medicine for the treatment of diabetes in the Phillipines. Similarly, the dried leaves are used in Fiji, and in Vietnam, Brazil, and Japan, it is the tuber that is used for this purpose.

It is a native from Central or South America and was largely cultivated before Europeans reached the American continent. Sweet potato was introduced before 1000 CE in the Pacific Islands (Polynesia) from where it made its way with the Tangata Whenua on their journey to their new homeland of Aotearoa.

Kumara of all varieties are high in Vitamin A, C and manganese and are a good source of copper, Vitamin B6, potassium and iron and Kaiara Kumara tell us that there are four main types of kumara grown in NZ. Harvested in June, they are the Beauregard, an orange colour and the sweetest; Toka Toka, a gold variety named after the 180m volcanic plug ; Purple Dawn, the newest variety and good for roasting, and the most recognised one the Owairaka which has a red skin and creamy flesh. There are newer varieties too, some coming from Japan (Koku, Koganesengen and Honey Sweet) and some developed in NZ (Orange Sunset).

The Japanese Okinawa variety is said to be as sweet as the conventional Beauregard. It is white skinned and the flesh is veined with bright royal purple when freshly cut but turns entirely purple when cooked. The purple colour is due to the anthocyanins in the tubers and along with anthocyanins, the flavonoids in purple kumara exhibit some of the most powerful antioxidant effects known to science. Okinawans have grown this unusual variety of kumara since the early 16th century. It was probably introduced by traders from the Philippines who had acquired them from the Spanish colonists who had brought these South American tubers across the Pacific. (source: Stuff)

The Okinawa Kumara

The purple kumara is not widely available in the United States. So, for those of you who live in the US you have the choice of the white or the orange. The orange is sweeter and contains more beta-carotene which turns into vitamin A, so go for that one. I am sure Vardaman, Misissipi would approve.  As for me I shall have to wait till next June to hunt down my Beauregard.