Patat is Afrikaans for sweet potato, so when calling something a soet patat, you know it’s sweet. It literally translates as “sweet sweet potato”. This recipe for soet patats – sweet potatoes cooked in a caramel sauce – was inspired by Leipoldt’s advice for making “gestoofde patats” (stewed sweet potatoes) in the book, Leipoldt’s Cape Cookery. It’s a delectably sweet side dish that should really be classified as dessert, but is not – which makes it okay. Doesn’t it? It’s one of those indulgences that I think a lot of South Africans know all too well but that perhaps a lot of us have forgotten. For that reason, I believe the soet patat is just about ready for its comeback.
Building a library of South African heritage cookbooks at JAN Innovation Studio is one of the most inspiring projects I’ve ever embarked on. Like a collection of rare gems, each book is unique; and shares a story that is not confined to the words on its pages. Through the handwritten notes in its margins, its dog-eared corners and butter-stained edges, it shares the secrets of those who drew inspiration from its musings, cooked their hearts out following its recipes, and treasured it.
One such treasure comes from C. Louis Leipoldt, arguably the father of South African heritage cuisine. He dedicated his career to capturing a vast collection of recipes, wisdom and knowledge from our shared past, and brought them together through a series of publications that together have become the cornerstone of modern South African cooking. When cooking sweet potatoes, he advised that one should never stir the pot, but rather shake it.
Like James Bond, it came down to a preference. Stirring your sweet potatoes while cooking makes it mushy – something resembling mash but not quite. Great if that’s your thing, but if you want to keep them whole, pick the pot up and give them a shake from time to time. Also, I used baby sweet potatoes in this case, but chopping a large sweet potato into chunks works just as well.
1 kg baby sweet potatoes
100 g (110 ml) butter
200 g (250 ml) sugar
2 cinnamon sticks
pinch of salt
Peel the sweet potatoes and place them in a large bowl of salt water.
Melt the butter in a large saucepan over a low heat. Add the sugar and stir it until melted. Let it simmer – stirring now and then – until the sauce gets a golden caramel tan. Because of the low heat, this will take a while, so make yourself a gin martini (shaken or stirred).
Add the peeled sweet potatoes and stir them through the caramel (this will be the only time you stir). The caramel will harden as you add the sweet potatoes, but fear not. As the sweet potatoes cook they release moisture, which will make the caramel runny again.
Add the cinnamon and season with salt. Close the saucepan with a lid and let it cook over a low heat. Give the saucepan a good shake every now and then.
Remove the lid for the last half hour to allow the caramel sauce to reduce. The cooking time will differ depending on the size of your sweet potatoes, so test their firmness with a toothpick or fork. Once it becomes soft (but not mushy soft), let it reduce.
Cook until tender and serve warm.