Japanese and Chinese Sweet Potatoes

This article was written by Phineas Upham

The sweet potato is one of the most important crops in the natural world. It’s a root crop that nurtures millions of people all over the world, and it clues food historians into how humans manipulated crops to grow. We believe, for instance, that the sweet potato likely originated in the Americas. It was also most commonly found in Mexico and the Caribbean Islands. Yet we find it prevalently in Asia, where the environment is quite different.


The Chinese received the sweet potato sometime during the sixteenth century. The Fujian province was in the midst of a severe famine, so the governor sent an exploratory expedition into the Philippines to search for more food.

Spaniards and Portuguese explorers brought the potatoes to Asia as they moved along their trade routes. The sweet potato was one of the most influential crops of the time. In China, seedlings were planted before they were moved to Japan. The first potted sweet potatoes in Japan were planted by Richard Cocks of the East India Company in Hirado.

It found a permanent home in the dry regions of Japan, like Okinawa. It became a staple food for regions in the country where rice paddies were unable to grow. The Japanese learned to steam or boil it, accounting for up to 60% of the local population’s food intake at points in their history.

The sweet potato is still a popular addition to Asian dishes. It’s common to order sweet potato breaded in panko crumbs, and served as a piece of tempura (Japanese fried meats and vegetables).

About the Author: Phineas Upham is an investor at a family office/hedgefund, where he focuses on special situation illiquid investing. Before this position, Phineas Upham was working at Morgan Stanley in the Media and Telecom group. You may contact Phineas on his LinedIn page.