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Sweet Potato and Spinach Curry

My mum was six years old when the Japanese first occupied then-Malaya in 1941. They surrendered to the Allies in 1945, but the country faced another crisis a few years later. The British and the Commonwealth were fighting a communist insurrection which resulted in a state of emergency being declared. For many years, this conflict caused divisions among the people and severe food shortages. Through these times, the family had lost most of their fortune, my grandfather was detained several times for his resistance to the Japanese and later his family was targeted and punished for his anti-Communist stance.

My mum had stark memories from that time, mostly harrowing and sad. But she also remembered the lengths they went to to survive and the foods that sustained them when they were hungry. Because of rationing and prioritising of resources to the war effort, food was scarce. Many plantations had been destroyed. Fast growing crops, most of which was tapioca and sweet potato, were grown on every available patch of land. Most people have bad memories of the food they eat in war times and become averse to it. My father in law, for example, is not a fan of topinambour or Jerusalem artichokes, the tuber reputed to have saved France from famine during the war. It was the opposite case for my mum. She continued to cook and celebrate tapioca and sweet potato in many different ways, both savoury and sweet.

Packed with beta-carotene, vitamin A, fibre, antioxidants, the sweet potato is especially versatile. It is easy to grow, is available year round, resistant to pests and diseases and yields abundant harvests. Not only is the flesh of the tuber moist, sweet and delicious, the leaves are perfectly edible and are also vitamin-packed themselves, containing high amounts of vitamin B, iron, zinc and calcium to name a few.

Scientists are baffled by the distribution of the plant, scattered across the world from South America to remote Polynesian Islands. I find sweet potatoes easily in France, the most common being the orange variety (and also richest in nutrients). The purple and white ones are mostly found in Asian grocery stores. The leaves too can be found in Asian stores.

One of my mum’s favourite things to make with the sweet potato was a curry that was cooked with its leaves. But for this particular recipe I’ve replaced it with spinach only because its in season and we are a household that has an uncanny fondness for spinach. A variation of the recipe is with prawns. I imagine that this dish started off quite simply without the prawns, which was a later addition when food resources became more attainable, or when the budget allowed. There is belacan in the recipe, the ill-reputed shrimp paste that is widely used in Malaysian cooking. If you can overcome the pre-cooked smell, it will add punch to this dish. If you’re not ready for the odour adventure, substitute with anchovies or use a chicken stock base for the umami.

I love how, in the most desperate of times, people had the humble sweet potato not only feed their body, but their culinary imaginations as well: steamed and pureed for baby’s first solids, cooked in spicy curries, mixed with flours to make delicate local cakes.

Today everywhere, as it was in Malaya for my mum eighty years ago, the sweet potato remains an invaluable crop, helping feed those who must endure malnutrition and hunger. Celebrate it!

A light curry, and oh so full of iron goodness. Dried shrimps are used here. They should be a deep salmon pink, and though dried, should not be crispy hard or smell strongly of ammonia. Used whole or pounded, they are used as a flavouring or as a main ingredient in many Asian cuisines. In Paris, I can find them in the frozen section of the Asian supermarket. The belacan shrimp paste may not be for the faint-hearted, substitute them with a couple of anchovies in oil. Throw in the extra dried chillis if you like more heat.

Sweet Potato and Spinach Curry


Serves 4 to 6

Prep Time 10 mins/Cook Time 20 mins/Total Time 30 mins

Ingredients for Pounding/Blending:

  • 5 shallots, peeled and sliced roughly

  • 3 cloves garlic

  • 1/2 tsp belacan shrimp paste

  • 2 tbsps dried shrimps, soaked in water

  • 1 1/2 tsp chilli paste

  • 60 ml water

  • Optional: 2 dried chillis, seeds removed, soaked in water


Belacan with fish sauce or anchovies in oil. If not using either, can also use chicken stock instead of water.

Other Ingredients:

  • 2 tbsps cooking oil

  • 300 to 400 g sweet potato, peeled and cubed

  • 500 g spinach, roots and harder stems removed, washed and rinsed thoroughly

  • 400 ml coconut milk

  • 200 ml water


  1. Prepare the ingredients for the pounded/blended ingredients by peeling and cutting into smaller pieces.

  2. If using dried chillis, cut into two vertically and remove seeds.

  3. Soak dried shrimps to reconstitute, about 10 minutes.

  4. Pound ingredients, or blend (in which case add the 60 ml water). Set aside.

  5. Wash and rinse spinach thoroughly.

  6. Peel and diced the sweet potato roughly.

  7. Heat a large wok or pot, add cooking oil.

  8. Add pounded/blended ingredients, and dried chillis if using. Stir fry over medium high heat, stirring constantly, about 8 minutes. When oil starts to separate, add the coconut milk and water. Season. Allow to come to a boil.

  9. Add the sweet potatoes, and let simmer until almost tender, about 8 minutes.

  10. Add the spinach and cook another 2 minutes. Check for seasoning.

  11. Serve with rice or cooked vermicelli.


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