Russ Crandall is the NYT-bestselling author and blogger behind The Domestic Man, a leading food blog in the Paleo, gluten-free, and whole foods communities. In his 20s he suffered a number of life-threatening illnesses, was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune condition–and was sent home with a lifetime’s worth of medications. Disenchanted with modern medicine, Russ started searching for his own answers and quickly discovered that eating a gluten-free, nutrient-rich diet alleviated most of the medical issues that had plagued him for years. Taking cues from traditional cuisines, The Domestic Man inspires readers to look to historical recipes for that ever-elusive key to health. His work has been featured in People Magazine, Food & Wine, and was nominated by Saveur Magazine as one of the Best Food Blogs of 2013.
One factor that makes Paleo a daunting transition is figuring out how to replace all of the processed carbs that comprise a typical standard American diet. No more soft dinner rolls, crispy baguettes, or succulent doughnuts….okay, I’m getting off topic here. In the long run, many folks discover that there are plenty of healthy starch options out there if you do a bit of digging. Plantains, cassava, sweet potatoes, taro, white potatoes, beets, and even white rice are all generally benign when compared to their refined, nutrient-bereft, and potentially toxic counterparts like wheat.
There is a lot of back-and-forth about the need for carbs in an ancestral diet, with many low-carb proponents vilifying this macronutrient. I’m not a nutritional scientist, but I am a historian with a focus on social study, so here’s my take: humans have an inherent preference for starchy foods, and that is demonstrated in the fact that starches are now extremely prevalent in a time when foods are abundant, and that every society have a staple starch (other than a couple outliers without access to starchy foods). Carbs are fairly hard to find in the wild (those huge potatoes you see at the grocery store were not the norm until recent history), so an innate preference for carbs makes sense – it would encourage us to seek carbs even in times of food scarcity. If hunting a wild beast will yield half a million calories, while an ancient tuber yields a few hundred, it would make sense for us to be carnivores from a survival perspective; but instead, we actively seek carbs, even when there is plenty of meat to be had. So the question that comes to mind is that if humans have a preference for starches, doesn’t that mean they are an integral part of an ideal diet, when eaten in the right context?
The question of “right context” varies on a number of factors, including heritage, activity level, the presence of metabolic syndrome, and seasonal changes. As Sarah pointed out last month, carbohydrate intake varies widely among hunter-gatherers tribes, from 22%-45% of their overall diet, and still well below the 45%-65% USDA recommendations. In the end, I find that it’s important to assess (and periodically re-assess) your carb intake based on how they make you feel; for example, I tend to eat a bit more starches than my wife, and there are often days when I will eat little or no carbs at all, based on my mood and activity level.
Specific tolerance to certain carbs vary as well. Some eat white rice as part of their Paleo-minded diet (as evidenced by the popular #teamwhiterice hashtag), while others react poorly to it. Others can’t tolerate white potatoes, or plantains. I’ve found that the one staple starch that most folks tolerate well are sweet potatoes; and good thing, since they are so abundant!
Some of my favorite sweet potato facts: they originated in Central/South America; Papua New Guinea eats the most sweet potatoes per capita, with 500kg per person annually; North Carolina supplies most of the sweet potatoes we find in US markets; sweet potatoes are only distant cousins to the white potato, despite sharing the same name; and they’re also pretty distantly related to yams (which originated in Africa), even though here in the US we often (incorrectly) label our sweet potatoes as “yams”.
Poi is a Polynesian staple food that is typically made with mashed taro root. Taro is somewhat hard to find (although many Asian markets carry it). After spending seven years in Hawaii, I learned to make a sweet potato version of poi, which is another traditional starch used on the islands (breadfruit, another staple starch, is sometimes used to make poi as well). Coconut milk adds sweetness and depth of flavor to this dish, with a pinch of island flavor.
SWEET POTATO POI
PREP TIME: 5 MINS
COOK TIME: 1 HOUR
1 ½ lbs sweet potatoes, cut in half
1 (14 oz.) can coconut milk
½ tsp sea salt
1. Place a steamer rack in a stockpot. Fill the pot with water until it starts to touch the bottom of the steamer rack, about 11/2″. Put the sweet potatoes on the steamer rack, cover with a lid, and steam on medium-high heat until soft to the touch, about 25 minutes. Check the water level about 15 minutes into steaming to make sure that the water hasn’t evaporated; add more hot water if needed.
2. Turn off the heat, remove the sweet potatoes, and allow to cool for 15 minutes. Empty the stockpot and rinse clean. Warm the coconut milk in a separate pot on low while the potatoes cool. Once they are cool, slip the skins off the potatoes and discard, then put the peeled potatoes back in the stockpot.
3. Mash the potatoes with a potato masher or whisk, then add the salt and stir in the warm coconut milk, mixing until you get the right consistency— somewhere between mashed potatoes and pea soup. If you run out of coconut milk, add water until you get the desired consistency. For an extra smooth poi, run the poi through a blender or use an immersion blender. Serve at room temperature. Leftovers will keep in the fridge for a week.