Taiwan is shaped like a sweet potato — a longish bulb, not quite skinny, not quite fat, that narrows into a stem that juts into the Bashi Channel of the Pacific. Some people say that shape is why sweet potatoes are so common in the Taiwanese diet.
Local people in Taiwan call themselves “children of the Sweet Potato” but the vegetable’s place in Taiwanese culture goes deeper — and darker — than the mere shape of their homeland. It’s a food that carries stories of hardship; throughout Taiwan’s tumultuous past, the sweet potato was a constant — easy to grow in the sub-tropical climate, and a solid substitute for rice that the country’s poorer peasants often couldn’t afford.
“After the war with China, the sweet potato was all we could grow,” says Jonathan, a tour guide in Taipei. “The older generation still eats them every day.”
In Taipei, at the north end of the potato, a group of women sell cooked sweet potatoes from street stalls using traditional drum-shaped charcoal ovens. They’re part of an initiative by the local Genesis Social Welfare Foundation, in support of single mothers. The Sweet Potato Mama Program helps build their entrepreneurial skills and generate an income to support themselves and their children after divorce, separation, or abandonment.
The group started off by selling rice bowls, noodles, then popcorn but, because these were already readily available in stores, sales on the street were faltering. So they swapped in the iconic sweet potato – something the country already associated with resilience in times of hardship — and a successful program was born.
The project has been in operation for three years, with more than 700 women having been trained by it. Besides selling, they also learn the basics of owning and operating a business. Some women have graduated from their training after a year, some after just a few months, and many have gone on to open their own small restaurants or other independent business. Around 150 women are now enrolled, many of whom bring their children to work with them — don’t be surprised if you see a baby sleeping beside a street stand in a bucket of sweet potatoes.
Jonathan is a guide with the program and introduces travellers to the Mamas out on the street. “Lots of single female travellers do the tour,” he says. They come to learn about the experiences of women in another land, to understand their struggles, and to see how independence can grow from a simple vegetable.