Air potato bulbils are medium to large in size, oblong and irregularly shaped, averaging fifteen centimetres in length. The skin ranges from brown, rough, and spotted with warts to tan or light grey and smooth. The flesh is firm, starchy, slimy, and a beige-orange. They have a mild, earthy, and sometimes bitter flavour and grow on an herbaceous twining vine, meaning it uses other vegetation to cling to and support its weight.
Twinning in a counter-clockwise direction, these vines have heart-shaped, emerald green leaves that appear in an alternating pattern on the stems. The bulbils grow in the air and hang down from the vine or they can also be found growing underground in the dirt. They are available in the late Autumn through to early winter.
Air potatoes, botanically classified at Dioscorea bulbifera, are not a potato, despite the name, and are members of the Dioscoreaceae, or yam family. Also known as an Aerial yam, Potato yam, Bitter yam, Uchu imo, Dukkar Kand, Karaino, Varahi Kand, Kaachil, and l’hoffe, they can spread quickly over natural vegetation and grow over twenty centimetres per day.
Due to its prolific growth habits, they are valued as a food source in Asia but are often considered an invasive species in states such as Florida because of its aggressive nature.
Air potatoes are a good source of flavonoids, which are powerful antioxidants with anti-inflammatory benefits. They are best suited for cooked applications such as frying, sautéing, and roasting and should be treated and prepared like a yam. They carry a bitter flavour and slimy texture when raw, so it is recommended to boil them to reduce the bitterness.
Some wild, uncultivated varieties of the air potato, like the ones found in Florida, cannot be eaten due to their toxic nature, so caution and research should be taken prior to consumption.
Cultivated air potatoes from Asia are popular for making Okonomiyaki, a Japanese style pancake that uses a variety of ingredients. Additionally, they can be added to miso soups, curry, tempura, and nimono, which is a Japanese style simmered dish. Air potatoes will keep for a couple of weeks when loosely wrapped and stored in a cool, dry, and dark place.
In Asia, air potatoes are used in traditional Ayurvedic medicine to help aid against diarrhoea, sore throats, and jaundice. They also have anti-inflammatory properties and contain diosgenin, a steroid that helps create commercial steroidal hormones.
Air potatoes have been growing since ancient times, are native to Asia and Africa, and have been spread throughout the world via ships and explorers. Today they can be found growing in the wild and being sold at local markets in Asia, Africa, the Pacific Islands, Northern Australia, the United States including Hawaii, Texas, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, and Louisiana, and in the West Indies.