Decolonizing Filipinx Foods: Kamote
Now is a time for roots. It’s a time for digging into dark places, for tapping into energy collected from seasons past. Roots, both literal and figurative, remind us to anchor, to sink in. They grow tender through slow, steady heat. As many communities – particularly Brown, Black, and migrant communities – face a difficult political climate, it’s critical to come together, fuel ourselves, and cherish the strength that roots offer.
Today marks the first of a series on food, wellness and decolonizing possibilities with Hella Pinay. As a Pinay with a dedicated pathway in food, this invitation spoke to my core. Years ago, driven by a love and rediscovery of Filipino food, a passion for sustainable farming, and concern around the rise of chronic disease within my family and community, I decided to train as a public health nutritionist. While poring through public health literature, I was struck realizing that Filipino American health was rarely mentioned at all. In the instances that it was, it told a story of chronic disease, of assimilation and acculturation that shifted home languages and also home recipes. It narrated the rise of modern day illness and the Standard American Diet.
What I read reflected a bigger story of food. It is also entwined with the lingering effects of colonization manifested through food cultivation and practices, a story kindred to many Black and Brown communities. The research only reaffirmed the work to build health in ways that are both culturally resonant and community-driven. And it was a reminder of something else: to value and renew the roots of Filipinx food traditions. I’ve heard Filipinx food blamed for diabetes, hypertension, heart disease. And relatives - or even health practitioners - ruefully say: “Filipino food is good for the soul, but bad for the heart.” In reclaiming Filipinx food roots, we can challenge any stereotypes that say health and culture are incompatible, and harness our healthy roots instead.
Even for those of us living in diaspora, away from a tropical ecosystem or a land base, there are ways large and small to renew our food legacy. Food is ultimately about relationships – about survival, what we love, the ecosystem and community. Even as we address disease, we must complete the story and include our vibrant roots of health. There is wisdom to be gleaned from family memories of the palengke. Ecological and culinary knowledge kept alive by the titas who grow kalamansi or sili or ampalaya in their backyards. Stories alive within seeds and through agriculture. And even if food practices seem lost or distant, there is value in the search, and new possibilities to adapt ancestral practices into our 21st century lives. For further inspiration, three places to turn to include the Latina/o Decolonize Your Diet, Bryant Terry’s Afro-diasporic recipes, and Purple Yam.
Here’s a spotlight on a favorite – that of delicious sweet potatoes aka kamote (note: botany geeks may assert that tubers are technically an extended stem, not a true root – but here’s to the spirit of roots!).
Step into any room and chances are that someone will have memories of sweet potato. Kamote has crossed oceans and food cultures. With varieties in a rainbow of purple, cream, or yellow-orange tones, kamote are also linked to a range of health benefits, and are nutrient-rich, most notably in beta-carotene and vitamin C. In Philippine countrysides, kamote was a dependable starch in ordinary times and through war. As a resilient, fast-growing crop, it weathers extreme weather events far more readily than other starches like rice. Our resourceful culinary traditions explore the many edible potential of kamote, from steaming its tender leaves and stems for ensaladang talbos ng kamote (kamote “tops” salad), to stewing the roots, or as a sweet street food treat in the form of kamote-que.
Perhaps most in tune with the theme of “roots,” kamote indicates centuries of pre-colonial exchanges reflected in food. “Kamote” is derived from the Nahuatl word “camotli.” A linguistic journey through the crop's varied names suggest centuries of ecological and culinary connections that span both sides of the Pacific. Although European colonial expansion is often credited as the engine for many intercontinental food exchanges, kamote tells another story. New research affirms the pre-colonial exchanges of kamote from the Americas into Oceania, before Columbus.
RECIPE: Ginataang Kamote
While this dish often uses kalabasa - or kabocha squash - this dish also pairs well with creamy white or orange sweet potatoes. And while often paired with longbeans, feel free to experiment with other vegetables you can get your hands on. My father’s side of the family traces our roots to Bicol – so we like to add an extra chili kick!
1 Tbsp vegetable oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 small onion, small dice
2 large kamote, cubed
2 handfuls of sitaw (longbeans) or other seasonal green vegetables, cut into 1 inch pieces
1.5 cup coconut milk
1 thumb sized ginger, minced
1 birdseye or other chili, minced (optional)
sea salt and black pepper
patis or fish sauce (optional)
Heat oil in heavy-bottomed pan over medium. Add onions and cook until softened. Add garlic and ginger and stir until fragrant. Add coconut milk and kamote, cover, and simmer until tender, about 10 minutes. Add sitaw or other vegetables. Add chili if using. Adjust to taste with salt, pepper, or patis, and a squeeze of kalamansi or lemon.
Aileen Suzara is an eco-educator, writer, and passionate natural chef. An alumna of UC Berkeley’s Master’s in Public Health Nutrition and CASFS agroecology apprenticeship, Aileen elevates the role of cultural foodways to prevent chronic disease and nurture ecological relationships. Her community collaborations include the Filipino/American Coalition for Environmental Solidarity (FACES), Sama Sama Cooperative, and Asian Farmers Alliance. She founded Sariwa (Fresh) to reconnect land and people through delicious, vibrant food. Raised in the Mojave desert and on the rural Big Island, she now calls the Bay Area home.