Let’s give root crops the respect they deserve

Photo by Saulo Nulo on Pexels.

I’ll be honest. A big reason I’m writing this column is because I think root crops get a bad rap.

In this country, they’re often associated with poverty and a lack of smarts. I’d like to repeat a story circulating in the literary world about how during a National Workshop, National Artist Nick Joaquin disliked a work so much he told the writer to “go home and plant kamote.” While I love Joaquin’s stories, what he did was not cool to both the aspiring writer and to sweetpotatoes in general.

I admit that I take extra offense at the anecdote because I love kamote. It’s practically the perfect snack, in the same league as the banana. It’s sweet, filling, versatile, nutritious, and comes in its own biodegradable packaging.

Photo by Saulo Nulo on Pexels.

Retired professors Daniel and Julie Tan (no relation) from the Philippine Root Crop Research and Training Center. (PhilRootcrops) at the Visayas State University feel the same way.

In a talk they gave to the MAP-ABCDF (MAP-AgriBusiness and Countryside Development Foundation, Inc), Dr. Julie called root crops “superfoods” and thinks their reputation as “poor man’s crop” should be retired.

Root Crops, which include taro and cassava, are relatively easy to grow, nutritious and rich in antioxidants, good sources of energy, have low glycemic indexes, are gluten free, and can be processed into flour, snacks, and other products.

They are also good sources of dietary fiber, which help aid digestion, cholesterol control, and colon health, among others.

Its low glycemic index means it takes longer to break down in the body, avoiding sugar level spikes associated with eating simple carbohydrates with high glycemic indexes.

It is also gluten free, which, aside from being the current fad, means it is safe for folks who suffer from Celiac disease or gluten intolerance.

Most importantly, they are delicious.

Root Crops are popular ingredients n native delicacies like cassava cake, root crop chips, and kamote cue. Gabi is a popular ingredient in Chinese cuisine, where it is used in both desserts and savory dishes.

PhiliRootcrops has been expanding the variety of root crop based value-added products. They have developed Tarroz, a red wine made from taro and rice; wines from kamote and yam; taro yogurt; vegan milk from root crops; taro sugar similar to coco sugar; taro syrup; cassava flour, which can be used to make cakes, polvoron, bread, bars, and cookies; and even root crop ketchup.

There are also ready-to-fry cassava chips, frozen cassava, pickled kamote, ready-to-eat kamote chips.

Many people tend to dismiss root crops because of their humble origins, but it is exactly these “humble origins”—their ubiquity, versatility, and ease of cultivation—that should be celebrated.

I’ve always felt protective of kamote because of my paternal grandmother, who was laughed at for her love of kamote because it was food for poor people. She continued to eat kamote anyway because only a fool would stop eating a delicious, nutritious dish they loved just because other people made fun of them for it. I mean, roasted kamote. Kamote fries. Taro balls. How can you not?

As more and more people emphasize the need for food sovereignty, we should consider boosting production, value-adding, and—this, I feel, is the crucial part—marketing of products made from crops that are very suited to our landscape and climate. Filipinos have always had an affinity for root crops, but seem to like filing them under “native delicacies” instead of “mainsteam food.” It’s time we placed them front and center. They’ve ensured our survival for the longest time and will continue to do so when times get tough.

Embracing root crops, I feel, is part of decolonizing ourselves. The sooner we can remove root crops from their connotations of “nativeness,” poverty, and being common, the sooner we can enjoy the deliciousness, health benefits, and versatility of crops that can be abundantly grown in the country.

And even though Mr. Joaquin’s statement was meant to be an insult, we should begin to shift our mindset to think of it as something positive, or at the very least, practical. After all, words won’t fill your belly, but a kamote will.

Did I mention that it’s delicious as well?

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Yvette Tan
Yvette Tan is Agriculture magazine's managing editor’s web editor. She is an award-winning writer who likes to eat, travel, and listen to stories about the strange and supernatural. She is dedicated to encouraging people to push for sustainable food sources and is an advocate of food security, food sovereignty, and the preservation of community foodways.

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