One of the most interesting aspects of writing about Mexican food is its history, which spans at least five centuries and reflects the cultural and social influences of both the pre-Hispanic Mesoamerican people and those who came later from other continents. While researching Mexican cuisine is rewarding, once in a while the reader comes upon a statement that prompts further investigation. One of these turned up recently in an otherwise reliable source.
The author stated that “there is practically no use made of sweet potatoes in Mexico today, with the exception of camotes de Santa Clara, a soft candy made in the city of Puebla.” Upon reading this, several dishes made with sweet potatoes in various regions of Mexico came to mind. And thus began the investigation of how this tasty tuber is used here and its place in the country’s culinary history.
The plant in question is Ipomoea batatus, the true sweet potato, as distinguished from the yam, another species completely, called dioscorea. The sweet potato is a member of the morning glory family, while the yam is related to the lily. Sweet potato plants are propagated by cuttings from the vines, and yams from sections of the tuber roots. They can be distinguished from one another by the texture of the skin, which is smooth on a sweet potato and scaly on a yam, and by the flesh itself; the sweet potato’s flesh is moist, while the yam’s is dry and starchy. While the yam is native to Africa and Asia, the sweet potato is indigenous to tropical America, and it is the true sweet potato, Ipomoea batatus, that has played a significant and versatile role in Mexican cooking.
The Uto-Aztecan word camotli is the root of many words for sweet potatoes, including the Spanish camote. Domestication of the sweet potato dates back to Peru in about 2800 B.C. It had spread to much of tropical America, including Mexico, by the time the Spaniards arrived. Journals from Grijalva’s 1518 expedition from Cuba to the Yucatan and Cozumel describes the boiled or roasted sweet potatoes prepared by the indigenous Maya as tasting “like roasted chestnuts.”
Root crops were very important in the Maya diet, and sweet potatoes were among the four most prominent, the others being manioc, jicama and macal, a plant in the philodendron family with edible tubers, shoots and leaves. Diego de Landa, named bishop of the Yucatan in 1572, tells us that the Maya used sweet potatoes to “extend” their corn-based posole and atole when the corn was scarce, usually just before the corn harvest. The sweet potatoes were cooked, mashed, and added to these gruels as a thickener and nutrient. They were also cooked in their skins and served with honey, or stewed and flavored with leaves of a fragrant native bush called musté.
The Spanish priest and chronicler Bartolomé de las Casas, who also ministered to the Maya, gives a recipe for sweet potatoes that involves washing them after the harvest, curing them in light shade for a week to ten days, then roasting them in their skins. Prepared in this way, they were said to taste “as sweet as if they had been dipped in a jar of jam.”
Another region where sweet potatoes have been eaten since pre-Hispanic times is Central Mexico, where they were included on the menu for the banquet served by the emperor Moctezuma to Cortez and his men in 1519. Sweet potatoes have remained autumn market fixtures in this region, where they are sold by small farmers. Because they can grow in poor soil, they require no investment in fertilizers, and the shade from their vines prevents the growth of weeds. They are often sold pre-cooked at the outdoor markets in the State of Mexico, Puebla and Tlaxcala.
However, the Mexican region where the largest variety of sweet potatoes is found is Veracruz. In Zarela’s Veracruz, cookbook author and restaurateur Zarela Martinez tells us that “In Veracruzan markets, sweet potatoes come in several colors, including a startling purple, deep orange, pale orange-yellow and nearly white.” The same book mentions the garnachas made with corn and sweet potato dough that we enjoyed at Hotel Doña Lala in Tlacotalpan. Sweeter than plain corn masa, the dough is fried into golden “boats” about the size of chalupas and topped with refried beans, cubed potatoes, shredded meat, cheese, salsa and crema.
The Afro-Caribbean influence on Veracruz’ cuisine is a strong one, and sweet potatoes are used in a variety of both candied and savory dishes. Conaculta’s Recetario Afro-Mestizo de Veracruz explains that the word camote is often replaced by buniato, the Africanized version of boniato, and ñame, or nyame, which comes from the Fulani word “to eat.” (This last word is so close to “yam” that the African people brought to the Americas may have introduced “yam” in the southern part of the United States as a word for the orange-fleshed variety of sweet potato. This vegetable arrived in the U.S. in 1648 and sustained people through the American Revolution and the Civil War.)
The sweet potato was eagerly embraced by the Spaniards, and brought back to Spain as early as the late 1400s by Columbus. A century later, the conquerors of Mexico were bringing them from New Spain’s Pacific coast to the Philippines on the Manila galleons that set out from Acapulco. From there, they spread to India, China and Malaysia. (China is now the world’s largest producer of sweet potatoes, a sustenance crop for the poor.)
In Puebla during this period, the nuns in the Convento de Santa Clara were busy inventing one of Mexico’s most popular confections, the aforementioned sweet potato candy called camotes de Santa Clara. These haven’t changed much in the last five hundred years and are sold today along Puebla’s Calle de los Dulces, or “Sweet Street.” The chicken and fruit stew with pineapples and sweet potatoes called manchamanteles (for which a recipe was given in the August 2000 issue of Mexico Connect) is also Poblano in origin, though Oaxaca, too, claims it as its own.
The sweet potato plant is attractive as well as highly nutritious, and the flowers of this perennial vine resemble morning glories. The skin of the tuber can be red, purple, brown or orange, and was used by the Maya to make artists’ colors. The flesh varies from white to yellow-orange to purple, and in 1992 was named the most nutritious vegetable by the Center for Science in the Public Interest. A complex carbohydrate food source, it contains significant amounts of fiber, vitamins A, C and B6, plus iron and calcium. The orange-fleshed variety also contains the antioxidant beta-carotene.
When buying sweet potatoes, select firm roots, handle them carefully to avoid bruising, and store in a cool, dry place. Sweet potatoes, like bananas, are considered tropical produce and should not be refrigerated before cooking. They can be baked, boiled, broiled and fried. Cooked sweet potatoes can be canned or frozen. They are fine microwaved, pricked with a fork first, as for regular white potatoes.
To add a quick Mexican touch to microwaved or oven baked sweet potatoes, blend softened butter with lime zest, chopped cilantro, cumin, salt and pepper and serve melted atop the hot sweet potatoes cut in half. For another easy and flavorful butter topping for this vegetable, blend softened butter with the adobo sauce, to taste, from canned chipotles in adobo. The cooked sweet potatoes can also be peeled and mashed, with a yield of 1 ¼ cups mashed vegetable from two medium sweet potatoes. And try the recipes below, tasty Mexican ways with one of autumn’s most popular vegetables.
- Crema de Camote: Cream of Sweet Potato Soup
- Tortitas de Camote: Cheese-Filled Sweet Potato Patties
- Budín de Camote: Sweet Potato Pudding
- Flan de Camote: Sweet Potato Flan