If in grade school you were repeatedly advised by your teacher to “go home and plant camote,” perhaps it’s time to heed it.
I was in Manila last month and when boiled camote was the merienda served in a meeting, I asked the host how much the root crop which was once the food of the broke and the gastronomic symbol of lean times cost.
His answer almost floored me. Sixty pesos a kilo. At that price, camote has clambered up the social rungs, from a cupboard pariah to one that’s sporting posh credentials.
Ask any Filipino who has clawed his way out of poverty, and chances are he’ll confess that the lowest point in his life was when his family subsisted on camote for days. In this land , “salad days” refers to the time when viand was steamed camote tops.
Read the memoirs of anyone who was marooned in Manila during the Japanese occupation , and most probably he’ll describe the day he sank to the abyss when he had nothing to eat but camote.
A distant aunt, a self-proclaimed magna cum laude in kitchenomics, shares the secret that she was able to feed her brood of 10 by mixing diced camote with rice, which , in reality, is a ploy she shares with millions of homemakers who, like her, daily battled large appetites with a small budget.
So go ahead, capitalize on camote’s rising price and upwardly mobile social status, and start planting it, either in industrial scale for the market, or in your yard for your meal.
Replace that carpet of inedible bermuda grass with a patch of expensive greens. To paraphrase a wit, it doesn’t mean that because bermuda grass looks more beautiful than camote leaves —it will also make a better soup
I say expensive because sixty pesos is twice the price of a kilo of rice, whether locally grown or smuggled. Using the legal daily wage metric, a minimum wageworker has to work two hours to be able to buy a kilo of camote.
Clearly, camote is no longer plebian’s fare, and is beginning to look more at home on the patrician’s table. Like the banana, it has overtaken rice in the price index. The tables are now turned. What was once relegated as a rice extender is now a class of its own.
This is probably to the chagrin of the Elliptical Circle farmers of the Department of Agriculture who not so long ago, in a policy paper, crowned camote as the rice substitute.
In their blueprint, achieving rice self-sufficiency requires a little help from the lowly camote, by exhorting the “unli” rice-loving citizens of the kanin republic to sub camote for rice.
But economics has cancelled camote as a cheap replacement staple. Instead of bucking the trend, the best thing to do for DA now is to shift part of the megabillions it spends for rice production to camote growing.
I asked a DA official in Mindanao if there’s money in the DA budget dedicated for camote growing . He says there is none. There are funds earmarked for fibers like cotton but none for the mighty camote which led a friend to wonder if DA watercoolers are spiked with hallucinogenic pesticides.
Aside from price, there are other factors which make camote-growing a profitable proposition.
Foremost of which is that it’s not inputs-heavy, fertilizer-reliant or labor-intensive. Unlike rice, camote doesn’t have a drinking problem. It is a scrappy crop that can get by with little water. It is reportedly one crop NASA had studied to have the potential to grow on Mars.
You don’t need to build a dam to grow camote. In contrast, to grow a kilo of rice, you’ll need from 4,000 to 5,000 liters of water.
In fact, it can grow anywhere, even on center islands in the urban jungle, which makes meritorious the suggestion to replace roadside ornamental plants which government buys as fast as they wilt with camote.
Camote planting is also not back-breaking work compared to rice growing. For rice, to plow one hectare of land (for city slickers that’s 100 meters by 100 meters), a farmer will have to walk 60 kilometers. That’s one marathon plus half.
And walk is too facile a term to use in describing trudging through thigh-deep sticky mud with a heavy iron plow on one hand and the reins on a one-ton carabao on the other.
Furthermore, to plant rice on one hectare of land, a farmer has to bend forward 250,000 times to pierce a fistful of seedlings into the soft soil—a punishing routine absent in camote growing.
A rice farmer has to do other things which a camote farmer is exempt from like weeding , fertilizing, watering his plot, and when the grains ripen, guarding them from attacks from the air, from divebombing mayas, and from the ground, from burrowing rats.
From then on, he has to scythe the palay stalk by stalk; thresh, winnow and bag the grains; carry them to the nearest road where they will be dried while obstructing car traffic before they are milled.
This a drill alien to camote farmers.
And on the nutritional scale , camote beats rice . A tale of the tapes provided by Dr. Philip Chua showed that cup-per-cup, camote has about 20 times more calcium than rice, and contains 30 percent more Omega 3 and 6. It also has about 50 times more potassium.
For one thing, rice has no vitamins A, B-6, C, D, K, and Riboflavin, which sweet potato does, the good doctor says. It also has 5 times more fiber and 7 times more folate, compared to rice.
And here’s the clincher : Best of all, nobody smuggles camote into the country aboard ships as big as shopping malls.