BY: Glo Abaeo tuazon
The lowly camote slowly makes a stand. Considered a poor man’s diet at par with the native corn in the days of wars and depressions, it is now rising above to transform into something more acceptable and lucrative. Camote has come a long, long way and has got chapters of history tucked under its name. A starchy tuber that starts as a root and soon enlarges to an edible proportion, it is a good source of carbohydrate, fiber, beta carotene, vitamins, protein, iron and calcium. Even the leaves are edible and in most parts of the Philippines are eaten. The livestocks also benefit from raw, chopped leaves. Pigs and rabbits tend to like the leaves very much.
Camote of the old. Sweet potatoes as they are termed in other countries, so called because of their starchy consistency and sweet taste, are native to the tropical parts of South America. It was at least 5000 years ago that it was first domesticated there. According to historical researches, it is presumed that it first thrived between the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico and the mouth of the Orinico River in Venezuela. Although some others would argue that it may first have been found somewhere in Peru or Ecuador. They call the plant and the tuber “batatas”. Throughout time it was brought to the Polynesian Islands where they called it “kumara” then travelled to other parts of the world. It soon found its way to the Philippines. Camote in all varieties are now cultivated throughout most of the tropical regions where its warm and there is sufficient water. For now though, China is the major producer of sweet potatoes.
In Kapangan, Benguet (Philippines) camote which they locally call “lukto” (kankanaey) or “dukto” (ibaloi) thrive alongside their other crops of rice and vegetables. The area being warm to humid is a perfect place to grow the tubers. The locals have been growing them for personal consumption and for selling some outside the area to the city. For years they have been doing that until hard times pressured everybody to come up with ideas for livelihood. Something that can easily be gotten locally, does not cost much and is readily saleable. The lowly camote came to mind.
Usually the tuber is boiled in water til tender, taken out to cool in trays or platters and served straight away that way. It is usually served during or after gatherings such as canaos too as they do on ordinary days. With innovation people have learned to make use of camote in other cuisines. Sweets, and pastries have started cropping out of ovens lately, prodding a group of youths to come up with a sustainable project. Why not produce flour out of the starchy tubers ready for baking purposes?
The plan was first introduced to 15 people constituting the Gadang Unified Youth Organization (GUYO) of Kapangan. They were a group of out of school youths but are willing to learn practical measures for livelihood. Most of the members range from 15 to 25’s until they raised the age limit to 35 years old. With Raymond B. Sagayo elected as their President and Mondo P. Watawat acting as Youth Adviser, they pushed on with the plan with the support of the Local Government Unit. The second batch further increased the number of members to 30 and they are considered the proponents of the project. To date they have 120 registered members and increasing.
At first it was purely experimental to see if the product is indeed sustainable. They call this camote end-product as “BUK’O”. They started with 4,000 square meters of land to cultivate. The area was a private property lent out to them by a supportive local who rather believes in the ability and perseverance of the group. They call this their demo farm. First everybody has to undergo training before they start planting the camote cuttings. These are the viney stems of the camote plant, chosen for maturity to ensure growth and longevity. They call this the “betang” which entails 2 to 3 days drying time for the roots to come out. With good cropping, the camote may have a life span of a year or more, that is the ideal period when the plant still produces good tubers and at which time as it grows older, the yield would decrease in quality and quantity. One other system they do to ensure good investment is the idea of intercropping to sustain the minerals of the soil especially so because they do the cultivation following the organic trend. During summer, they let the land rest because that is also the time when the worms invade the tubers.
With the planting season done, they wait for a few months until the tubers are ready for harvest. The good yields are separated and processed. They are peeled, and scraped thin for sun drying as they have no drying machines yet. The chips are turned every now and then to assure even drying. Then they are pounded in traditional mortars with pestles. For tubers harvested as first crops with thinner skins, the flour yield is a kilo derived from 5 kilos of fresh camote. For tubers with thicker skins, it takes about 7 kilos to come out with 1 kilo of flour. The group’s first production amounted to 100 kilos.
With more trainings and help, the group hopes to continue and grow. The flour may not be very available in the market yet but those they have sold the product to assured that they were of good quality. The pastries derived from the camote flour or buk’o they said are rather heavy, much heavier than the usual flour on the market and sweeter too. The dreams of these out of school youths may not stray a lot farther than their backyards but with perseverance and hope, the lowly camote might just serve as a start to their journeys of more agricultural or culinary discoveries.