23 November 2008

Vegetables & Fruits 001 – Camotes (Sweet Potatoes)

Now that we are getting close to Thanksgiving a lot of people are blogging about traditional holiday food and some of those food items are yams and sweet potatoes. However, most of us have never really seen a yam and what we sometimes call yams are actually just a different form of sweet potato. In a recent article in “Weekend America” I learned that yams originally came from Africa where they were a diet staple. During the slave trade when thousands upon thousands of African natives were kidnapped and thrown into slavery on the shores of North America they did not find the yams that they were used to eating but they did find sweet potaotes. They adoped the sweet potatoes as a substitute and called them “yams” after the tuber from their native homeland. That is how the name “yam” entered the American marketplace and where it remains today even though real “yams” may be hard or impossible to find.

In Mexico we have a sweet potato that is long and purple. It is called a “camote” (kah-MOH-teh). The principal meaning of the Mexican Spanish word “camote” is “sweet potato” but it can have several other meanings depending upon the particular region where it is used and also upon the context in which it is used. When I first came to Mexico I heard a man say something like “Es un gran camote”. I asked him what “camote” meant and from what I could understand of his explanation it seemed that there was a “problema” or “problem” but looking back on it I think he was saying that there was some lie, or trick, or other foolishness that had occurred. In any case I moved to a different part of the country soon after and I was talking with a group of workers one day and thinking that it would be “cool” to use some slang I said “Tengo un gran camote” which is what I thought meant “I have a big problem”. They all stared at me in shock with their eyes wide open like they couldn't believe that I had actually said what I said. Later on I found out that in this region the word “camote” is often used as a euphemism for the male sexual organ. In my ignorance I had just casually announced to them that I had a great big penis. You can imagine my embarrassment. It is just another good example of how you should always make sure of the meaning of a newly acquired Spanish vocabulary word before you actually use it.

In addition to the word “camote” we have the word “camotero” (kah-moh-TEHR-oh). A “camotero” is a street vendor who pushes a cart with a wood fired oven. In this oven he roasts camotes and “platanos machos” (plantain). Both are sprinkled with sugar before roasting and a sweetened condensed milk called “lechera” is poured on before serving. The word “lechera” means “milkmaid” but it is also a brand of condensed milk sold by Nestle in Mexico since 1921. Every so often the camotero opens a valve which releases some water into a pipe running through the hot coals to create steam. It has a whistle on the end where the steam escapes. It sounds like the whistle from an old steam engine way off in the distance. When I first came to Irapuato there were several camoteros and they would appear at dusk. You could hear them coming down the street by the sound of the lonely wail made by their steam whistles. The camotero's cart looks like a little steam locomotive with a chimney that carries off the smoke. The people run out to buy a roasted sweet potato or a plantain for about ten pesos and then they return home to eat it accompanied by a glass of milk. Today Irapuato has only one camotero left and I hope he keeps going for a long, long time because I don't think I want to live in a world without camoteros.


GlorV1 said...

Camotes are delicious. My dad used to make them in the oven and when they were done, we would take the pulp out and put in bowl with milk and sugar.So of course I am reminded of my daddy when I make camote's now. I've tried growing them at home. I just stuck 3 or 4 yams in a big box of soil and they are still out there growing. I have to check them tomorrow. I won't comment on that "other" camote. Have a great day tomorrow. Take care.

Anonymous said...

on target Bob... There's a couple of camote vendors here in Apizaco...Puebla has many more, Puebla is definitelt the heartbeat of Camotes, they make a special candy out of them which you can find at the main bus station as there are many vendors selling them there , Also on the 6 poniente where the traditional candy stores are located... Also people from Puebla are sometimes called "Camotes".
I recall an old "Cantinflas" movie in which two thugs were beating him up when they heard a police whistle and left him and took off running, a few seconds later the camote salesman came by blowing his steam whistle instead of a policeman. I like those baked plantains also.

Anonymous said...

that's funny-that shows you need to be careful when using slang. i am originally from cuba and a word that in cuban spanish means bug, has a sexual meaning in puerto rican spanish.

those sweet potatoes are what we call boniatos in cuba. they are sooo good. we can get them in miami but i have not seen them anywhere in wa. state. maybe i should try one of the mexican stores, perhaps they import them. if you have not tried them fried, cut slices about a 1/4 inch thick and fry till they are golden on both sides. they are delicious! i've had plantains in many ways but not baked, i will have to try that sometime.

happy thanksgiving!
teresa in lake stevens

Joy said...

While I'm sure it's a sound I'll get nostalgic about once I leave Mexico, for now it basically drives me nuts. The ones in my neighborhood in the DF are so loud you can't speak or hear or sleep when they are (oh-so-slowly) passing by. I also worry about the ear drums of the camote sellers -- they must all be nearly deaf.

YayaOrchid said...

Bob, I almost spit out my limonada when I got to the part about your 'faux pas'. I'm still laughing when I think of it.

How neat that you have vendors selling camotes and plantains on your neighborhood. Wish we could get them here. I've never tried a camote with sweetened cond. milk, but it sounds good. And yes, the cart does sound like a steam locomotive. Thanks for posting pictures. Looks like hand made contraption. Seems all the street vendors are very industrious and able to create useful 'marketing tools'.

Bob Mrotek said...

I yam what I yam what I yam...NOT :)

Bob Cox,
Puebla, the City of the Angels, is one of my most favorite cities in all of Mexico. I think when you die and go to Heaven you must first make a stop in Puebla :)

Wow! Thanks for the input. I always enjoy learning something new. Happy Thanksgiving to you too!

Oh, doncha know, you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone...

Regarding my "faux pas". After nine years I am still trying to live that down :)

1st Mate said...

Bob - Yes, a certain amount of 'street Spanish' is required if you're going to avoid embarrassment in conversation.

What I'm wondering about the camote is: is that the potato that cooks up soft and bright orange, or the one that's more yellowish, mealy and fibrous (ugh!) I can't tell you how many times I've bought one and it turned out to be the other.

When I get the right ones, I bake them, slit them and just pop in some butter and a little salt, that's all. Que sabroso!

Unknown said...

Bob, I had been ambarressed by saying something similar in english language. At a reunion, I heard someone said "butts up to a drink. Later, in another reunion. I simply said, "buttoms up", lol...everyone laugh and at first, I did not understand until someone explain. Too funny! I am so glad you posted on Camotes. I miss them too much. Here in Washington we can't get the Guanajuato ones. El Valle de Santiago has the best ones. In this trip, I tried some from Cortazar and someone from my town, told my aunt how camotes are baked in a brick oven. Suppossedly, you must wash the camotes. Place them on the sun until three pm. "Arroparlos" by putting some "costales" on them and later bake them. Suppossedly this operation is done in three days. They are delicious. Thanks again for posting on this. Have you had joconostles? Maybe you can do a search on them. How about calabaza de castilla? or india?

Alice said...

The mystery's been solved! Every night around 8pm, I hear a noise similar to a steam engine rolling by but can't make out where it's coming from. Because I live close to the subway station here in Mexico City, I thought it was the squeaking tires of the Metro coming to a screeching halt. I see now the steam whistle is the camotero's pronouncement; in Japan, the sweet potato vendors are the loudest boys on the block, shouting, "Yyyyaaaakkkiiii iiiiimmmmmoooo" (yaki imo, or roasted sweet potato).

Unknown said...

I loved this story! I laughed sooo hard when you said that you had a big camote! Too funny. This has made my day. Thanks for sharing.

Bob Mrotek said...


Thank you for laughing with me :)

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I was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A. I have been living in Mexico since January 6th, 1999. I am continually studying to improve my knowledge of the Spanish language and Mexican history and culture. I am also a student of Mandarin Chinese.