Lessons from the Lowly Kamóte
“Kamúti ka mû!” we often scream teasingly in Kapampangan at our classmates back in high school whenever they suck in sports or academics. “Mengamúti ku,” we often say when we did poorly in our exams. The Ipomea batata, also known as kamúti in Kapampángan and kamóte in Filipino, has become a symbol of being poor, stupid, dirty and lowly. Yet, we enjoy eating it. We loved it baked, boiled, broiled or even fried. We make kamóte chips, kamótecue and kamóte pie. We make bukáyô with a rich syrup from the hardened brown sugar we call panócha and mix it with our halo-halo. Kapampángans love kamóte boiled in thick coconut milk and served with pinipig and shaved ice. We call this pígan in Kapampángan.
My grandmother’s favourite is to simply yubyub the kamóte, that is to just shove the kamóte at the still smoldering firewood or charcoal in our kaláng, earthen stove. Yes, I still remember a time when we didn’t have a gas stove back then. Cleverer still is the old man, Ápûng Balasénas, who helped clean our yard from time to time. He would place the pile of kamóte under the huge mound of dried leaves that he gathered under the Caimito and Chico trees and then burn the whole thing! We call that dapug in Kapampangan. He would have his own merienda of dapug baked kamóte after a day’s hard work, together with his favourite salabat (ginger tea) or kapé úkbu, which is black coffee made from toasted rice.
If you stayed in Japan long enough, you will notice that the Japanese also share our fondness for the kamóte. I just saw some really good kamóte specimens in the market last week!!! This coming winter, we might see someone selling roasted kamóte by the roadside. But how did the kamóte come to Japan?
Five hundred years ago, long before the Spaniards came to our islands and named it after King Philip II, there existed a rich and powerful kingdom called Luzon (呂宋國). It was a country ruled by kings and not by chieftains, wrote the Chinese. It was paradise on earth wrote a Ryukyu merchant named Koushou (高翔). He was the one who brought the kamóte to the Ryukyu Kingdom, but I am going ahead of my story.
In 1565, the Spaniards arrived under Miguel Lopez de Legaspi and conquered Cebu and Panay. In 1571, they arrived in Manila and conquered the Kingdom of Luzon. From the Kingdom of Luzon, they created the new colonial Province of Pampanga. In Manila, they established the seat of their government and named all the recent territories they conquered after King Philip II of Spain. Legaspi, a Mexican, was said to have brought the kamóte from his homeland of Mexico to Luzon and the Visayas.
Now, Koushou was a rich merchant from the Ryukyu Kingdom who travelled regularly to China and Luzon. In Luzon, he discovered how the kamóte saved thousands of lives from starvation after a devastating typhoon destroyed the people’s precious rice harvest. Since his country was also frequently visited by terrible typhoons, he saw how precious the kamóte plant was. The lowly kamóte that we equate with being poor, dirty and stupid is a survivor. It can withstand storms, floods and even the extreme heat of the sun. It is a hardy plant that refuses to die in harsh conditions. There is a lesson that Filipinos can learn from the story of the kamóte. We call it lowly and poor. Yet one rich merchant who has enjoyed many good things in life called it precious and a life saver.
And so, Koushou the merchant brought the kamóte back to his kingdom in the Ryukyu Islands. When the Ryukyu Kingdom became a vassal state of the daimyo of Satsuma in the early 1600s, the kamóte was finally brought to mainland Japan where it was called Satsuma-imo (薩摩芋).