Reclaiming our root crops
Most Filipinos today consider rice as by far our most important, if not our one and only, staple food, a sine qua non of our daily meals. Whether one’s viand is bistek Tagalog, lechon Cebu, fried chicken, or sautéed fish, it is cooked with rice in mind.
In some parts of the country, the primacy of rice has been around for centuries;
Pigafetta noted as much. But the same cannot be said of other areas where it was root crops that people ate regularly. Even where rice was a staple, root crops shared its place among the commonly consumed foods, as in sinigang which was meant to be a complete meal, with gabi serving as carbohydrate source. Our ancestors would have been none the poorer. Unlike rice, which is relatively labor- and land-intensive, root crops grow even in unfavorable conditions. They also have nutritional profiles superior to white rice. Gabi (taro), for instance, is rich in fiber, vitamins, and minerals, and the leaves are edible, too (laing!). Beyond gabi, ube (purple yam), and the New World-sourced kamote (sweet potato), and kamoteng kahoy (cassava)—each of which has different varieties—we have dozens of root crop species with their unique flavors and profiles.
What can explain the shift to rice?
People might respond by saying “well, rice tastes much better.” But even taste, a subjective quality, is shaped by culture; our fondness for rice draws from our having been eating it since childhood and our meals having been designed to complement rice. There must be a stronger explanation for the relative decline of root crops in our consciousness.
One answer involves changing attitudes toward both rice and root crops. As the physical anthropologist Francisco Datar said in the Ugnayang Pang-Aghamtao (UGAT) conference last November in Visayas State University, Baybay, Leyte, rice was — and still is — perceived as a “prestige food” in various parts of the archipelago, leading to its desirability and eventual ubiquity. Conversely, root crops were seen as an inferior food, leading to their being shunned by people. We still see this low regard for root crops today in expressions like “kinakamote” and the very telling “Go home and plant kamote!”
Agricultural technologies that have made rice widely available are another contributory (and corollary) factor, with rice varieties today far more productive in yield than those in the past. Even with rice shortages, the ease of importing all but guarantees rice’s ubiquity, even as the economics of it raises questions of equity for our rice farmers.
Conversely, despite the efforts of scientists (there are Root Crops Research and Training Centers in Baybay, Leyte, and La Trinidad, Benguet, not to mention the work of DOST and UPLB), there has been relatively little investment in root crops, whether in terms of agricultural research, food technology, or marketing.
This marginality of root crops is unfortunate for a number of reasons. As mentioned earlier, root crops are actually very nutritious, and hold the potential to enrich our culinary heritage. Although ube is beloved by Filipinos as a dessert and is increasingly being recognized abroad, we miss out by ignoring other varieties and species. In the UGAT conference, for instance, UST’s Hermel Pama gave a colorful account of namu in Bicol, and when I shared this topic with my medical colleague Johanna Banzon, she spoke of kayos in Iloilo.
Moreover, root crops can reduce our (over)dependence on rice, increasing our food sovereignty and diversity, benefiting overall nutrition, and helping indigenous and marginalized communities who are most vulnerable to inflation and fluctuations in rice prices.
Finally, a revival of root crops can contribute to building resilient communities, particularly in our age of climate crises. As Development Academy of the Philippines’ Julieta Roa pointed out, also in UGAT, root crops have always served as “survival foods”—but knowledge about them, including how to remove toxicity, is fast fading away.
Of course, I am not saying we should abandon rice completely. My modest appeal, echoing what others have said, is that we include root crops as part of our diet and give them the attention, research, and investment they deserve. Reclaiming our root crops will make us more rooted in our rich biocultural heritage, healthy in our diets, empowered in our food choices, and resilient as a nation.
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