The Camote Conundrum

22 Feb

I never really understood the difference between yams and sweet potatoes, despite the internet’s wealth of information, but I damn sure know the difference between sweet potato and, say, potato. I definitely can taste the difference between the smooth sweetness of a sweet potato and the starchy blandness of yucca. Or so I thought, anyway.

If you’re from the U.S., you probably don’t really know the difference between sweet potatoes and yams, either. According to the Huffington Post- and several other websites*-, the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) long ago decided to label some sweet potatoes as yams based on their color and texture, even though yams are actually a different plant. (´Merica. Sigh.)

When you add Spanish language and American cultures into the mix, things really get messy. Here in Oaxaca, it all gets called camote, the word used here for sweet potato.  However, some of the things that are called camote look and taste to me like yucca (the term used in Cuban restaurants in Louisville) aka mandioca (the term used in Paraguay where it’s a diet staple), which apparently is called cassava in English. I think. Confused yet? Great. Me, too.

Since I’m not a botanist, perhaps all these multicolored roots are all camote, and I just can’t wrap my little gringuita head around so many types and flavors of sweet potato.


Just a few of the many kinds of camote I run into in the market

They don’t all taste the same, either, so occassionally I buy something and am unpleasantly surprised by its flavor. It happened to me the other day- I found myself with a whole kilo’s worth (2.2 lbs.) of boiled camote that tasted bland and sticky and starchy like yams (cassava? yucca? mandioca? Whatever it’s called- the semi-flavorless one.) Now, according to what I’ve since read on the grand internet, cassava requires more processing or it can be poisonous. Since we didn’t die of cyanide poisoning, I suppose it really wasn’t cassava. But geez was it dull!

But as any good cook knows, really bland food is an artist’s blank palette. Did you know, for example, that tapioca comes from that boring old cassava root? So I set out to make it taste like something a little jazzier. I used my typical tactic of blending about 5 different recipes with my own ideas. Here’s the recipe I came up with, in case you ever find yourself in a camote conundrum like mine:

Camote Patties


2 cups camote, boiled and mashed (perhaps 1/2 – 3/4 lb.raw)

1/4 lb. ground beef, fried with 1/2 an onion and 2 cloves garlic (could be omitted or substituted for soy, with extra spices)

3/4 cup corn kernels

handful of cilantro, chopped

very generous sprinklings of salt, pepper, cumin, paprika

garlic powder and hot red pepper (cayenne or other) to taste

2 eggs, beaten



my mixture… the purple part is the camote


  1. Boil the sweet potato / potato / other root vegetable (I bet turnips would work nicely, too) until soft. Mash with potato masher and set aside.
  2. Fry the ground beef with onion and garlic and the spices listed above. Set aside. (I did this in steps- one day I cooked the camote. The next morning I cooked the meat. In the afternoon I actually finished cooking the meal. It’s no big deal for things to be refrigerated while you’re getting it all together if needed.)
  3. Mix in all the ingredients for patty mixture- camote, meat, corn (thaw first if frozen), cilantro and more spices. Form into patties whatever size you want. Dip in egg and then in bread crumbs.
  4. Fry for 5 minutes on one side and 3 on the other (disclaimer: that’s an estimate. I didn’t actually time it- I just eyeball it.) on medium heat, until a little browned on the outside.

frying the patties

Alternately, you can mix the egg and breadcrumbs into the patty mixture and fry from there. I opted for this dipped version to cut down on the amount of egg and breadcrumbs I used, but I made a couple the alternate way at the end and they were really good. Regardless, my kids devoured these, and Conan and I both enjoyed them as well. I plan to use this recipe next time I accidentally purchase the wrong kind of sweet potato. Enjoy! Buen provecho!

*This website had the clearest explanation:

Or here’s a funny flowchart if you’re still baffled and need to know:

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