The Boniato: Cuba´ Sweet Potato
By Domingo Cuza Pedrera
Cuba´s indisputable national symbols include the palma real (the royal palm tree), the tocororo (national bird) and the mariposa, the national flower. Recently in one of its songs, Cuba´s popular duo Buena Fe proposed that the pig was the national mammal. Along the lines of looking for national symbols that represent and define us, Cubans can undoubtedly add the boniato (a sweet potato) to the list.
The boniato has been in the country for centuries, way before Cuba became a nation. Introduced by the migratory waves of Taínos, the agro-potter natives of the Caribbean, this root vegetable thrived on the lands of the Island and quickly became an indispensable food both for the Taínos and later the Spanish colonists.
According to the first chronicles if the era, those “sweet roots that taste like chestnuts with sugar” pleasantly surprised the colonists and they appreciated the vegetable for its versatility. “The leaves can be cooked to replace spinach or chard, prepared with oil and vinegar, and are also useful when raw to feed the pigs”.
The boniato was prepared in many different ways. It was possible to eat it raw, although it was much better cooked or roasted. A pot was filled with pieces of the sweet potato and sprinkled with salt and water, then covered with its own leaves and put in the sun for 8 or 9 days. After this process it was either placed near the fire to heat or to cook in water and it turned “soft like a marmalade, tastier than almost any other food”, according to Fry Bartolomé de las Casas, one of the writers who wrote on the boniato and who obviously loved it.
In addition, this sweet potato could be combined with almost any food: meat, fish, eggs…and was an indispensable ingredient for the Cuban “ajiaco”, a thick soup made with a variety of meats and other root vegetables and considered by many as Cuba´s national dish.
The boniato was also used as a type of medicine. Women consumed beverages made with its leaves, said to help with breast-feeding for newborns. Still today, this same beverage is given to women who have recently given birth. During the fight for Cuba´s independance the boniato inspired both warriors and writers. Some poets, such as José María Izaguirre wrote about it, highlighting how delicious it was and how it filled the plates of the poor. He expressed gratitude for the existence of this generous plant.
The rebel leader Donato Soto recounted how during the war of independence true feasts were elaborated with boniato as a base. The soup, roast and dessert were all made with either boiled, roasted or whipped boniato and in the case of coffee, its burnt peel was crushed and infused in hot water.
In addition to its versatility, this root vegetable was also valued for its resistance to “enemy attacks” from the colonists. While sugar cane, yucca and plantain fields were destroyed by the Spanish to limit food for the Mambise rebels, the boniato fields survived. In fact, it proved to be so reliable and indestructible that the Spaniards intentionally brought over an insect from Africa (the tetuán) to attack and kill the fields. This was the first recorded incidence of biological warfare against Cuba.
Boniato bread was considered by the Mambises as being a glorious food. José Martí described it in one of his writings: “Raw boniato was shredded then mixed with squash or yucca or shredded coconut and then honey or sugar and lard were added. It was then baked in pots over heat”.
The present article describes what the boniato has brought us up to the war of independence. After this era, this sweet potato continued to grow in popularity for Cubans. Dishes made with boniato such as bueñuelos, malarrabia, boniatillo and fried buriles fritos, will be part of our next edition, meanwhile its merit as Cuba´s national vegetable is indeed indisputable.