Beyond Boniatos: Sweet Potatoes in Latin America

Catherine A. Jones
 | April 4, 2024

You say potato. I say potahto. You say sweet potato. I say boniato. Potato. Potahto. Sweet potato. Boniato. Let’s call the whole thing off. Or, how about we dig deeper and find out the many different ways to say, and enjoy, sweet potatoes in Latin America, the birthplace of this root vegetable.

Sweet Potatoes in Latin America

For centuries, sweet potatoes have been a staple food in Latin American cuisine. They were cherished for their sweet flavor, vibrant colors, and nutritional value. According to Fire of Learning, the earliest traces of sweet potatoes come from the Americas.

Domestication of the sweet potato dates back to Peru in about 2800 B.C. Then it spread to much of tropical America, including Mexico. “By the time the Spaniards arrived,” MexConnect writes. “Journals from Grijalva’s 1518 expedition from Cuba to the Yucatan and Cozumel describes the boiled or roasted sweet potatoes prepared by the indigenous Maya as tasting ‘like roasted chestnuts.’”

The Many Names of Sweet Potatoes

Today, the sweet potato goes by many names, in Latin America. The labeling oddity makes for interesting debates online.

r/AskLatinAmerica, a subreddit “dedicated to Latin America and the Caribbean, asked Reddit users: “Spanish speakers, what word do you use for a sweet potato?” The question received dozens of different responses, including one from Brazil saying, “Although we don’t speak Spanish, In Brazil we say batata doce.”

Another Reddit user, PRCastaway replied: “Batata in PR but my Cuban grandmother always called it boniato.”

Summed up, “camote,” “boniato,” and “batata” are just a few of the common terms used to refer to sweet potatoes across Latin America.

Of course, to outsiders, it may seem like a mere matter of semantics. But, when you look at it, the diverse terminology defines cultures and culinary traditions.

But what lies behind these varied appellations?

The Camote

In Mexico, Peru, and parts of Central America (except Panama), the sweet potato is commonly known as camote.

Derived from the Nahuatl word “camotli,” this term goes back to the ancient civilizations that cultivated and consumed sweet potatoes long before the arrival of European colonizers. Today, camote remains an integral part of Mexican cuisine, featuring prominently in dishes like camote enmielado (candied sweet potatoes) and camote soup.

The Boniato

Traveling to the Caribbean, we encounter the term boniato, which is prevalent in countries such as Cuba and the Dominican Republic. This name likely originated from the Taíno language spoken by indigenous peoples inhabiting the Caribbean islands before the arrival of Christopher Columbus. Boniato holds a special place in Caribbean cuisine, where it is often enjoyed roasted, mashed, or incorporated into hearty stews and soups.

The Batata

In parts of South America, and even in Spain, the sweet potato is referred to as batata. This name traces its roots back to the Quechua language, spoken by indigenous communities in the Andean region, and to the Spanish word for potato, patata.

Naturally, the batata is celebrated for its versatility, featured prominently in dishes like batatas al horno asada (roasted sweet potatoes). It’s a common side dish which goes beyond South America. (What you choose to call it remains up for debate.)

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Featured image is from the image Hoja Suelta, by José Guadalupe Posada, 1901.
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