You know the song. “You like potato and I like potahto, You like tomato and I like tomahto
Potato, potahto, Tomato, tomahto, Let’s call the whole thing off.” This Louis Armstrong classic is not only a catchy tune, but it speaks the truth when it comes to interchangeable words. Some people refer to that starchy tuber as a potato, while others may say potahto (although I’ve never met anyone who does). The fact of the matter is there can be many words used to describe the same thing, and that is what sets the stage for this very overdue blog post.
As you might remember, I am in the middle of my dietetic internship and I just spent 15 amazing weeks at a group of health centers called The Institute for Family Health. This experience was beneficial to me in many ways. Nutritionally, I learned more about diabetes and medications than I could have ever thought possible. Professionally, I gained invaluable experience working as a valued member of a healthcare team. But what I enjoyed or appreciated maybe most of all was the cultural knowledge I gained during this rotation.
The Institute primarily provides medical services to the underserved populations, a large percentage of which are from Hispanic backgrounds. On any given day, approximately 75% of the patients I saw were Spanish-speaking. Needless to say my Spanish language skills were put to the test! Not only did I adopt new Spanish vocabulary related to medicine and nutrion counseling, but my Spanish food vocabulary was broadened immensely! When you’re working with people from Mexico, Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Peru, Guatemala, Columbia, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Ecuador you can be certain that different words are used in each country to describe the same thing- remember, potato, potahto.
Even if you do have a firm grasp on the Spanish language, as I did, it is understandable to not know the name used for certain foods in different countries. I would constantly find myself turning to my preceptor, who is Columbian, and asking about an item in a patient’s dietary recall, then doing a google image search to figure out what exactly that unique food item looks like. I was learning so many new words for different foods it was becoming difficult to keep them straight!
I decided to help myself out, and any other RDs out there who work with the Hispanic population, and create a quick guide to common cultural foods in the Latin American diet and the different names used for them. I focus mostly on starches and starchy vegetables, since that’s what I most frequently encountered with my struggling diabetes patients. My next step- cooking some delicious recipes with them!
- Yuca– also called cassava or manioc. Yuca is a root native to South America and is the third largest source of food carbohydrate, as it is a major food source in developing countries. You may have heard that yuca is toxic because it contains cyanide, and while that is actually true, the level of cyanide found in yuca sold in the United States (which mostly comes from the DR and Costa Rica) is quite low and can easily be eliminated through cooking. Yuca is especially good when fried like fries or chips, or boiled and served with a sumptous stew or soup.
- Taro– also called yautia, malanga, or eddoes. Another starchy vegetables that my patients loved and could eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It’s most common in Asian cuisines, but has easily been adapted by Latin American countries as a staple food. You may have even seen taro chips in local supermarkets. Interestingly enough, the corms or root of the plant (the part which is typically eaten) are gluten free!
- Chayote root-also called tayota or cho-cho. In Mexico I had eaten my share of the chayote fruit (a summer squash-like vegetable), but I had no idea the root of this plant was eaten as well- waste not, want not! The fibrous, carbohydrate-rich root is eaten similar to potatoes and other root vegetables.
- Yame– also spelled ñame. This is the most common starchy vegetable used in the Panamanian version of the traditional Latin American stew sancocho. It looks similar in color to a russet potato, but is quite larger.
- Guineo– what Domicans and Puerto Ricans call bananas. Almost everywhere else, the Spanish word for banana is “banana” or “platano”, but these two countries primarily have chosen to call bananas “guineos” as it is believed that they originated from New Guinea.
- Platano– also called plantain. These are a relative of the banana, but are a bit larger, less sweet, and need to be cooked before eating. What’s important to note about platanos is that there are two different common varieties- verde (green) and maduro (“ripe”, yellow with black/brown specks). The green platains are considered a starchy vegetable and used in soups, stews, mashes, and as fried tostones. The ripe yellow version are somewhat sweeter, but still considerably starchy. These are best fried or baked, and become a delectable sweet, sticky treat.
- Auyama– also called calabaza or zapallo. These are all words for items such as the winter squash kabocha and pumpkin. Hispanics are not afraid of cooking and baking these giant gourds and scraping out the insides to throw into soups and stews. These starchy vegetables are high in vitamin A and contain beneficial antioxidants and antiinflammatory properties.
- Batata– also called camote or papa dulce. All names for (my favorite) sweet potatoes! I’m pretty sure you all know what these look like…
One last tip! There are two terms that are used by Hispanics to group together a mix of these starchy foods, because, let’s face it, people are likely not eating only one type at a time!
- Las viandas or los viveres– refers generally to the group of starchy root vegetables. Viandas include, but are not limited to cassava, malanga, taro, and sweet potatoes.
I hope you find this information helpful when working with Hispanic patients! If you come across other words used to describe these foods I’d love to learn them!