Rainy season is in full swing in the Central American tropics. Past is the season for fruits such as the beloved mango and cantaloupe. It is, however, time for another product to be widely available at low prices all over the country. Though present year-round, yuca (Manihot esculenta) is more abundant this time of year. The tuber goes by several different names in English, including manioc, cassava and tapioca.
The root vegetables of many New World areas have a long history attached to them. Archaeological evidence reveals their use by aboriginal groups in Mexico, Central America and Brazil as early as 3000 B.C. Griddles for baking cassava bread dating back to almost 2000 B.C. have been found in South America (see story on facing page). In these ancient cultures, cassava historically played a social role, such as in religious ceremonies.
According to one legend from the Tupi Indians of the Amazon, a mother with no food watched her child starve. When he died, she buried him under her hut. That night, a wood spirit known as a mani came and transformed the child’s body into the roots of a plant that grew up to feed future generations. The plant was called mani-oca (oca meaning “root”).
Yuca – not to be confused with the English yucca, which is a plant of the agave family – appears to have been cultivated mainly in two areas: the semi-arid regions of the YucatánPeninsula and adjacent Guatemala, and northeastern Brazil. While practically unknown in temperate regions, the plant is native to Brazil and is a staple for more than 600 million people in Africa, Asia and Latin America. As is true of most staple crops, yuca is almost all starch, containing up to 35 percent carbohydrates, only about 1 percent protein and almost no vitamins. The tubers can be boiled, baked, fried or dried, and are used to make flour, breads, tapioca, sugar, laundry starch and even alcoholic drinks.
One yuca plant can yield 20 pounds or more of tubers, which can be stored for a long time. Plants are grown from stems with buds, and the tubers are ready to harvest after about 18 months.
An ideal crop for the tropics, yuca grows well on dry and wet soils, produces roots in poor soils, is relatively resistant to insects and fungal pests, requires a minimal amount of agricultural effort and has a high yield per unit area. The world annual production of yuca is more than 158 billion tons, mostly used for human consumption and animal food.
Of the hundreds of known species, two types of yuca are mainly grown today. “Bitter” yuca, which has a high concentration of cyanides, is used to make glues and industrial products. “Sweet” yuca, or low-cyanide yuca, is produced for consumption. Processing is complex, because most varieties of the tuber contain potentially toxic concentrations of these cyanogenic glycosides that are reduced to innocuous levels through cooking.
Yuca should never be eaten raw, and it must be cooked at temperatures of at least 200 degrees F to eliminate hydrogen cyanide byproducts.
Yuca plays a modern role as an industrial product in starches, adhesives and textiles. Brazilian researchers are currently studying its possible use in the production of dextrose and certain alcohols. Yuca may be processed into flour or boiled to create gelatinous tapioca pellets, which are used as a thickening agent in pies and other desserts.
In Costa Rica, yuca may be present at dinner tables around the country. It is made into fries, pies, tamales or the famous meatand/or cheese-stuffed enyucados, deep-fried croquettes often topped with a sauce. It is especially present on the Caribbean coast, where its fried form accompanies many traditional dishes.
In West Africa, particularly in Nigeria, yuca is commonly prepared as eba or gari, grated and fried and then mixed with boiling water to form a thick paste.
Yuca is heavily featured in the cuisine of Brazil. The dish vaca atolada (“mud-stranded cow”) is a meat and cassava stew that is cooked until the root has turned into a paste.
Pirão is a thick, gravy-like gruel prepared by cooking fish bits (such as heads and bones) with yuca flour. In farofa (lightly roasted flour), yuca combines with rice and beans to make the basic meal of working-class Brazilians. Farofa is also a standard side dish for feijoada, the famous meat-and-beans stew. Boiled yuca is made into a popular sweet pudding, and deep-fried mandioca is a popular snack.
No matter how you cook it, yuca is destined to play a role in New World and new
Costa Rican cuisines. Surprise yourself with one of the world’s oldest delicacies. Yuca an Ancient New World Staple
Enyucados (Cassava Croquettes)
2 lb fresh yuca, cooked and mashed into a puree
1/2 lb fresh, soft goat cheese (chèvre)
1/4 cup chopped sun-dried tomatoes
2 tbs fresh basil, finely chopped
2 tbs olive oil
1/3 cup mayonnaise
1 tsp chipotle sauce (made from roasted jalapeño peppers)
Salt and pepper to taste
Flour to dust
1 beaten egg
Bread crumbs and sesame seeds for breading
Oil for deep-frying
Wash yuca under running water until clean. Peel with a very sharp chef’s knife, thinly slicing and removing the skin to reveal the white flesh. Cut into four-inch lengths, then cut each piece in half to reveal the core with the tough “string.” Remove the string for quicker cooking.
Cook until tender in plenty of boiling water, spiced with bay leaves, black peppercorns, garlic, oregano, cloves, one tablespoon of butter and a dash of salt. Drain well and use while warm, when it is easier to handle. Raw yuca can be poisonous, so be extremely careful never to eat it unless it is thoroughly cooked.
1. In a bowl, mix the yuca puree, olive oil, salt and pepper.
2. In a separate bowl, combine goat cheese, sun-dried tomatoes and basil. Set aside.
3. Form two-inch balls of the yuca puree and stuff each with a spoonful of the cheese mixture.
4. Preheat oil in a frying pan to 300 degrees F.
5. Bread the croquettes by coating with flour, then egg, then the bread crumb-sesame seed mixture.
6. Lower the croquettes into the hot oil and fry until golden brown, approximately two to three minutes. Drain on paper towels and set aside.
7. Mix the mayonnaise and chipotle sauce to create a dip. Serve warm, with chipotle dip on the side.
Makes four servings.