Jumping on the Pan-American Express; The Hidden Beauty of Latin Roots, by John Willoughby and Chris Schlesinger, Jan. 6, 1999

“The first impulse of many uninitiated cooks who happen upon root vegetables from Latin America in the market is simply to shake their heads and walk way. These tubers — brown, bumpy, sometimes even scaly — look for all the world like miniature logs that were tossed into the vegetable bin by mistake.

But nothing could be further from the truth. These vegetables are bedrock culinary staples throughout Latin America and the Caribbean and provide great culinary rewards for those willing to explore them. In their simplest form, they can be boiled and mashed to make smooth, rich purees. Deep fried, they become crisp, deliciously tangy fries or chips. Added to soups and stews, they provide not only pleasantly earthy flavors but also a lovely creaminess.

Most can be baked, turned into hash browns or otherwise cooked as you would cook potatoes. In fact, getting to know the virtues of these roots is like having a whole new array of potatoes to enliven your table. And like potatoes, these tubers provide a perfect backdrop for more aggressive flavorings, from hot chilies to pungent garlic and tangy citrus.

Since they are inexpensive ingredients used mostly by home cooks, these roots and tubers often have different vernacular names from country to country. This can make sorting them out confusing. A good place to start, though, is with the distinctive root called yuca (pronounced YOO-kah). Also known as manioc or cassava, yuca is probably the most popular of Latin roots both in this country and in the Caribbean.

Not long ago, we received a lesson in the centrality of this humble root in Latin American cooking. Driving from San Jose, Costa Rica’s capital, to the village of Tamarindo on the Pacific coast, we stopped for a meal at a roadside restaurant. We ordered up a storm: grilled pork chops with tomatillo salsa, shell-on shrimp, whole snapper, rice and beans and local beers. But our waiter was obviously not satisfied. After a brief pause he arched an eyebrow and inquired, ‘And an order of yuca?’

Of course, we agreed, and the mashed yuca, served with a spicy lime-garlic sauce, was the ideal complement to the rest of the food. It was so good, in fact, that ‘un orden de yuca’ became the catch phrase of our trip. But what most impressed us was the waiter’s sense that without yuca our meal was incomplete.

Yuca has gained prominence as a favorite of the East Coast’s Cuban-American population. Indeed, in Miami the name of the vegetable was appropriated as an acronym for young upscale Cuban-Americans.

Yuca is shaped like a very long, narrow sweet potato. Its rough outer skin looks like scaly bark, and often a thick coating of wax is applied to keep it fresh during shipping. Its white interior bleeds a thin white liquid when cut.

Cooked, yuca has a slightly sweet, buttery flavor and a glutinous, chewy texture. It takes a bit of precooking preparation, because its underskin and central core both have to be removed. It should also be served hot, because as it cools it quickly hardens.

Next in line in the Latin root hit parade are malanga and taro, two members of the same family, which are virtually indistinguishable to the untrained eye. Malanga, also known as yautia, may look like an elongated sweet potato or a fat turnip. It has medium brown, shaggy, mottled brown skin. The flesh, which can be white, yellow or pinkish, has a distinct, nutty flavor. It is great when boiled or fried but doesn’t bake well because of its slightly waxy texture. Malanga also performs particularly well in soups, because with long simmering it begins to soften and dissolve into a creamy paste that thickens the soup nicely.

Malanga’s near twin, taro, called dasheen in the Caribbean, is found in two varieties in the United States. The most prevalent is slightly more barrel-shaped than malanga but has a comparable flavor. To make it even more confusing, in Cuban stores one of the most popular varieties of taro is called malanga islena, or island malanga.

One difference between malanga and taro is that the off-white flesh of the larger variety of taro is often speckled with tiny dots. But trying to distinguish between the two is ultimately not worth the effort. Be aware, though, that the flesh of taro has a tendency to turn gray when cooked.

The second, less popular variety of taro is much smaller, about the size of a new potato. It is much like its larger brother but has a blander flavor.

Even the taro-malanga confusion pales beside the sweet potato-yam mix-up. The key is to understand that those sweet orange tubers that we call yams in the United States are actually sweet potatoes. The misnomer was foisted on the public in the 1930’s by a group of Louisiana farmers who wanted to distinguish a new type of sweet potato they had developed, and so they called it a yam.

The true yam is one of the world’s most important food crops, widely eaten throughout Asia and Africa, as well as Latin America. There are more than 600 species of yams, but the type most prevalent in this country is brown or brown-black. Also known as name (pronounced NYAH-may) or igname (EE-nyahm), it has crisp white flesh that when cooked is like a dry, floury, bland potato. Before cooking, it must be thickly peeled to get rid of the bitter sap that is found immediately beneath the skin.

Speaking of sweet potatoes, another of the Latin roots is the one that almost everyone outside the United States calls just that. Variously known in this country as boniato, batata dulce or Cuban sweet potato, this potato-size, bulbous root has pinkish mottled skin and creamy white flesh and can be cooked exactly like sweet potatoes. While boniatos are slightly drier in texture than sweet potatoes when cooked, their wonderfully delicate, slightly sweet, chestnut-like flavor makes up for this slight shortcoming.

The thin-skinned jicama (HEE-cah-mah) is best used raw. It has a crisp texture and a sweetish taste. Similar to the jicama is the apio (ah-PEE-oh), often called arracacha. This tuber, which resembles a celery root but is less aromatic, is starting to make inroads in the United States market.

When you buy tubers and roots, choose very hard roots that have no soft spots, no external mold and no cracks. With yuca and taro, ask the merchant to cut into one for you, to be sure that the interior is stark white, with no graying or dark spots near the skin. When buying true yams, taro or malanga, stick your fingernail into one to be sure that it is juicy, because dry specimens have an unpleasant texture when cooked.

Roots should be stored in a cool, dark place. Except for true yams, none keep very well, and they should be used within a few days of buying; boniatos, in particular, spoil quickly. Peeled and covered with water spiked with lemon juice, all will keep in the refrigerator for a day or two, and all freeze well after being peeled and cut up.

Finally, it doesn’t pay to get too worried about fine distinctions among these roots and tubers. They are folk ingredients, and their names are as malleable as the plot of a folk tale. So don’t hesitate too long in front of that vegetable bin — go ahead and pick a few, take them home and cook them. After all, it took centuries for Europeans to accept potatoes, and look what they were missing.”

-Excerpt and image courtesy of The New York Times, Times Machine, “Jumping on the Pan-American Express; The Hidden Beauty of Latin Roots,” by John Willoughby and Chris Schlesinger, Jan. 6, 1999

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