Real Food Encyclopedia | Yuca
“Yuca” is the Spanish word for Manihot esculenta, also known as cassava, tapioca and manioc. It is a completely different species from the yucca, which is primarily an ornamental plant.
Genetic evidence indicates that yuca is native to the southern border of the Amazon basin, and the roots still play an important part in the diet of Brazil and other countries in South America. Alan Davidson, in “The Oxford Companion to Food,” notes that cassava roots were already a staple food in the West Indies before Europeans arrived. Portuguese slave traders introduced the plant to Africa in the late 16th century. It spread to East Africa by the 18th century, and is now a staple in much of sub-Saharan Africa. According to Davidson, the plant arrived in Indonesia and the Malay Peninsula during the 18th century, and made its way to India and the Pacific islands by the early 19th century.
Fun Facts about Yuca:
- A number of alcoholic beverages from across the world are made from cassava, most homemade and some even saliva-fermented.
- The Guardian explains that cassava is being bred using traditional methods (i.e., not through genetic modification) to help improve food security in sub-Saharan Africa. One example is Vitamin A-enriched cassava, which can help with Vitamin A deficiency, a common nutritional deficiency in sub-Saharan Africa.
- A liquid called cassareep, made from the boiled juice of the roots mixed with spices, is an important ingredient in the Guyanese dish called pepperpot.
- “Bubble” tea, which is a sweet, tea-based drink into which large tapioca pearls are mixed, was invented in Taiwan in the 1980s.
What to Look for When Buying Yuca
Yuca roots can be quite large — many as long as a foot — tapered at one end, with brown, hairy skin. Most commonly, the flesh inside is white, although yellow varieties exist as well. In the United States, yuca roots are waxed, because they are quite perishable otherwise. Once cut, yuca discolors significantly, so drop into cold water to keep its white color.
Confusingly, tapioca starch is also sometimes referred to as “arrowroot,” although the term “arrowroot” is also applied to starch made from other tropical plants.
Sustainability of Yuca
Cassava is rarely monocropped, and commonly intercropped with corn, yams, bananas and legumes. Its cyanide-producing compounds make it naturally pest-resistant, although it is susceptible to several devastating diseases, including the Cassava Brown Streak Disease and the Cassava Mosaic Virus, for which solutions — that may include genetic modification or pesticides — are being research. Cassava processing, however, can be quite water intensive and can result in water pollution, as the waste water produced in the process contains high concentrations of cyanide and other organic pollutants.
As a root vegetable and in its powdered form, yuca is available year-round.
Yuca and Geography
Cassava is a perennial woody shrub that produces large leaves and edible, fleshy roots. There are two main types of cassava, bitter and sweet. Alan Davidson notes that bitter cassava is more commonly cultivated for its roots, while sweet cassava is primarily grown for its edible leaves. Cassava roots provide food for nearly a billion people and are a staple in much of the tropics, in part because the plants are highly drought tolerant and grow relatively well in less-than-ideal growing conditions. Nigeria, Thailand, Indonesia, Brazil and the Democratic Republic of the Congo lead the way in global cassava root cultivation.
The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), cassava starch – aka tapioca – is the fourth most important starch in the world, after corn, wheat and potato starches. Tapioca starch is used in industrial applications and in cooking, and is primarily produced in Thailand and Indonesia. Tapioca starch is powdered, but can be formed into “pearls” for cooking, which vary in size depending upon the culinary application. Essentially, powdered tapioca is forced through sieves to form the pearls.
Storing Fresh Yuca
Cassava roots are notorious for spoiling quickly after harvest — that is why the cassava sold in markets here is commonly coated in wax. Wax-coated cassava roots will keep for several weeks in a cool, dry place. Cassava roots will keep for years in the ground, another reason they are grown in famine-prone areas.
Cooking With Yuca
To use the root, you must peel it — a sharp knife is best — and cook it thoroughly. (Never, ever eat raw cassava!)
Yuca is a staple food in much of the tropical world, but it is especially common in the foods of South and Central America, the Caribbean and in parts of sub-Saharan Africa. In Brazil, the root is used to make flour, which is used in infinite ways — like toasted and sprinkled on top of dishes (farofa) or made into pão de queijo (cheese puffs).
The fresh root is also used in sweet and savory dishes — check out this Brazilian cassava cake and a similar cake is made in the Philippines. You’ll find the root fried and boiled all over Central and South America — fried yuca may even be more delicious than French fries, especially if it’s served with a spicy dipping sauce.
In the Caribbean, yuca plays an especially important role in Puerto Rican cuisine, where you’ll find the root in a dizzying array of dishes, like yuca alcapurrias, fritters made with mashed yuca and stuffed with meat or seafood. But the root is extremely prevalent all over the region, made into flatbreads, chips, fritters, desserts like West Indian cassava pone and, of course, fries. Here’s a great recipe roundup of Caribbean yuca recipes.
In West and Central Africa, cassava is used to make the staple food fufu, made by pounding the boiled root until it forms a dense mass. To eat, small balls are pinched off the fufu “loaf” and dipped into stew or soup.
The root is also made into starch, which can be used as a thickener. Tapioca pearls, made from the starch, come in a number of different sizes, from tiny (commonly used in tapioca pudding) to large (used in “bubble” tea). If you want to get really into it, you can make your own tapioca pearls from powdered tapioca starch.
Fermented preparations of cassava are common in places where it is eaten. Sandor Katz, in his book “The Art of Fermentation,” writes extensively about the many types of fermented cassava preparations that exist in Africa and the rest of the world.
If prepared incorrectly, yuca leaves and roots produce cyanide compounds that can kill you. Don’t worry: the compounds that produce cyanide are found primarily in the peel and outer layer of the root, along with the leaves, and are deactivated by cooking (or by soaking, squeezing or fermentation), so it is only a big deal if you accidentally eat raw or undercooked cassava, which we’re betting is unlikely. Interestingly, people who are allergic to latex may also have a yuca allergy, so steer clear if you’ve had any kind of reaction to latex.
Yuca root is loaded with Vitamin C — one cup will provide you with over 70 percent of your daily needs. The tuber is low in calories and high in carbohydrates and fiber, and has some thiamin, folate, manganese, potassium and magnesium. It’s even got a little bit of iron and calcium. Yuca leaves are high in protein and Vitamin K.
Konzo is an irreversible neurologic disease that affects people who are protein deficient and who have a high consumption rate of improperly processed bitter cassava roots. The disease is a health problem in rural sub-Saharan Africa, where cassava plays an important part in the diet.