The New York Times
January 6, 1999

The Hidden Beauty of Latin Roots


               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, which are slightly more
          flavorful versions of mashed potatoes. 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 of them can be baked, turned into hash browns or otherwise cooked as you would potatoes. In fact,
          getting to know the virtues of these roots is like suddenly having a whole new array of potatoes to
          enliven your table.

          And like potatoes, these Latin tubers also 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 the Caribbean.

          Not long ago, we received a lesson in the centrality of this humble root in Latin American cooking.
          Driving from our touchdown point in 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 this starchy
          vegetable our meal was incomplete.

          While yuca is far from reaching that point in the United States, it has gained prominence as a favorite
          of the East Coast's large 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. Yuca's interior is stark white
          with a crisp texture, and it bleeds a thin white liquid when cut.

          Cooked, yuca has a slightly sweet, buttery flavor and a glutinous, chewy texture. Like most of its
          tuberous cousins, it can be cooked in any way that a potato can, but we like it best boiled. Yuca
          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,
          which often does not fully cover the flesh underneath. The flesh, which can be white, yellow or
          pinkish, has a distinct, nutty flavor, with a pleasantly musty undertone. 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 shaped very much like malanga, only slightly more like a barrel. It also
          has a barklike skin like malanga's and a comparably sweetish nutty flavor. To make it even more
          confusing, in Cuban stores one of the most popular varieties of taro is called malanga islena, or island

          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. Just buy whichever you find. They are very much alike in taste and can be cooked in the same
          ways. 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. In our opinion, it is not really worth seeking out.

          Even the taro-malanga confusion pales beside the sweet potato-yam mix-up. The first key to solving
          it 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 1930s 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 and may resemble a log or a misshapen rock.
          Also known as name (pronounced NYAH-may) or igname (EE-nyahm) it has crisp white flesh,
          ranging from white through off-white to almost yellow. Cooked, it is like a dry, floury, bland potato.
          It may be roasted, boiled or fried, but is too sticky to make into a puree. 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, chestnutlike flavor makes up for
          this slight shortcoming.

          The bulbous, thin-skinned jicama (hee-CAH-mah), unlike its starchier cousins, is best used raw. It
          has a wonderfully crisp, crunchy texture and a sweetish taste that falls somewhere between an apple
          and a potato. Similar to the jicama is the apio (ah-PEE-oh), often called arraccha. This tuber, which
          resembles a celery root, but is less aromatic, may be used raw or cooked and 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 -- as close to the atmosphere of a root cellar as you
          can get. With the exception of true yams, none of them keep very well and 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.


          Time: 40 minutes

          4 slices bacon, diced
          2 red onions, thinly sliced
          1/4 cup red wine vinegar
          1 tablespoon sugar
          Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
          1 1/2 pounds true yams, deeply peeled and cut into pieces about the size of an egg
          1/3 cup peanut oil
          1/2 cup roughly chopped fresh parsley.

          1. In a medium saute pan, saute bacon pieces over medium-high heat until just crisp, about 6
          minutes. Remove, and set on paper towel or brown paper bag to drain. Pour all but 2 tablespoons
          of bacon fat out of the pan, add onion slices, and saute, stirring occasionally, until well browned, 8 to
          10 minutes. Add vinegar, sugar and salt and pepper to taste, mix well, remove from heat, and set

          2. Meanwhile, place yams in a large pot of salted water, bring to a boil over high heat, and cook until
          they are tender but not mushy, 6 to 10 minutes; they should be easily pierced with a fork but still
          offer considerable resistance. Drain, cut into uniform bite-size pieces, and set on paper towels to

          3. Heat the peanut oil over medium-high heat until it is hot but not smoking. Add the dried yams, and
          cook until they are well browned, about 3 to 4 minutes. Remove from the pan with a slotted spoon,
          set on paper towels briefly to drain, then place in a large bowl. Add the reserved onions and bacon
          and the parsley, toss lightly, and serve at once.

          Yield: 4 servings.

          Time: 40 minutes

          1 1/2 pounds yuca (about 3, medium size)
          1 cup chicken stock
          1 tablespoon minced garlic
          Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
          1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil for drizzling
          1/4 cup lime juice (about 2 limes).

          1. Cut yuca crosswise into sections about 4 inches long. Make a lengthwise slit down each section,
          slide a paring knife underneath the brown skin and the pinkish underlayer, and lift them off, leaving
          the bright white flesh. Slice each section in half lengthwise and cut out the fibrous center cord, then
          cut into medium dice.

          2. Place yuca in a large sauce pot with lightly salted water to cover (about 1 gallon). Bring to a rapid
          boil over high heat, reduce heat to low, and simmer for about 20 minutes, or until yuca is easily
          pierced with a fork but still offers a bit of resistance.

          3. Drain well and place in a large bowl. Add stock and garlic, and mash with potato masher until
          smooth. Season to taste with salt and freshly cracked black pepper, drizzle with olive oil and lime
          juice, and serve. Yield: 4 servings.


          Time: 35 minutes

          3 tablespoons olive oil
          2 medium onions, thinly sliced
          1 1/2 pounds malanga, peeled and diced into medium cubes
          6 cups chicken stock
          1/4 cup softened butter
          1/2 cup roughly chopped fresh parsley
          1 tablespoon minced garlic
          1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
          Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.

          1. In a large saute pan, heat oil over medium-high heat until hot but not smoking. Add onions, and
          saute, stirring frequently, until onions are dark brown, about 10 to 12 minutes. Add malanga and
          stock, bring to a boil, then reduce heat, and simmer until malanga is easily pierced with a fork, about
          20 minutes.

          2. While malanga is cooking, in a small bowl combine the butter, parsley, garlic and lemon juice, and
          mix until mixture is of an even consistency.

          3. Season soup to taste with salt and pepper, ladle into individual serving bowls, and spoon on a
          tablespoon of the flavored butter. Serve immediately.

          Yield: 4 servings.


          Time: 1 hour

          4 medium boniatos, well washed
          1 cup sour cream
          3 tablespoons maple syrup
          2 scallions sliced very thin (green and white parts).

          1. Heat oven to 375 degrees. Place boniatos on a foil-lined baking pan, and bake until they can be
          easily pierced through with a fork but still offer a bit of resistance, 45 minutes to 1 hour.

          2. Meanwhile, in a small bowl mix the sour cream and maple syrup until mixture is of an even

          3. Remove boniatos from oven, split down the center by using the tines of a fork. Top the flesh of
          each with a generous spoonful of the maple sour cream, sprinkle with scallions, and serve. Pass the
          remaining maple sour cream separately.

          Yield: 4 servings.

          Time: 1 hour

          2 1/2 pounds Latin roots and tubers, including at least two of the following: malanga, yuca, boniato
          and true yam
          2 tablespoons vegetable oil
          1 pound boneless pork loin or butt, trimmed of excess fat and cut into half-inch cubes
          Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
          1 medium onion, diced
          2 tablespoons minced garlic
          1 tablespoon paprika
          1 teaspoon minced red or green chili pepper of your choice
          2 teaspoons ground cumin
          2 quarts chicken stock
          Juice of 1 lime
          Whole cilantro leaves for garnish (optional).

          1. Peel roots and tubers (if using yuca or true yams, be sure to peel off the bitter underlayer), dice,
          and set aside in a large bowl with water to cover.

          2. Heat oil over medium-high heat in a large saute pan until hot but not smoking. Sprinkle pork with
          salt and pepper, add to the pan, and brown on all sides, 5 to 7 minutes. Remove and set aside.

          3. Drain all but 1 tablespoon of fat out of the pan, add the onion, and saute over medium heat,
          stirring occasionally, until translucent, about 5 to 7 minutes. Add garlic, paprika, chilies and cumin,
          and saute, stirring, for 1 minute more.

          4. Add stock and reserved root vegetables, and just bring to a boil. Reduce heat to very low, and
          simmer, stirring occasionally, for about 30 minutes or until pork is tender and roots are easily pierced
          with a fork. Stir in the lime juice, sprinkle with cilantro if desired, and serve.

          Yield: 6 servings.


          Time: 15 minutes

          1 medium jicama (about the size of a softball), peeled and diced into medium cubes
          1/2 pineapple, peeled, cored and diced into large cubes
          1/2 red bell pepper, diced small
          1/2 green bell pepper, diced small
          1/2 red onion, diced small
          1 teaspoon minced garlic
          1 cup orange juice
          1/2 cup fresh lime juice
          1/2 cup roughly chopped fresh cilantro
          1 to 2 teaspoons minced fresh chili pepper of your choice
          Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.

          In a large bowl, combine all ingredients. This salsa, which goes very well with fish or pork, will keep,
          covered and refrigerated for about a week.

          Yield: About 6 cups.


          Name: Apio (arracacha)

          Texture: Crisp, similar to celery root

          Flesh: Creamy white to light yellow

          Best use: Raw in salads, or boiled and mashed

          Name: Boniato (batata dulce, Cuban sweet potato)

          Texture: Dense, slightly drier than sweet potato

          Flesh: Creamy white

          Best use: Any way sweet potato is used

          Name: Jicama (yam bean)

          Texture: Crisp, crunchy and juicy

          Flesh: White

          Best use: Raw in salads, salsas, relishes

          Name: Malanga (yautia)

          Texture: Crisp, slightly slippery

          Flesh: White, yellow, pinkish

          Best use: Deep fried as fries or fritters; boiled; particularly good for thickening soups

          Name: Taro (dasheen)

          Texture: Very dense

          Flesh: White, off-white, lilac gray

          Best use: Deep fried as fries and fritters, added to soups or stews

          Name: True yam (name, igname)

          Texture: Crisp. Dense and drier than potato.

          Flesh: White, off-white, light yellow

          Best use: Roasted, boiled or fried

          Name: Yuca (cassava, manioc)

          Texture: Dense and very crisp

          Flesh: Stark white

          Best use: Like potato, particularly boiled or deep fried; grated into breads or desserts