The curious looking vegetable you see above appeared in one of our local grocery stores the other day with a label describing it as ‘Yuca Root’. I have actually seen these while travelling down south before but, until now, it was never practical to buy some to sample. The name ‘Yuca’ didn’t mean a great deal to me and it wasn’t until I brought a root home and did an Internet search that I realized I had heard of it before by two of its other names: ‘Manioc’ and ‘Cassava’…
The vegetable is the tuberous root of a woody shrub native to South America. It is particularly easy to grow in marginal soils and is widely grown in Africa as well as Indonesia and many other Pacific Island nations. It is very starchy and thus is a good source of carbohydrate in places where other foodstuffs like potatoes or grains are hard to cultivate.
As you can see, the interior of the root is a solid white color and the consistency, in the raw state is a bit like a Water chestnut (at least in appearance). The rind is quite thick and fibrous and, although it is not easy to see, either in the picture or in the actual root, there is a very tough, though narrow, core that needs to be removed, along with the rind, before further preparation.
Before going further, it is important to know, especially if you are going to try this root yourself, that the raw flesh contains a number of cyanide compounds and can be toxic unless properly processed. Apparently there are a number of procedures, such as soaking and pressing, which are used before further processing in order to remove the toxic compounds, but I also understand (and take on faith) that most cooking methods will also prevent the toxicity.
Having said all that, and being personally forewarned about the potential poisonous qualities, I actually tasted a little piece of the raw flesh and I can happily report that it was nowhere near as bad as I expected. I rather anticipated it would be like that nasty, starchy taste of a raw potato but, instead, it was quite sweetish, and not unlike an under-ripe banana in taste. The texture, however, was very different and, despite the appearance, not much like a Water Chestnut in consistency, being very fibrous and tough. It is perhaps a blessing, given the toxicity, that the root would be extremely difficult to either eat or digest when raw.
Being a starchy tuber, it is not surprising that this vegetable very much lends itself to the same sort of cookery methods of the potato. It is quite frequently just boiled and mashed, but there are a lot of methods whereby it is fried, often after being boiled to tenderize it first, or grated and then formed into patties for frying. It is also sometimes roasted, although, again, parboiling is often employed first.
Like the potato, the root is also dried and ground into a flour for use in many types of recipes where any other sort of flour might be used. I also discovered, to my surprise, that ‘Manioc flour’, as it is widely known, is also processed to become Tapioca starch, which, when formed in ‘pearls’ is used to make the ‘Sago’ or Tapioca pudding’ that my brother and sister and I so despised when served at school dinners in England.
I haven’t yet decided how I will cook the root I just purchased. I will be considering this in the next few days and will naturally post the results. However, if I fail to do so… or if my posts cease unaccountably… it may mean that I ought never to have tried tasting the root in its raw form. In that event, I hope one of my kind readers will notify the appropriate authorities…