After presenting a Cuban dish whose origins are primarily Spanish and another of West African extraction, it is only fitting that I present an unambiguous Taíno contribution to Antillean Hispanic cuisine: yuca.
Yuca is the Taíno word for the plant known elsewhere as manioc and cassava and to scientists as Manihot esculenta. The fact that there are three words for this plant and none of them are “yucca” is the source of endless confusion for Americans who encounter M. esculenta in world cuisine. The Taíno term was erroneously co-opted and misspelled as the name of the unrelated but superficially similar desert succulent plant genus Yucca, familiar to the denizens of the American southwest and kin to the agaves used to make tequila. Meanwhile, the Taíno word for yuca flatbread, kasabe, became the word for the plant and most of its products in English and other languages. French, instead, derived its word from the Tupí word for the same plant, mandioca, providing the third name manioc when this, too, visited English. Tupí also provided the word tapioca, used for the powdered starch of the yuca root.
Yuca originated in South America, and its Neotropical biogeography is intimately tied to the migrations of the Arawakan peoples. Speakers of an Arawakan-Maipurean language populated the Antilles from the south and became the Taínos of the northern Antilles, bringing South American crops and farming practices with them. Prior to European contact, yuca was unknown outside of the Arawakan cultural sphere in the Caribbean and South America, not even crossing the Straits of Florida. After contact, French, Spanish, and Portuguese imperialists spread yuca to their African, South Asian, Southeast Asian, and South Pacific colonies, transforming it from an Arawakan to a pan-tropical culinary staple, with distinctive preparations and local names throughout. The plant’s extreme drought tolerance and ability to thrive in poor soil (themes in Puerto Rican and Cuban cuisine) and enormous carbohydrate density encouraged its spread around the world and its use as food for enslaved populations.
In most situations, yuca takes a role similar to the many uses Europe found for another indigenous American root vegetable that is inedible and toxic when uncooked: the potato. Additionally, its peculiar flavor profile and selection of specific starches means it can become the tapioca pearls in bubble tea, an assortment of sweet puddings, and other applications for which there is no potato equivalent. Yuca is very bland on its own and benefits from spices and intense sauces. The best-known historical use for yuca is as flour for kasabe flatbread (the basis of Cubans’ stereotypical fondness for Export Soda crackers), a practice still undertaken in much of the Caribbean but no longer common in Cuba and Puerto Rico.
I have four different experiences of yuca: boiled, fried, in stews, and as poutine (a Canadian specialty). Because of the similarity of the steps involved, this article will discuss boiled yuca, fried yuca, and yuca poutine. Credit where credit is due: I first encountered yuca poutine in Ottawa’s finest Salvadoran and Tex-Mex restaurant, Tukán, and highly recommend theirs.
You will need your favorite vegetable-peeling and chopping tools. You will need a pressure cooker or large pot and any associated heat source. For fried yuca, you will also need a deep fryer or a frying pan and associated heat source. You will also need tools for serving. Yuca is traditionally served with any of various sauces; these are mentioned where appropriate but not offered as recipes here.
- Yuca root, 1 (usually about 30 cm in length)
- Water for boiling
- Garlic, 3 cloves, minced or pressed
- Cumin, 3 tablespoons
- Salt, 1 tablespoon
- Vinegar, ½ cup
- Dried hot pepper, 1
- Kosher salt for garnishing. The larger flakes provide more intense flavor than cubed salt.
- (Boiled only) Spanish onion, 1, chopped
- (Frying or poutine only) Oil for frying or deep-frying
- (Poutine only) St. Albert’s white cheese curds
Yuca, especially when fried, is traditionally served with any of various sauces, among which are mojo, chili sauce, and cilantro cream sauce. Poutine is normally served with brown sauce and is not poutine without a sauce. These sauces are mentioned where appropriate but left to the reader to choose between and to discover on their own.
Common Food Restrictions
- Gluten-Free: Boiled yuca and yuca frita are naturally gluten-free. Yuca poutine is as gluten-free as the flour used in its gravy.
- Ketogenic / Low-Carb: Yuca has the highest carbohydrate density of any plant used to feed humans. This food item cannot be made low-carb.
- Low-FODMAP: Reduce garlic and onion use for a version safer for a low-FODMAP diet. Boiled yuca and yuca frita are otherwise FODMAP-friendly. Note that the gravy used for poutine is usually based on wheat flour and that St-Albert’s cheese curds may contain too much lactose to be readily palatable.
- Vegetarian/Vegan: Boiled yuca and yuca frita are naturally vegan. Use alternatives to cheese and gravy for vegan yuca poutine.
These steps are shared between all three preparations discussed here.
- Peel the yuca, being sure to remove both the bark-like skin and the purple layer beneath.
- Section lengthwise and remove the fibrous core. These vascular bundles do not soften during cooking and remain inedible. Remove any areas at the top and tip with similar textures. Discard.
- Cut into wedges approximately 1.5 cm wide and 10 cm long.
- Place the yuca in water in your boiling pot or pressure cooker, making sure all of the yuca is covered.
- Add the garlic, cumin, bay leaf, salt, vinegar, and dried hot pepper to the water.
- Boil covered for at least 45 minutes (adding more water after 20 min), or pressure-cook for at least 20 minutes. Start these clocks when the water boils or when the cooker pressurizes. The yuca is ready when it is soft against a fork.
- Strain the yuca out of the water. Allow it to drain. Save the water for use in cooking rice or potatoes for extra nutrition and flavor.
- Proceed to the recipes below as needed to complete your goal.
- Garnish with raw Spanish onion and kosher salt. Serve alongside a protein and a salad. The above yuca recipe pairs particularly well with chicken or fish made with Cuban mojo containing naranja agria.
Use this procedure for fried yuca (yuca frita) and before the steps described under “Yuca Poutine.”
- Heat oil in frying pan or deep fryer to 375°F or until drops of water sizzle against the oil.
- If pan-frying, add yuca and rotate until all sides are golden-brown, usually several minutes. For crispier fries, fry for longer to firm the insides. If deep-frying, drop into hot oil and cook for several minutes until desired level of golden-brown texture and stiffness is achieved.
- If not making into poutine, garnish with kosher salt and serve with desired sauce, such as mojo, cilantro cream sauce, or chili sauce. Yuca frita can serve as an appetizer or as the carbohydrate portion of a meal that also contains a protein portion and a salad.
- Complete the steps under “Yuca, Fried” above.
- Mix the yuca with St. Albert’s cheese curds in a bowl to the desired cheesiness. Pour still-hot brown sauce (or another sauce of choice) over the mix to the desired sauciness.
- Yuca poutine is potentially heavy enough to be a stand-alone lunch but, more often, serves as a particularly generous appetizer, best shared.
Yuca is a Caribbean classic that surprises and delights newcomers to my cultures’ cuisines. It serves as a versatile vehicle for many flavors and has more texture than potato, allowing it to take many gastronomical roles. I rapidly grow to miss it when I haven’t had any in some time. When my thoughts again turn to Tukán and how it’s been far too long since my last visit, it’s usually their poutine de yuca that pulls me back. When I get suddenly excited about Havana Café, Ottawa’s finest Cuban restaurant, it starts with their yuca frita (and their tostones…but that’s a recipe for another day). I hope these recipes serve you well in your culinary education, and in your bellies.