It can be used much like potatoes, but in Latin American cuisine and culture, yuca is much more than just a starch. It’s a sacred staple.
Latin American cuisine is more than just a way to fuel the body. It’s a fragrant, delicious representation of the diverse cultures and history that tie this gorgeous region together. Every country puts its own spin on ingredients, using different spices and preparation methods. This gives each country it’s own distinct flavor that largely stems from the roots of its people. Old World traditions are honored, and indigenous culture blends mellifluously with the Spanish colonial and other immigrant influences.
For as different as the food may taste across Latin America, there’s one ingredient that you’ll always find on the menu: Yuca.
It has been life-sustaining for people throughout South America and the Caribbean, where it remains a key part of cuisine. Although this nutty-flavored vegetable is native to South America, it can also be found in parts of Africa and Asia. Yuca is also becoming increasingly popular here in the United States. It has a high fiber content and is naturally gluten free, making it a delicious baking alternative.
The first time I saw it in my small Northeastern town, I had no idea what it was. Yuca, which is also commonly called cassava, manioc or tapioca, is a starchy tuber that can be up to a foot long and covered in hairy brown skin that has to be peeled before cooking. It can be fried, mashed, boiled, or turned into flour for fabulous baking.
After doing a little research, I couldn’t wait to try my hand at preparing it using some traditional recipes. With such a diverse array of flavorful cuisines to choose from, there is no shortage of delectable ways to prepare yuca.*
*Cooking removes yuca’s naturally occurring hydrocyanic acid. Never eat yuca raw, which can lead to cyanide poisoning.
Yuca Frita: It’s All About the Sauce
The first time I tried preparing yuca on my own, I chose a comforting dish with a familiar flair. Yuca frita is a lot like french fries, although it’s creamier and crispier. This is a dish that’s popular throughout Latin America, but the Bolivian preparation is what got my taste buds going.
While this is a popular snack throughout Latin America, it’s served as a side dish in Bolivia. In the Western part of the country, it’s served much like we serve fresh fries — alongside burgers or grilled chicken. In the Eastern part of the country where it’s more tropical, yuca frita is served with pickled red onions that you scoop up and eat with the fries.
For fries with a creamy inside and a perfectly crisp exterior, I cut the yuca first and parboiled it for about 30 minutes or until it was tender enough to pierce with a fork but still firm enough to keep its shape. Then you fry the sticks in your favorite oil, drain on a paper towel and sprinkle with a little salt. I quick-pickled some red onions to keep the Bolivian flair. But you could also serve it with a garlic-infused mojo like they do in Cuba, an avocado-based aji de aguacate like they do in Colombia, or a creamy chili and cheese sauce like they use in Peru.
A Taste of Havana: Yuca con Mojo
I love bright and tangy flavors, which is why my next foray into cooking yuca had me channeling a classic Cuban side dish. Citrus and spice, garlic and onion. This simultaneously simple yet complex dish is traditionally served as a side along meat dishes, but it’s hearty enough to use as a vegetarian or vegan main dish too.
Since yuca itself is pretty bland and starchy, it practically begs for a zingy sauce to slather it in. Although mojo is a spice blend that came from the Canary Islands, Cuba has infused it into their recipes more than other countries. Cuban mojo always includes garlic and olive oil. Other common ingredients include citrus juice and onion. If you want a bit more herbaceous or earthy flavor, you could add oregano and cumin to this flavorful sauce.
Gluten Free But Full of Flavor: Bojo (Pone) from Suriname
Suriname is a Caribbean country located on South America’s northeastern coast. It has a diverse, rich culture that blends indigenous cuisine with influence from European, African, Indonesian and East Indian people. It’s a coastal, tropical country that, like other Latin American countries, relies on yuca for many of its dishes, including a sweet treat called bojo or pone.
Yuca is naturally gluten free and makes a wonderful wheat alternative for gluten free baking. This recipe has zero flour. Instead, it uses grated yuca as its base. To make it, start by soaking dried fruits in rum or orange juice and grind shredded yuca and coconut with coconut milk to create a paste. That gets mixed with beaten eggs, sugar, butter and vanilla. The end result is moist and dense, and it’s best served warm.
Arepas: Popular Colombian Street Food
Street food is huge in Colombia. The sights and aromas are mouthwatering, and one thing you’re sure to find no matter what city you’re in? Arepas.
From a culinary standpoint, Colombia is known for two main things: Coffee and arepas. Arepas are an iconic staple in every Colombian home, and are served much like bread in Italy or tortillas in Mexico. This is a versatile recipe, used for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks. This popular street food is a delicious way to use yuca.
To make yuca arepas, you boil yuca and grate it while it’s still warm before mixing with a little salt and water to make dough. You can add some egg, milk and grated cheese to add richness to the dough. Then, form burger-sized patties and cook them on a hot griddle, flipping the arepas once the bottom is golden. To achieve a puffier arepa, arrange them on a baking sheet and place them in a hot oven for 10 minutes or so. Once you’re ready to eat them, split them open and fill with your favorite fillings.
Yuca con Chicharrón: A Specialty of Honduras and El Salvador
Crispy, tangy, spicy and delectable. Those are just four of the words that I’d use to describe yuca con chicharrón, one of the most popular dishes in both El Salvador and Honduras. In El Salvador, yuca is boiled or fried. Then it gets topped with a pickled cabbage salad, salsa roja and fried pork belly or pork rinds (chicharrón). Street vendors typically use banana leaves in place of plates and the tangy cabbage is usually in jars in the front of the stalls or on nearby tables so you can add as much as you like.
The Foundation of the Taino Diet: Cassava Bread (Casabe)
This gluten free bread is one of the oldest dishes in the Dominican heritage and a staple of the Taino diet. The Taino and Arawak societies were two of five kingdoms on what was then the island of Hispaniola. Yuca itself was an important ingredient, revered by indigenous people.
This crispy flatbread remains popular in Dominican households. To make it using the traditional technique, you need to peel, wash and grind yuca before compressing and sieving it. Then, you can shape and bake it. Modern recipes call for varieties to spice things up. Sweet casabes might be filled with pineapple or guava jam. Savory versions may get an infusion with garlic or parmesan.
Whether fried, boiled, ground or mashed, yuca’s versatile culinary capabilities thrive in Latin America’s culture. Each country’s unique spin and recipes prove that this coveted root is not only considered a life-sustaining ingredient, but a delicious part of Latin American cuisine.