The starches of Mesoamerica are similar enough to confuse anyone not immersed or actively participating in the local culture. The word tuber, from the Latin tumere meaning to swell, describes these foundation foods even though most are corms. These tubers, corms, roots and stems interchange each other in recipes and you need to be a botanist or a local to distinguish the many variant landraces. They produce vegetatively passing on their exact charachteristic to their offspring but fortunately, they, or something akin, are labeled in US markets if available. Generally, they need to be peeled, baked, boiled or processed to remove the inherent toxins that can irritate the skin, tongue, throat or stomach and in some cases even prove fatal. Historically not always cultivated, but always managed in mixed plots where they were weeded and irrigated to promote growth. With the exception of cassava/yuca they all can be stored and transported for later use and the fresh leaves, stems and flowers of many can also eaten as pot herbs if you have access.
Throughout Mesoamerica and the Caribbean criolla pride existed as the very first generations of migrants adopted or incorporated words from the various differing indigenous language to describe the many new foods, customs and peoples they encountered. Many of the regions had virtually no contact until the Spanish arrived and therefore local farmers gave a plethora of names to the many wild or cultivated plant types. This treacherous linguistic labyrinth, adopted by the Castilian speaking migrants during the first 3 centuries of the post-Colombian period, still exists today making the navigation of the culinary landscape a true odyssey. The Anglo American culture of the Bahamas, Jamaica, Belize, Guiana and the switchbacks on the Portuguese culture and language so agitated the etymological pool that codifying regional dishes and foodstuffs is a daunting task. When you add Chinese, Hindi and African (some 50+ dialects) inputs and the resultant Spanish has an almost indefinable patois. Blacks and slavery have been the two common threads of the lower Eastern Americas and in Panama today 76% of the population is said to be of African descent and 40% Chinese no matter what the rabiblanco’s say. Early Africans comprised an alarmingly large segment of the population and their religion, language, food and customs still resonate in the cultural landscape of the Atlantic Coast’s modern schema.
Cassava: Manioc, Yuca or Tapioca
Cassava, from the Taino (Arawak) casavi meaning flour, has 5000 wild and cultigenic varieties worldwide, each adapted to a different environment and ecological niche, comprising 30% of the annual reported global tuber harvest. This perennial root crop is the most prolific calorie producer on the globe and harvesting cassava is highly labor-intensive providing jobs for its many small scale producers. In addition, its breath of applications and high perishabililty allows farmers to participate in the marketing chain by rudimentary processing methods. There are two major classifications bitter and the sweet, although neither exhibits either character, with the distinction relating more to size and toxicity then any palate values. Low herb like or branched shrubs are usually of the sweet, smaller cormed, less toxic variety while the slender unbranched tree type, usually producing a single corm, represents the bitter. The bitter variety is a higher elevation drier cultivar while the sweet version prefers the lowlands and more irrigation. Both varieties contain sharp oxalic acid crystals that can damage the stomach lining and hydocyanogenic toxins that can prove fatal if not removed by either processing or cooking. Most processed products are made from the bitter variety while the sweet type is what is sold in local and stateside markets so don’t overreact. Subsistence farmers favor the bitter variety because its high toxicity wards off herbivores and insects.
Cassava requires three months of wet conditions to establish itself and then takes 6 to 12 months to mature and the bitter variety can remain in the ground for an amazing 4 years before harvesting. Bitter cassava usually has a larger, often singular, tuber with 50 times more toxin then the smaller multiple corms of the sweet cultivar. The freshly harvested cooked leaves of the sweet variety are eaten as pot greens or challoos, from the Mandingo coliu, a spinach like plant, and the raw unprocessed corm can be used for livestock fodder. In both types, the woody heart running down the tubers axis and the peel need to be removed since they contain the most hydrocyanic toxins. By carefully excavating around the main root, the smaller tubers of the sweeter variety can be harvested without killing the main corm. This mother corm can then be reburied to produce another crop in less than a year, a definite boon for the small subsistence farmer and his family, and because of this ability, some patches can produce for up to 15 years.
Cassava is ubiquitous foundation food known throughout the Caribbean and the lower Americas. It has many wild relatives making it hard to identify for the novice. Its long lasting bread or meal expands up to five times in volume when eaten displacing hunger. It is easy to transport and can last a year or more making cassabe a welcomed provision for the early Spanish land explorers. The masticated tuber, meal or bread is fermented to make chicha a slightly alcoholic beverage. You can boil, fry, mash, steam or, wrapped in banana leaves, bake it near an open fire. The processed roasted tuber is used as porridge, flour, a table condiment in Brazil called farinha and farofa respectively, and a pounded paste is used to make the African inspired fufu. Cassava has been revered and depicted in pottery and jewelry artifacts from the pre-Columbian cultures of the area and was introduced by the Portuguese into Africa and traveled back to the Caribbean with the slave trade. The Spanish took it to the Philippines where it continued to tropical Asia. When the strained juices are reduced with cinnamon, cloves and molasses the resultant liquid is called casareep, a latex loaded condiment, used in Caribbean pepper pot that has been shown to be antiseptic and is said to preserve meats brought to a boil in it for days without refrigeration. Tapioca ( Tupi-Guarani tipi and ok meaning residue squeeze out) pearls or flakes are formed when the processed tuber is cooked on a hot griddle, and the boiled starch was used to stiffen the ruffles and collars of 16th and 17th century European fashionistas and 19th and 20th century Americans until it was replaced by cornstarch in aerosol cans.
A staple in a region prone to famine, cassava tolerates high temperatures, flooding and drought but has recently come under attack in East Africa by a virus that causes brown streak disease. Scientists have developed a variety of cassava that resists the virus, by inserting fragments of the virus into the plant’s DNA, prompting it to turn on its natural immune response. One such cassava, developed by the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, is in field tests in Uganda; another, developed by a team of scientists at ETH Zurich, is awaiting permission to be tested in Kenya and Nigeria.
Otoe: American Taro, Eddoe, Dasheen, Cocoyé, Cocoyam Old & New
Taro , or one of it’s 1500 cousins, and their leaves are a foundation food for 10% of the globe’s tropical residents. But unless you’re a biotatnist the only way to differentiate one cousin from another is the location of the leaf on the stem. But since you’ll rarely be gathering your own just ask the green grocer maybe he’ll know. Both wet and dry varieties are originally from India or Malaysia and Panamanians prefer the smaller top shaped variety over the larger elongated tuber. The word Otoe is probably a Taino term and it’s use is pretty much limited to Panama while others terms are used in the Caribbean and locations of Central America. Taro can produce up to three crops a year often from the same plant if treated correctly and the corm gods favor you.
Taro is an ancient cultivar, no wild types currently exist, that along with the other corms and tubers of Lower America were especially attractive to our hunter gather ancestors. These compact starch laden bundles are harvested by uprooting the plant, cutting off most of the corms and then sticking the plant back in the ground where it will produce yet another crop within the year. Uncooked otoe, like most of the other local tubers, contain sharp crystals of oxalate that can irritate the hands, throat or tongue or act as a carrier of other plant toxins to both animal and human predators. These brown-skinned corms or tubers can be used as one would a potato, and may have white, pink, or purple flecked flesh when peeled that changes hues as they are cooked. The leaves, flowers and stems can be eaten after boiling like pot greens in at least one change of water and both smaller tubers and the leaves are sometime called dasheen while some know the leaves as callaloo. The various names of taro are illustrative of the Central American name game:
Eddoe is an African word for any of the numerous taro varieties grown there.
Dasheen is a Creole pronunciation “de Chine” that came with that imported cultivar after it was introduced by a French group representing the variety as “Chinese” in a contest to provide English plantation owners with slave food.
Cocoyam is the term given to several tuberous broad leafed plants that shade young cacao plants from the sun and also alludes to old world and new world origins.
Eddo, also called Chinese taro, is a variety that has a smaller main root or corm and many small cormels, but you wouldn’t know that, unless you harvested the specimen yourself.
Malanga: Tanier, Yautia
Malanga and taro are easily confused, not only do they look and taste alike they’re often grown and harvested together, so whose to know? Yautia is closely related to, often confused with and even sold as taro although it’s an American cultivar with numerous different species. The long and hairy main corm has many smaller cormels used to make the porridge or stew like version of the African inspired Fufu. As with the other tubers, the smaller are preferred over the larger mother corm, which are used for animal feed or replanted to produce another crop. The name is applied to other corms/cormels from different species the three most common being blanca, lila/colorada and amarilla. Although all three possess different raw/cooked taste and texture profiles one as good as the next. Malanga tubers are long, often barrel shaped, corms that can have white, yellow or pinkish speckled flesh with speckled skin and in most cases, they resemble each other to the neophyte harvester. They can be planted with other tubers and harvested under the same or different names, which further confuses the issue. They like most of the others foundation corms and their leaves contain sharp calcium oxalate raphides that can cause a mild irritation to the skin or stomach if eaten unpeeled or uncooked.
Name: Mapuey, Cush Cush, Yam
White fleshed yams have been cultivated in both Africa and Central America for at least 5000 years and the naming myth is an entertaining one. When early Portuguese traders saw future slaves digging something up in Guinea they inquired as to the name of the crop that was being harvested. The Africans, not quite sure of the questions, replied “something to eat or food” nyami or nyama in the local dialect. This was spoken by the Portuguese as Inhame, by the Spanish as Igname, by the Panamanian as Name and eventually by the English as Yam. The yam, not the American sweet potato, is a tropical tuber with about 150 varieties used as a foundation food for many subsistence cultures with many varieties named after their place of origin or cultivation. Yams were a staple on board the slavers of the triangle trade where a 500-person ship would lay in 100,000 yams to be cooked in seawater for its human cargo. The true white fleshed purple-skinned yam is not commercially farmed in the US. Yams can be stored for 6 months or more without refrigeration making them an important factor in the food security of the subsistence farmer.
Jicama: Yam Bean Root
A large crunchy sweet tuber, well known in Mexico and related to the Peruvian Ahipa. It has been cultivated for millennia by the Olmecs, Toltec’s, Maya and Mexica and has made such inroads into Asia that many think it originated there. It’s usually eaten raw in salads or sprinkled with citrus juice and perhaps chili powder. The two types, called the aqua and the leche because of the liquid they exude when cut, of this crunchy tuber are not big players on the global menu but they should be. The actual yam bean of one variety is edible but only when it’s young, and like many of the tuber leaves, flowers or stems, only available to knowledgeable locals who know that the mature beans contain highly toxic rotenone.
Sweet Potato: Camote, Axi, Batata, Batata Dulce, Boniato
Batata is an Arawak to Taino word that later evolved into the English term potato even though the “sweet” is not really a potato [Solanum tuberosum]. Traces of early sweets dated to 8,000 BCE have been found in the Tres Ventanas site in Peru and these may be the oldest cultivated plants in the world. The Spanish took them to the Philippines where they spread to Africa and Asia and some think that they traveled to Tahiti in the 14th century along with off course Peruvian sailors.
Sweet potatoes [Ipomoea batatas], almost always mislabeled as a yam, in the US are classified as moist, soft and orange fleshed or dry, firm and white/ yellow-fleshed being assessed by mouth and eye after the “potato” has been baked. Researcher Julian C. Miller, of Louisiana University, had been tweaking sweet potatoes for decades and in 1937, he crossed the Porto Rico Bush strain with existing cultivars creating a new deep orange variety he named the Americano. Imported African Americans had long be calling sweet potatoes nyam, nyami, nyama in several old World African dialects because one the local varieties resembled a comfort food from back home. Therefore, when this new variety was introduced it was labeled and marketed as the yam to distinguish it from the dryer whiter potato being grown. Even though the sweet has been hybridized, the name yam has remained and its production method is surprising to many consumers. When first harvested these potatoes, primarily the Garnet, Jewel or Beauregard varieties, are cured in 85-degree heat at 90% humidity for a week to increases the skin thickness and retard mold. They are then aged for another 6 to 8 weeks to increase their sugar content and heal harvesting cuts before they go to market. The sweet was the first potato, even though it’s actually not a potato, to be introduced to Europe as the batata and today most of the US crop is canned or puréed for baby food while over 700,000 people in China make it a primary food source DAILY. And of course there are many incarnations of the sweet potatoes in the American South.