Your Guide to Caribbean Roots
Across the tropical world, root vegetables are a core part of traditional diets. They are one of the primary sources of healthy carbohydrates and fiber, and are included in almost every meal. In the Caribbean, three varieties reign supreme: malanga, taro, and yuca. The trio even has a nickname: “ground provisions”.
While they’re often referred to as roots, these vegetables are actually corms, which are a swollen, underground portion of the stem, rather than an actual root. Unlike potatoes, these corms grow well in humid, tropical climates. Although they all appear somewhat similar, each has its own history and character.
Here’s what you need to know:
Central & South America
yautía (Puerto Rico/Dominican Republic), malanga (Cuba), new cocoyam (Africa), tisquisque (Costa Rica), oto (Panama), macal (Mexico), quiscamote (Honduras), ocumo (Venezela).
Malanga (often called yautía), is most commonly grown and eaten in the Caribbean, especially Puerto Rico and Cuba. All yautía varieties have a distinct long, tapered shape and a “hairy” appearance. They have dense, starchy flesh with a mild flavor much like an earthy potato with hints of black walnut.
The three most common malanga varieties are:
- MALANGA BLANCA: This is the most common variety, usually available in specialty and ethnic grocery stores. Blanca looks similar to a yam with earthy brown skin, cream-colored flesh, and a tapered shape. It averages around the size of a large sweet potato. The flavor is distinctly nutty.
- MALANGA LILA: Named for its lilac-speckled interior, malanga lila is similar in size, shape, and flavor to blanca with even more nuttiness.
- MALANGA AMARILLA: Grown in wet, bog-like areas, malanga amarilla is a bit different than it’s relatives. It is large and rounded, appearing more like taro root than malanga blanca or lila, and has a beautiful pastel yellow interior.
Used much like a potato, malanga is always peeled and par-boiled until just tender before use. From there, it can be mashed, fried, turned into dough, cooked with flavorful sauces, and more. Malanga breaks down in soups and broths, making it a great thickening agent. It’s also considered one of the most hypoallergenic foods in the world, making it easily digestible for people with allergies – it’s milled into flour, and can be used as a substitute for wheat flour.
Malanga blanca and lila are generally available all year round, whereas malanga amarilla is only available sporadically throughout the year.
South & Southeast Asia
old cocoyam (Africa), malanga coco, gabi (Philippines), khoai (Vietnam), yu-tao (China), pan/kosu (India), mafafa (Colombia), kalo (Hawaii)
The taro plant is a starchy root crop with broad, shiny, elephant-ear-shaped leaves that are highly recognizable. It’s a major food staple in Southeast Asian, South Indian, African, and Pacific Island cultures – and has been for thousands of years! Both the roots and the leaves are edible, but the corms are the most iconic, often called “the potato of the tropics.” You can recognize them from the distinct “ring” pattern that circles their bark-like skin. Easily digestible, these excellent sources of starch and fiber have a mild, lightly acrid flavor, with sweet nutty notes.
There are more than 200 cultivars of taro, but there are two that dominate commercial production:
- EDDOES/EDO: Eddoes are small, ranging in size from that of a fingerling potato to a large lemon. Their flesh can vary from bright-white to off-white. They are considered moister than other cultivars, but they have slightly less flavor (however, they’re great for soaking up robust flavors from sauces and soups).
- DASHEEN/MALANGA COCO: Dasheen is very large with blunt, rounded ends. Its flesh is either cream-colored or white, resembling a water chestnut, and once cooked the flesh becomes pleasantly dry and crumbly with a mild nutty flavor.
Be aware that taro root contains a natural irritant and must be cooked before it can be consumed. It is recommended that those sensitive to certain irritants wear gloves when handling raw taro. Commonly, the thick skin is cut away, the flesh cut into chunks, and the chunks boiled until fork-tender before use. Taro can be mashed, fried, or baked, and incorporated into stews and other dishes. It can even be used in sweets like ice cream and pancakes, and it’s the main ingredient in the popular Hawaiian dish, poi.
Both eddoes and dasheen are available all year round.
cassava, manioc, Brazilian arrowroot, tapioca
Yuca (often misspelled “yucca”) is widely cultivated and common in Latin America, Africa, and parts of Southeast Asia. It is the third largest source of calories in the tropics, behind only rice and maize! Yuca is long, tapered, and has rough, bark-like skin. It’s normal to see a waxy coating on the skin – this is done post-harvest to help protect the tuber during transit, as well as prevent it from drying out. They’re similar in size and shape to a large sweet potato (but usually more narrow), with flesh that is bright white, dense, and grainy. The flavor of yuca is mild, slightly nutty, and sweet.
Due to the presence of trace amounts of cyanide, yuca should not be eaten raw. However, simply removing the skin and boiling yuca will render it safe for consumption. There is a very thin central “core” in yuca that can be easily pulled out of the par-boiled flesh. Once cooked, yuca is incredibly versatile: the root is used both as a potato (boil and then mash, puree, fry, or roast) and to make flours and other starches, such as tapioca. Yuca is popularly used to make fries, mashed cakes, and crispy chips.
Yuca is available year-round.