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Spotlight on Tropical Tubers And Other Starchy Staples

Elizabeth Schneider / January 1992

Cuisines from hot climes are flourishing in the United States, and with them, vegetable varieties new to North America's temperate melting pot.

The U.S. Hispanic population, with its far-flung lands of origin, increased 53 percent between 1980 and 1990, according to the Bureau of the Census. Growth in this country's Asian population has been even greater, with a jump of nearly 108 percent over the decade.

These two groups have a common culinary bond: nearly every one of the people counted will have eaten boniato, breadfruit, malanga, plantain, taro, tropical yam or yuca—all parts of a starchy vegetable group called viandas in the Hispanic Caribbean—and will have drawn sustenance from one of these staples upon which so much of tropical cooking depends.

Many restaurants reflect Asian and Hispanic influences, even beyond those devoted exclusively to these cuisines. For example, the number of Asian entrées in "non-ethnic" restaurants has doubled since 1985, according to a recent National Restaurant Association menu analysis.

The ingredients for these dishes, once the province of small local markets, have now entered the mainstream. Bill Schaefer, director of marketing for J.R. Brooks & Son in Homestead, Florida, the country's largest grower, packer and shipper of tropical fruits and vegetables, reports that "over the last three years, we've seen a 500 percent increase in the volume of sales of tropical tubers."

Viandas by any name are a sure menu draw when a customer is familiar with them, whether through cultural nostalgia or firsthand use. They also offer an opportunity for relatively risk-free experimentation, being rather inexpensive, extremely versatile and irresistible when deep fried. No one, it seems, can resist the crunchiness of these extremely starchy roots, which fry to dry, crisp perfection: the plantain served as simple tostones at a Puerto Rican take-out; taro used as the brittle basket cradling seafood specials in Chinese restaurants; malanga found in fine, friable ribbons at a chic multicultural cafe; and the swank assortment of snack chips sold in specialty boutiques.

In their non-fried forms, however, tropical tubers may present a menu hurdle: the stickiness and/or slipperiness for which they are loved in their homelands is an acquired textural preference for some. Testing and sampling are advised.

BONIATO, also called batata, batata dulce, camote and white sweet potato, is just that—a pale sweet potato. Imagine a cross between a sweet potato, a baking potato and a chestnut, and you'll have a sense of the boniato. In the tropics, where the majority is grown, the term "sweet potato" designates a whitish- to peach-fleshed, dryish, semisweet tuber. In North America, the term designates a moist, orangey, very sweet potato, which is also referred to erroneously as "yam" (more on this later).

Choose only rock-hard tubers, without soft or moldy spots. Because the crop is picked year round (summer and fall are peak seasons) and not cured for storage, the thin violet to apricot to cream skin is easily bruised and spoils rapidly.

Store boniato, uncovered, for no more than a few days in a ventilated, fairly humid area at cool room temperature or in the warmer spots in a refrigerator.

To prepare for cooking, peel into a bowl of cold water and refrigerate. These tubers will remain fresh for 24 hours, whether in water or drained, dried, and wrapped tightly in plastic.

Cook boniatos as you would "regular" sweet potatoes, taking into consideration there comparative dryness, pale color, rather delicate flavor and lower sugar content. Bake, fry, boil, roast, steam, sauté, mash, puree, cream, combine in custards and flans, puddings, pies, muffins—the works. When frying, cut thick pieces and do not exceed 325 degrees, or they'll burn. When boiling, keep completely covered with water or the flesh may become spotty.

BREADFRUIT, also called panapen, pana de pepita and fruit à pain, is far less common here than other starches. Used at various stages of ripeness in the French and English Caribbean islands, it requires different treatment at each phase. Imported to the United States, breadfruit is most often green, its solid white flesh similar to a dry potato.

Choose breadfruit that feels dense and hard, not spongy. Available erratically, it weighs generally two to five pounds and may be speckled with a latex-like substance, which is normal. When properly mature, it has evenly sized, evenly colored, well developed "scales." Avoid dented fruit with hard, knotty areas or dark spots.

Store for as short a time as possible. To retard spoilage, which occurs quickly, store in water, refrigerated or not.

To prepare for cooking, quarter lengthwise, cut out the core, then pare off the skin, rinse the pieces and place in acidulated water; at this point, it may be refrigerated up to 24 hours. Once peeled, green breadfruit can also be blanched, drained and frozen.

Cook breadfruit pretty much as you would potatoes: boil, bake, fry, steam, mash, cream and cook in soups (use much more liquid than you would for other starches). Traditionally boiled, the green breadfruit—which must be piping hot, or it is inedibly waxy—makes a fine foil for highly seasoned dishes. Once cooked, it can be sliced and dressed generously with vinaigrette or deep fried, or doused with a piquant coconut, cheese, or cream sauce and reheated.

MALANGA or YAUTIA—equally popular Cuban and Puerto Rican names, respectively—may create more confusion than any vegetable in the tropical vocabulary, The 40-plus species and close resemblance to taro (see below) have produced a score of colloquial names that overlap both malanga and taro: tannia, tannier, malanga amarilla, yautia amarilla, yautia blanca and cocoyam, for starters. Fortunately, malanga and taro types sold in the United States are usually fairly easy to distinguish.

Malanga is shaped like a long sweet potato or a caveman's club, and has shaggy, patchy skin that does not quite cover its flesh. The most widely available specimens weigh about 1/2 to two pounds and have extremely crisp, slippery meat that is tinted cream, yellow or rose. Cooked, this love-it-or-leave-it staple tastes earthy and musty, far more aggressive than most tropical tubers. The texture resembles a blend of cooked dried beans and a waxy potato.

Select relatively light-colored, hard malanga, unblemished by soft, shriveled or moldy areas. Prick the tuber: It should be juicy and crisp, not dried or flexible. Store uncovered, no more than a few days, at around 50 degrees with high humidity, as it dehydrates quickly.

To prepare for cooking, scrub under running water, trim and peel thoroughly, then drop into cold water. Keep up to 24 hours, refrigerated in water or drained and wrapped in plastic.

When fried, malanga excels as spectacularly crisp, full-flavored chips and crunchy savory or sweet fritters. Cooked in other ways, it is best combined with other starches (if experimenting, stay away from baking, which ruins the taste and texture). Boil gently (it disintegrates easily) to serve with highly seasoned dishes. Or press cooked tubers through a food mill, thin with milk and cream, and season well. Malanga begins to dissolve when tender, becoming a smooth natural thickener for soups and stews. Include in tamales or empanada dough.

PLANTAIN, or plátano, is a durable, delicious, easy-to-handle fruit/vegetable that deserves recognition far beyond the tropics—and beyond chips and tostones, however delicious they may be. Each phase of ripeness has culinary fortes: Green to near-yellow, the flavor is bland and the texture starchy—good for boiling and frying; yellow to brown, plantain has a slight fruitiness and fairly firm texture compatible with any course of a meal; black-ripe, it is sweeter and softer (but holds its shape, unlike a banana), a fine dessert subject.

Choose plantain in any form—except when moldy or cracked—to suit the way you want to cook it. (Occasionally it does not ripen properly, but instead hardens, in which case it should be discarded.)

Store the different stages separately: green plantain should be refrigerated; yellow to black should be kept at cool room temperature, well ventilated; black plantain should be used as soon as possible. Like bananas, plantains produce ethylene gas and should be stored away from other fruits and vegetables. Also like bananas, once peeled and wrapped in plastic, they freeze well.

Peeling plantain can be tricky (with the exception of black-ripe specimens, which are peeled banana-style). Rinse the fruit and slice off the tips. Cut into two to four sections, then slit the very thick, stiff peel lengthwise along its four ridges. Remove each strip, starting at a corner and pulling across slightly, rather than down the length of each strip. If the fruit has been chilled too long or is very green, the underlayer may stick and must be pared away, as it tastes bitter and browns when cooked.

For green plantain, deep fry or pan-fry in rounds, diagonals, strips or chunks. Boil to include in spicy soups or stews. Yellow plantains can be cooked these same ways, but will have a creamy texture and light banana scent. Once cooked, they take well to being baked in a savory sauce. Or mash cooked plantain with other starchy vegetables. Or rinse, slit and bake to serve like a potato. Or prick and grill on a low fire, turning and brushing often with oil. For soups, stews, and such, peel before or after cooking; the shape will hold better with the skin left on, but post-cooking peeling is messy. Black-ripe plantain makes a wonderful dessert, particularly when simmered or baked in a fruity sauce.

TARO or DASHEEN, like malanga—with which it is often confused—is tangled in a knot of vernacular names: tannia, eddo, malanga, tannier, malanga isleña, coco, sato imo, woo tau, etc. To further confuse, taro has two distinct forms: One ranges from turnip- to rutabaga-size, is brown, shaggy and roughly barrel-shaped, has protruding rootlets and is marked with rings. The flesh is white, cream or lilac-gray. sometimes dark-speckled and extremely dense. This large taro has a mild artichoke/chestnut flavor and the texture of the latter.

The other form of taro, pale brown and elongated, may sprout pink buds and is as small as a new potato with flesh that is close in color. It is blander and more slippery than the large form, and is favored by the Chinese and Japanese and in parts of the Caribbean Islands, where it is called "eddo," as it often is by distributors.

Choose the large tubers (1/2 to 2 1/2 pounds) when a dry, nutty, sweet effect is desirable, whether chunked or in purees. Select small ones (two to six ounces) for steaming and boiling whole. Taro should be full and hard with no signs of shriveling or molding. If possible, slice to check the moist, firm flesh, which should smell fresh and clean. Store no more than a few days, uncovered, in a single layer, in a cool, well-ventilated spot or the warmest part of the refrigerator.

Prepare taro by slicing off the ends and paring deeply to remove all skin and discolored spots. Place at once in cold water. Refrigerate as is, or drain and wrap in plastic. (Note: taro irritates some peoples' skin. To circumvent this, oil your hands or wear gloves.)

Fried taro has sweetness and crunch that hold remarkably well. It tastes delicious cooked many other ways as well, but looks blotchy or gray. Steam or boil, like potatoes. Add to stews and soups: It absorbs juices without disintegrating and, at the same time, acts as a flavorsome thickener. Parboil and roast with pork and garlic, basting very frequently. Boil and puree with flour, butter, eggs, potatoes, and/or other enrichments to make croquettes, fritters, soufflés and mixtures to be piped and browned. Cook up for dessert, in syrup, chestnut-style, to serve in pieces or pureed.

YAM, ñame (pronounced nyAH-may) and igname (EE-nyahm), the names most often used in the United States, is a true yam—not a sweet potato, which, for a heap of historical and marketing reasons, we mislabel "yam." Although marketed in relatively small quantity here, true yams are one of the world's largest crops and more important staples. They are not related to potatoes, and they are not sweet.

If you say "yam" outside this country, it designates a scruffy, hairy, brown tuber shaped like a log, a mitten or a rhinoceros foot—and it is often as large as the last. The flesh of a true yam is crisp, sticky and of an off-white to yellow tint. Cooked, the flavor is more potato-like than other tropical starches, but the texture is coarser, drier and more granular, and the flavor is less distinct.

Select yams that are regularly shaped and very hard, without cracks or soft or shrunken spots. They are imported and available year round, but the supply is erratic. Prick to be sure the tuber is juicy and slippery. Yams can be stored, uncovered, at relatively warm refrigerator or cool room temperature, for longer periods than other tropical tubers. However, because they are very large and often develop interior discolorations, they are potentially more wasteful than are other tropical tubers, and are best considered for menu specials only. Another option is to purchase frozen, peeled yams.

To prepare for cooking, scrub, cut into large chunks, then peel and pare deeply. Rinse, drop into acidulated water and refrigerate, or drain and refrigerate wrapped tightly in plastic.

Yam works well fried, like all starchy tubers. Boiled, it complements spicy or salty dishes, such as salt cod. It excels when drenched in a hot, creamy, cheesy or garlicky sauce—particularly the Cuban vinaigrette, mojo. Pureed, strained carefully and enriched, it pleases devotees, but may be gluey for others. The puree also can be incorporated into fritters and puddings.

YUCA, CASSAVA or manioc, which is familiar in processed form as tapioca, is loathed by some and adored by others. (Please note that yuca is not yucca, as it is usually spelled. The latter is a huge-leaved member of the agave family and has edible blossoms.) You will be in good company—half the world's—if you fancy its buttery blandness. Dense, softly fibrous, so starchy it becomes almost translucent when cooked, it has a unique, sweet, glutinous chewiness. The swollen roots, shaped like long, narrow sweet potatoes, have a barklike covering and run about 1/2 to five pounds. The solid flesh is as hard and white as coconut.

Selecting the finest yuca—which is market year round— is absolutely crucial to its cooking success. Seek tubers without bald spots and stickiness, mold or hairline cracks. Cut a few pieces to be sure they have no hint of gray-blue fibers, darkening near the skin, or sour smell. Most yuca is heavily waxed to prevent dehydration during its week-plus ocean voyage. Therefore, it is especially important to feel carefully for soft spots.

Storage beyond a few days is not advisable. Keep uncovered, at cool room temperature, in a well ventilated area; or refrigerate—particularly if there are cracks. Yuca may also be peeled and frozen or purchased in that form, which can be even superior to the fresh product.

Prepare yuca as follows: Scrub each tuber and hack into manageable sections. Slit the "bark" lengthwise, then slip a knife under it and the pink underlayer and unwrap both, paring as necessary. Refrigerate up to 24 hours in cold water, or drained and wrapped in plastic.

Yuca is as versatile as the potato, and holds up better once cooked. Fry as chips, fritters and "French fries." Boil (gently, or it will break up) for use in or alongside spicy stews. Puree for doughs and piping mixtures. Grate raw yuca into dumplings, cakes, puddings and breads. Prepare tapioca-style sweets with coconut milk and top with tropical fruit. In short, you can cook just about anything with this obliging tuber if its texture appeals to you.