by Wynter Holden
I've heard of it. I've seen it on menus. But honestly, I had no idea what the heck it was. So when I spotted cassava as a solo ingredient on the tapas menu at Havana Café in Phoenix, I figured it was about time I got acquainted with this starchy staple.
If you've got Cuban roots, or are well-versed in ethic cuisines, you've probably seen or cooked with cassava; but you might not know everything about its origins. Also called yuca or manioc, cassava's a small, leafy shrub which grows well in tropical climates. The plant itself is poisonous. Not Japanese blowfish poisonous, mind you, but still pretty fierce. Chances are pretty good that unless you're downing the raw leaves daily, you won't die from it. Still, one yuca plant actually produces enough cyanide from a naturally-occurring chemical reaction that it could easily kill the family pet.
The cassava root is a staple of Cuban, African and South American cuisines. It's got a thick brown bark-like skin that resembles the outside of a potato. And, like potatoes, yuca roots are an excellent source of carbs. Yeah, like I need more of those. Then again, the menu item I was salivating over at Havana Café was listed as Yuca Frita (Fries) with banana-guava ketchup, so what did I think I was getting?
The whole poisonous thing might have been a turnoff, until I realized where I'd seen manioc before. Turns out that I've been eating it since I was about five years old, and it's one of my favorite comfort desserts. Tapioca pudding is just pearls of processed yuca root combined with sugar and milk. And since I've never had so much as a stomach ache from tapioca, I'll be ordering a heaping plate of those fritas next time I drop by Havana Café for lunch.