The Famous 'Yuca' And Latin American Cuisine


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Photo Credit: Flickr Public Domain
By Wayne Jebian
It is almidón sagrado, or “sacred starch,” in the poetry of Dr. Marianella’ Medrano, author of the collection “Diosas de la Yuca” (Goddesses of the Yuca).
Yuca bears no resemblance to the similarly spelled, flowering desert plant called yucca, although yuca is misspelled that way on a surprisingly large number of menus. The yuca is a tuber like the potato and is prepared in some of the same ways, including French fries and chips. It kept native peoples alive for millennia in the Caribbean and South America, and in spite of a takeover by colonial powers, the cuisine has survived to begin a latter-day reconquista, including in Connecticut.
Yuca is known to every Latin American chef, whether the restaurant is Dominican, Peruvian, Colombian or Puerto Rican, and if you don’t see yuca fries on the menu, they can probably be ordered off-menu. Less common variations include Colombian rolls made from yuca flour (pandebono or pandequeso), boiled yuca in sauce (yuca con mojo), or yuca stuffed with queso fresco (yuca rellena). The most popular way to prepare yuca in the Dominican Republic is to sauté it with onions, olive oil and vinegar, according to Medrano, a Dominican native who arrived in New Haven in 1990 and now has a therapy practice in Middlebury.

“Yuca was the main staple of the Taino, the indigenous people of the Dominican Republic, and ‘Diosas de la Yuca’ is a celebration of the spiritual practices of the Taino people,” Medrano says. “If you go to a traditional Dominican household, you’re going to have yuca for breakfast and yuca for dinner.” As a vegetarian, and as someone who needs to steer away from gluten, the yuca is just as important to Medrano as it was to her ancestors.

Medrano says the root can be found at Stop & Shop and other major supermarkets (although North Americans may know it better as Cassava or manioc root). Yuca flour is sold at ethnic markets, although it is often referred to as tapioca flour.
If you have tried gluten-free pizza crusts, breads and pastas and remain unconvinced that any bread that passes muster with the celiac-set could ever be as good as the wheat kind, you might have to head south of the border — 30 miles southwest of Greenwich, to be precise — where your resistance will be overwhelmed by sheer fluffiness. This is the “good bread,” pandebono, served in wooden Dominican cigar boxes at Calle Ocho, a Cuban-owned pan-Latino restaurant in the Excelsior Hotel, across the street from the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan.
These rolls — yes, the pre-dinner kind that come free — are a gluten-free fantasy, like eating a slightly sweet, even more slightly egg-y, sponge-cake of cumulus cloud. If this ultra-cool spot on the Upper West Side could be considered the pot of gold at the end of some yuca rainbow, then the rainbow’s opposite tip touches down on….

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Wayne Jebian is a writer for, he wrote this article for CTNow, where it first appeared.