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Yuca (pronounced jooka in the Dominican Republic) is also called manioc or cassava root. It is a favorite of Dominicans everywhere. This tuber is fairly easy to grow and can be prepared in many different ways.
The botanical name for Yuca is Manihot esculenta, not to be confused with yucca which is another plant entirely. The plant was originally from brought South America to the Caribbean islands. It is a woody evergreen shrub ranging in height from 6 to 8 feet tall. Ground, the leaves can be used in herbal remedies and the new flowers can be eaten.
Yuca is picked by hand the roots or tubers remind me of a giant, long, hard potato mixed with a deformed pithy carrot. The entire shrub needs to be pulled from the ground and the tubers removed. There are usually many tubers on a single plant. This root is 2 to 3 inches around and can be from 6 to 12 inches (I’ve seen longer) long. It can even look like a kid size, deformed baseball bat. One plant can produce many tubers. The tubers of the sweet yuca are a little smaller than the bitter variety. Yuca grows fast, is plentiful, and can grow from the roots left in the ground or by placing one of the tubers back into the hole where the plant was pulled (just like a potato).
The two main types of Yuca are bitter and sweet. The bitter needs to be rinsed well to remove the poisons and the sweet can just be boiled or eaten raw if so desired.
The tuber is brown on the outside and has a white to cream colored hard flesh on the inside. They don’t have a long shelf life so make sure to put them in the fridge and use them within a few days. As soon as the white flesh is exposed to air it will start turning black. Usually the roots that are purchased in the stores are covered in wax or frozen.
Peeling is a real chore (you can cheat by putting them in the microwave for a few minutes or boiling with the skin on for a short time as this can make the peeling process a little easier). First make sure you have a sharp knife, as this tuber is quite hard and difficult to peal. Since it is so hard cutting it into smaller sections makes the job easier. As you peel the sections make sure to keep the peeled sections in water so they don’t turn brown. Peel the brown outside layer and the thin layer that is between the skin and the flesh. I find it is easier to boil the tubers in salted water for a short time to soften them up a bit, and then peel them. You can remove the core if it is yucky and stringy, if not leave it.
The sweet yucca, after it is cooked, can be eaten as is. I like to pan fry the cooked pieces and get them a little crispy. They are also great cut into strips and deep fried like french fried potatoes. They can be used like a potato and are good in stews and soups. These starchy tubers are an important ingredient in Sancocho. Yuca can be used to thicken up soup just as a potato does. Get some yuca recipes here.
The original inhabitants of the island, the Taino Indians, made a bread using the bitter yucca root. Casabe or Cassava bread is made much the same way then as it is now. It is a Dominican cuisine staple and is a much-desired accompaniment for many typical Dominican dishes. With the commercial preparation of this traditional bread it is again becoming an everyday and readily available food. In the past this bread was made by the locals and distributed only locally by the homemakers that worked hard to make this labor intensive staple. This was a way to make money for their families. Now it is made commercially and is readily available throughout the island. It is even shipped to USA and elsewhere.
To make the Casabe the bitter yucca root must be prepared correctly, as the root is poisonous (containing hydrocyanic acid). The outside brown skin and the hard white layer underneath are pealed away. The core is also discarded and only the inner white flesh is used. The inner white flesh is grated using guayos. Then is soaked. The juice must be squeezed out either in a long canoe type vessel called a matapee or wrung out in a towel to remove the poisonous starch. It is then dried slightly in the open air. Then it needs to be pounded and sifted to make a flour. This flour is then spread on a large, heated, flat round iron pan or mold about 1/8 to 1/4 inch thick. Then it is baked atop a specially shaped oven, called a buren griddle, until set using moderate heat. It is then flipped over and cooked until done and left to dry in the sun until it is crispy.
Casabe bread is high in vegetable fiber, starch, calcium and Vitamin C. It has a very low fat content and is also low in protein. It is can be eaten by persons who are gluten intolerant. This thin, hard round bread can keep for many months without getting stale or moldy. It is used to accompany many Dominican dishes. It is a must have with Asopao/ Soup and Sancocho (I like to just drop it in and let it get soft). It is great baked with a little green (olive) oil and salt. It can be used as a tortilla chip and dipped into just about any dip one could imagine because of its subtle flavor. Slap on some jam and use it like bread. Toast it and use it for dunking in coffee, tea or cocoa. There are so many ways to use this versatile food.
Interesting Yuca Facts and Legends
*Tapioca is also made from the cassava flour, which is also known, as tapioca flour. The pearls and starch of tapioca come from this plant.
*Cassava flour (tapioca flour) is commonly used as a food thickener and is also used as a binder in pharmaceutical tablets.
*Yuca is also the name given to rock music in Venezuela
*The extract from the plant has been used with surprising success on arthritis and rheumatism sufferers in herbal remedies/ Hierbas Medicinales
*The bitter variety may be used to treat scabies, diarrhea, and dysentery. Manioc flour may be used to help dry weeping skin.
*The plant has already been used to eradicate brain tumors in laboratory rats.
*If you’re on a diet 1/4 cup of yuca (considered a starchy vegetable) can count as a starch/ grain serving (according to the
South Beach Diet plan). It is a type B carb falling between brown rice and a baked potato.
*Use starch from the yuca the same way you can use cornstarch
*In old times it was added to wet laundry before ironing as a clothing stiffener.
*Dominican empanadas, deep-fried dough pockets stuffed with meat, are made with yucca flour.
*Panesico are baked logs of yucca flour and pork fat and are considered a specialty of the Cibao region.
*Bolas de yuca are deep-fried balls of yucca flour.
*Jojadra are powdery ginger cookies made of yucca starch.
I have listed a few of the incredibly fresh fruits and nuts that are grown here in the Dominican Republic. If you live here be sure to try something new from time to time. If you are visiting it is a must to taste the fresh fruits that are unfamiliar. You will, most of the time, be in for a wonderful surprise.
The Limoncillo was brought to the island of Hispaniola in pre-Columbian times and thrives in the Caribbean. It is a small round fruit about the size of a lime. The color is green to yellow with a hard, thin, leathery skin. Inside the skin you will find a yellow to pinkish, cantaloupe-colored almost slimy, translucent flesh. This bittersweet layer of flesh covers a large brown, hard seed. Limoncillos are a real treat and the flavor is pleasant. Even though it takes a little work to remove the fruit from the shell and the seed, it is well worth the trouble. Take your time and just think of it as a fun food to eat. They also use the fruit to make juice, jellies and other tasty items.
How to eat Limoncillos
– First you have to crack the skin. Usually, a little fingernail or a bite will achieve this, and it makes a little crack sound. Then push the insides into the mouth. Proceed by moving the fruit around inside the mouth, manipulating it to remove the somewhat slimy flesh from the large seed in the center. It does not look pretty as your face makes all the strange movements. It will take a few fruits to get it right, but once you master this the flesh removal process can go fast. After the sweet flesh is removed spit out the seed.
When spitting be careful, they are a little large and can hurt (I like to aim them at the garbage can and see if I can hit it. Makes it a little more challenging. LOL/jeje!). The next step is to start the process all over and go for another.
The fruit is usually available in July and August. You can buy it on the street in bunches connected by small branches tied with a little twine or grass. A must try!
NOTE – Make sure not to get any of the juice on your clothes. It will stain.
Tamarindo / Tamarind
Tamarindo is a fruit originally from Africa where it grows wild. Tamarind was introduced to Central America around the 16th century and it has thrived ever since. The tree is a slow growing type of evergreen that can get quite large. The fruit is covered in a brown shell and has a sweet/sour taste.
The Tamarind fruit is ugly in appearance. Just remember that they taste much better than they look (when I first saw this fruit it looked to me to be a dirty pod type thing). The pod is ugly and does not look appetizing. The fruit is the same, quite ugly. Yet, when you get past its ugliness and taste the sweetness its appearance seems to change to not be quite so unattractive.
The tamarindo fruit grows in pods on the tree. This pod has a brown shell covering the brown fruit that in turn covers the seeds inside. When the pod is mature it turns a dirty brown. It is filled with seeds, usually between 3 to 6. These seeds are surrounded by a brown, fibrous pulp. When it is ripe the shell of the pod is sort of brittle and can be removed easily. It breaks off and sometimes just falls of when touched roughly. On the inside of the pod, surrounding the seeds, is the sticky pasty pulp. This is the edible part of the fruit. It is sweet and yet sour, acidy and pungent. It is high in Vitamin B and Calcium and can make you a bit relaxed or even tired.
Tamarinds are good eaten fresh and plain. In the Dominican Republic the pulp is used to make a wonderful beverage that when mixed with sugar and water is very refreshing. It can be used for cooking and makes a great sauce, jelly and candy. You can also find it in many stores throughout the country in bags with the shell already removed.
Moringa can be found in most of the markets and on the streets of the Dominican Republic. People walk around carrying what looks like a bunch of weeds selling them to eager customers. This fast-growing plant is used for its miraculous healing attributes. It is one of the most nutritious teas in the world.
Much of the moringa plant is edible by both humans and animals. The leaves are rich in protein, minerals and Vitamins A, B and C. According to Wikipedia feeding the high protein leaves to cattle has been shown to increase weight gain by up to 32% and milk production by 43 to 65%. The seeds contain 30 to 40% oil that is high in oleic acid, while the degreased meal is 61% protein. The defatted meal is a flocculant and can be used in water purification to settle out sediments and undesirable organisms.
Moringa is said to help relieve symptoms of AIDS, reduce high blood pressure, lower blood sugar, increase breast milk production, help cure anemia and to help with diarrhea and dysentery.
I like the leaves made into a tea. For more information about this miracle plant, how to prepare and use moringa visit Moringa Matters.
The Noni tree grows wild in the Dominican Republic. It can be found growing along streets and on the beaches, pretty much everywhere. The plant bears flowers and fruits all year round. It is very stinky when it is ripe with a sort of smelly foot or even vomit odor. Noni fruit starts out green then ripens to a yellowish-white color and is semi-soft to the touch. If you can get past the stink of the fruit is edible either raw, juiced or cooked and the many seeds can be roasted. The fresh fruit and bottled juice can be found in the markets throughout Dominican Republic.
People say the juice of the Noni fruit is very beneficial. It provides energy and is also said to be a great antioxidant that boosts the body’s natural healing process.
For me, I have tried to eat the fruit. I have tried juicing the fruit even trying to mask it with other sweet fruits to hide the taste and smell. I just cannot do it. A friend told me that after time he got used to eating Noni he now eats it right off the tree and he likes the taste. I figure that there are other fruits that have the same benefits that do not smell like rotting flesh or stinky feet so I will pass. You should at least give it a try and see how you feel about Noni fruit. (FYI – Noni is also sold in pill form for those who want the nutrition but cannot handle the smell)
Almendra / Almond
Almendra is an edible nut grown on very large tropical trees. The trees produce flowers that are both male and female in the same tree. The fruit grows in clusters that turns from green to yellow and then to red when it is ripe. The outside red covering is soft and has to be removed to get to the hard shell inside. This shell needs to be cracked open and inside is a small single seed. This is the edible nut.
These seeds or nuts are not as big as the traditional cooking almond, they are long and thin and have the almond flavor. You can purchase them along the streets and in shops in Dominican Republic. They usually are roasted and salted. If you go to Palenque Beach you can usually find someone always selling these nuts in small bags that they picked and roasted themselves to make their living.
The Almendra tree is magnificent. Its large canopy of leaves makes it perfect for sitting under on very hot days. The canopy provides much-welcomed shade just be sure to watch out for falling nuts and when they are in bloom you could be covered with little falling flowers.
Did you know?
The locals say that if you soak the leaves in water you can put it on pet’s to wash away fleas.
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