Many of us are used to seeing our potato consumption go up during Passover. After all, potatoes (and potato starch) often stand in for the carbs we’re used to eating during the year: pasta, bread and, if you don’t eat kitniyot, rice.
But we can look to Latin America for another starch that does the job (and more!) when the potatoes get old. Yuca (also known as cassava, manioc and tapioca) is a starchy, tuberous root that also originated in the New World, but, unlike its cousin the potato, didn’t quite catch on in Europe.
Spanish and Portuguese colonizers found that the climate in the New World largely favored cassava (and therefore cassava bread), and not wheat, which they were used to growing and eating, so under them, cultivation and consumption of cassava continued, with production of cassava bread becoming Cuba’s first industry. In the 16th century, Portuguese traders introduced cassava to Africa and, along with Spanish traders, to Asia, and it became a staple crop on both continents, replacing local crops.
A mildly flavored, versatile root, yuca, which can be found frozen or fresh in the Latin section of most supermarkets, can be boiled, mashed, baked and fried. It is used in a wide variety of dishes through Latin America and the Caribbean. Boiled chunks are often used in soups or stews, but it can also be fried much like french fries or chips and even mashed into a dough and then filled (often with meat). Cassava flour or tapioca flour/starch is also used to make baked goods, like chewy Brazilian pão de queijo.
My godfather is Cuban, and he often makes yuca dishes, including my favorite Yuca with Garlic Mojo Marinade. It’s vegan, gluten-free, simple to make and a perfect Passover side dish. Heavy on olive oil and garlic, two staple ingredients in Sephardic cooking, it celebrates the diversity of the Jewish experience and the wandering Jew. Plus, it’s a tribute to the Latin American countries that accepted Jewish refugee immigrants.
In the 1920s and 1930s, many countries—Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico in particular—opened their borders to Jewish populations after the United States imposed quotas on European arrivals becoming a safe haven for Jews seeking safety. In the 1940s, as many fled Nazi Germany’s European takeover, there were new restrictions placed on visas that were granted to Jews. An estimated 20,000 Holocaust survivors resettled in places like Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Panama, among other countries.
Today, about half a million souls of Jewish descent live in Latin America. Many of them have made—yes, you guessed it—yuca a staple of their diets, even in traditionally Ashkenazi dishes, like cholent, kugel and latkes.
This Passover, ditch the potatoes out and try yuca instead. You might just find a new favorite.