It is almidón sagrado, or "sacred starch," in the poetry of Dr. Marinaelo 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 Park Street in Hartford.
Where Hartford's Latino business district meets Main Street on the edge of downtown a Colombian restaurant boasts tasty pandebono rolls in various shapes. A colorful sign on the south side of Park makes the Antojitos Donde Julio restaurant hard to miss. The bad news is that here you have to pay for your pandebono; the good news is that unlike in New York, the rest of the meal won't break the bank.
Owner Julio Castano is quite modest about his yuca rolls: "Honestly, my pandebonos are the best in Connecticut. I don't say that; my customers say that."
Somewhere under that rainbow are 1,001 or so places to get yuca fries. You can get them con queso (with cheese) at Barra's Café in East Haven, with a pepper-cheese sauce at Incas in Milford, with mojito sauce at Pacifico in New Haven, or with garlic cilantro mayonnaise at Barco in Hartford. Yuca fries come with the steak at Bodega Taco Bar in Fairfield and Darien.
The cheese-stuffed yuca rellena at Cora Cora in West Hartford is to die for. At Antionio's in Stamford and El Jibarito in New Britain, you can get your yuca with pork rinds (kudos to the twisted pig-shucker who came up with that one). And Bridgeport's El Pueblito should get some kind of award for beef tongue with onion, red peppers and green tomato sauce, served with potatoes, yuca, rice and red beans.
Yuca is also found with the most haute of Latin cuisines. At Barcelona locations from one end of the state to the other, they serve yuca chips as a side with their tuna tartare. At Baro New World Cantina in Fairfield, preparation of the humble yuca rises to a religious level of care. Co-owner Richard Reyes described three of his dishes:
"The yuca frita is a light and fluffy fritter stuffed with aji-amarillo goat cheese and a pepito pesto. It is made by cooking the yuca until it is tender, removing the vein, and then loosening the mixture with butter, salt, and milk.The resulting 'dough' is then rolled into small spheres, stuffed with the aji-amarillo goat cheese, fried to golden perfection."
"The pollo venezalono is essentially the same dough that is rolled out into 'gnocci' like pieces, cut, breaded, and fried without the goat cheese filling. They are served alongside a roasted corn salsa and a chili spice rubbed rotisserie chicken."
"The pato borracho is a slowly braised duck confit that is cooked in chicha de yuca. Chicha de yuca is basically a fermented yuca beer, if you will. The fermentation and earthiness of yuca lends great depth and body to the sweetness of duck. It is served with pickled red onions and saffron aioli for additional 'pop'."
Yum-Ah! It is difficult to figure out why Yankee/Gringo foodies have done so little with this versatile root, but all that is changing now. Connecticut's Latino population is the state's fastest growing segment, and every day, there are more opportunities to explore the rich and diverse facets of Hispanic culture, one bite at a time. Now in places where you might least expect it, you can experience the heart of the yuca.
An eclectic restaurant in Ansonia called CRAVE serves yuca croquettes and yuca arepas "Yuca croquettes are mashed and blended with cheddar and jack cheeses and then rolled in panko," says owner Libby Meissner. "It's accompanied by a sriracha aioli. Yuca arepas are topped with barbecued pork shoulder and guacamole."
Maybe it is no coincidence that Meissner opened a location of the women's store "Only for Her" next door to CRAVE. Of course, the Yuca goddesses should have a place to shop when they visit Connecticut.
Yuca Cuisine In Connecticut
Other Latin American restaurants where you can find yuca dishes. The list is not all-inclusive.
Antojitos Donde Julio, Hartford. 860-724-3379, antojitosdondejulioct.com.
Antonio's Pizza Restaurant, Stamford. 203-353-8700, antoniospizzastamford.com
Barça Tapas, Hartford. 860-724-4444, barcatapasct.com
Baro New World Cantina, Fairfield.
Barra's Café, East Haven. 203-468-6066, barrascafe.com.
Casona Restaurant, Hartford. 860-519-5590, casonahartford.com.
Ceviche Palace, Bridgeport. 203-870-4404.
Collado Restaurant, New Haven. 203-773-4980, colladorestaurant.com.
CRAVE, Ansonia. 203-735-3300, crave102.com.
El Jibarito Salvadoreño, New Britain. 860-832-8898, eljibaritowestmainSt..com.
El Pueblito Restaurant, Bridgeport. 203-334-9002, restauranteelpueblito.com.
Incas Restaurant, Milford. 203-874-0505.
La Fonda Bar Restaurante, Hartford. 860-296-8256, lafondahartford.com.
La Kerencya, Hartford. 860-206-3985, lakerencya.com.
Latino Restaurant, Forestville. 860-585-5642.
Los Gemelos, Norwalk. 203-831-0860, losgemelosresturant.com.
Madi & Mia's, New Haven. 203-782-6234, madiandmia.com.
Pacifico Restaurant, New Haven. 203-772-4002.
Pollos A La Brasa, New London. 860-447-8181.
Sabroso on Main, Middletown. 860-788-3546, sabrosoonmain.com.
Saoco Restaurant, West Haven. 203-389-0038.
Soul De Cuba, New Haven. 203-498-2822, souldecuba.com.
Zafra Cuban Restaurant & Rum Bar, New Haven. 203-859-5342, zafrarumbar.com.