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Exploring Florida’s Latin roots

April 19, 2011

Guest Post written by Gretchen Schmidt, Writer – Edible South Florida

You don’t have to dig deep to find tropical tubers on South Florida menus. Restaurants and home kitchens serve up lechon with yuca swimming in garlicky mojo sauce, crunchy fritters of malanga, and boniatillo, the creamy classic sweet potato pudding.

But while tubers and starchy roots were part of Native American diets for thousands of years, in South Florida, vegetables like yuca, malanga and boniato took root in a big way around 50 years ago when Cuban refugees came here, bringing “an appetite for starchy foods,” according to the 1963 annual report of the Dade County Agricultural Agent’s Office. Many of the new arrivals, who’d never farmed before, set out to grow their beloved tubers in Homestead and the Redland. Some operations grew into sizeable businesses. J&C Tropicals, today a major importer of tropical fruits and vegetables, started in 1965 primarily growing boniato and malanga, using seeds sent by mail from Cuba. Today, those roots continue to be part of their product line. Miami-Dade produces 99 percent of the state’s malanga crop and 97 percent of the state’s sweet potatoes, according to the Dade County Farm Bureau.

Cubans are, of course, not the only ones to hold starchy tubers in such esteem – these are staples in Central and South America, as well as Africa and Asia. To find out more, we turned to Cuban-born culinary historian, chef and restaurateur Maricel Presilla, whose love affair with roots began with backyard ñames – white yams – in Cuba. Two years ago, her menu at President Obama’s Fiesta Latina reception included malanga chips used as a base for roast pork canapés and a Puerto Rican tamal made with raw grated malanga.

“Tropical tubers are more complex in taste than potatoes and their texture and level of sweetness is also different,” she says. “Yuca has a subtle mealy sweetness. Boniato is sweet and dry like a chestnut, and not overly sweet and watery as the American yam. The white yam (ñame) is not sweet at all but it has a coarser texture than potatoes. Malanga is like taro, but it has a finer texture and an equally earthy, truffle-like flavor. It is the best choice for a fine, smooth puree.

For more on tropical recipes, visit and click on the digital edition. Or to find recipes, click on Recipes.

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