Mora, our sweet blackberries, are an unequivocally delicious fruit. They look and taste just like, well, blackberries. They’re tremendously popular in Costa Rica. Mora juice or concentrate is incorporated in many desserts, yoghurts, puddings, smoothies, candies and jams – you name it, it comes in mora flavor!
As one walks through the aisles of the feria, it becomes apparent that certain foods are dietary staples in Central America. Namely starchy root vegetables, like potatoes, sweet potatoes, cassava and taro. Especially taro is a very confusing veggie for the uninitiated. First of all, taro root has any number of regional names, which are associated with the three most common varieties of the … Elephant Ear plant. Yes, many Gringos grow taro as an ornamental plant in their gardens, showing off the huge leaves. Secondly, just look at these hairy beasts! How does one turn this into food?
Taro, dasheen and cocoyam are all names for Colocasia esculenta sp., which is the elephant ear species used all over Asia and Africa, but also, maybe, Trinidad. Whereas eddoe refers to a Colocasia esculenta variety specific to Japan. However malanga, chamol, yautía, bore, ñampi or tiquisque, as it is called in (finally) Costa Rica, is not a Colocasia, but a Xanthosoma elephant ear. Let’s settle on ñampi and tiquisque, shall we? I’ve neither prepared nor tasted these critters so far, but after reading so much about it, I’ll have to give it a try soon.
One has to be careful handling raw tiquisque or ñampi, though. They contain calcium oxalate crystals, which can cause skin irritations. The farmer called the hairier, older (?) roots ñampi and the fresher looking, less hairy specimen tiquisque, at least, I think he did. It’s a challenge for a poor-to-non Spanish speaker to conduct such a botanical discurse. I need to find an English speaking farmer to explain the finer details of tiquisque, which, technically, aren’t roots, but corms. A corm is an underground portion of the stem. Plants store extra energy there, that’s why they make such rich foods.
Camote, sweet potato, is another staple here abouts. The pink skinned camotes grown in Costa Rica aren’t immediately recognizable, but their flavor is much the same. The Maya loved sweet potatoes, as did, presumably, all other Meso-American peoples. One favorite CR recipe combines mashed camote with copious amounts of butter, powdered milk, sugar and grated cheese. Oh, the calories!!
Our last root vegetable, the cassava, is another stranger, if only to me. I learned on Wiki that the manioc tuber was most likely first domesticated in Brazil, possibly as much as 10 000 years ago. The Moche civilization in Peru considered the yuca important enough to depict it in their amazing ceramic art. Tapioca is the name for the dried and pearlized manioc, many will know as pudding or baby food. And speaking of manioc as a major dietary source of carbs, it’s important to be aware that it also contains quite a bit of cyanide. Remember ricin? That deadly poison also derives from an Euphorbiaceae plant. These guys can be extremely dangerous! One has to peel, core and boil manioc carefully, to avoid problems. Manioc is very drought tolerant, which has made it a major food source in the poorest of regions, especially in Africa, but it contains very low levels of protein. That presents the risk of malnutrition in apparently well fed people.