Ecuador’s Amazon Rainforest offers a wide range of exotic culinary delights, but little did I know that the strangest recipe that I would encounter there is a dish made using only one ingredient. During a weekend excursion into the Oriente, the Amazonian region of the country, our group stayed in a remote thatch-roofed lodge several hours downriver from any of the nearest towns. Between jungle treks, river boat tours, and being immersed in our natural surroundings, one memorable outing was a visit to an indigenous homestead to witness the production of pan-fried yucca bread.
The preparation of yucca bread truly is a direct farm-to-table process in this case, and it was fascinating to witness every step of the way. We arrived via motor canoe to visit a local family living along the riverbank, and began with a tour of their food garden. Alongside their house they were cultivating coffee plants, cacao trees, and various fruits and herbs. Our main interest, however, was their yucca plantation.
Having seen plenty of yucca root being sold in markets all across South America, I never anticipated getting to experience the harvesting process for myself. The modest-sized tree that’s selected gets yanked above the soil after which its enormous roots are hacked off with a machete. Peeling the coarse bark-like skin off of the roots was surprisingly effortless as it slipped right off in your hands. Afterwards the smooth and tender white interior of the root was rinsed and prepped for bread-making.
Next we brought the roots into a small open-aired room where we began grating them into a large carved wooden receptacle (batea) with a sharp metal grater (rallador), which was certainly an arm workout. Once all of the roots were grated into a paste, it was gathered and placed into an innovative draining apparatus made from the bark of a cotton tree (mata frio). Once folded into the container, this was hung from a rung in the ceiling and twisted by hand until all of the liquid had been drained out of it.
After repeating this step several times until all of the yucca paste had been dried, what remained was a fine white flour. We then sifted this through a handmade sifter (cernidor) until it was completely uniform throughout. At this point we could begin the cooking process. A small fire had been lit in the corner of the room with some rocks holding up a large stone plate (tiesto) above the embers. Using half of a coconut shell, we placed a scoop of yucca flour directly onto the plate and used a flat wooden paddle to spread it into a circle, and then flattened it down with the round side of the coconut shell. Once several minutes had passed, the yucca bread easily came off the pan and could be flipped over for another few minutes until completion.
The “bread” could then be eaten with both savory and sweet toppings, rolled into a tortilla, or just enjoyed plain as a snack or side to a regular meal. Yucca is a dietary staple for many South Americans, but especially in the Amazon where indigenous people live off the land with only the foods they are able to harvest for themselves. This starchy tuber, also known as cassava, is similar to a fibrous potato and is quite versatile to cook with in a variety of dishes. Carbohydrate-rich yucca is high in dietary fiber and has more protein than other tropical starches like yams, potatoes, and plantains. It contains a mix of vitamins, minerals, and plant-based nutrients including vitamin K and some B vitamins such as folates, thiamin, pyridoxine, riboflavin, and pantothenic acid, along with important minerals like zinc, magnesium, copper, iron, manganese, and potassium. Phytonutrients such as steroidal saponins and resveratrol also provide health benefits for indigenous communities lacking in wide food variation. Yucca is a uniquely South American food staple and I intend to continue experimenting with its versatility in my own kitchen.