If this native root vegetable of the New World tropics did not have a Linnaean name—Manihot esculenta—we would be forced to navigate among four vernacular names, all of them descendants of Amerindian terms for the same starchy plant. In modern U.S. English, manioc is the least used and therefore sounds exotic and Amazonian. Indeed, it enters the culinary vocabulary in Brazil as mandioca, especially in connection with the flour, farinha de mandioca, served toasted (and then referred to as farofa) with the Brazilian national bean stew, feijoada. Cassava is, especially in the English-speaking Caribbean, a flat bread made from manioc flour. Tapioca is tapioca, the processed little balls that precipitate out of liquefied manioc flour when it is heated. Finally, yuca is the word for M. esculenta in Spanish. Since hispanophones are the principal buyers of this 15-inch-long tuber, yuca is what it is called in U.S. markets. Non-Spanish North Americans fall easily into the mistake of confusing yuca with yucca, an unrelated member of the agave family. Yuca is pronounced you kah. But yucca sounds like yuk kah.*
*Yucca Flat, Nev., was part of the testing ground for nuclear weapons northwest of Las Vegas.
© 2007 Raymond Sokolov. All rights reserved.