Mashed Cassava

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I ate mashed cassava for the first time and it’s pretty amazing! I was expecting something pretty similar to American style mashed potatoes, but with a little Costa Rican twist. It’s savory and fun to eat, but it also inspired me to learn a bit more about cassava and the history of Costa Rica.

Me with a huge smile serving a fork with a bit of mashed cassava on top.

While I was expecting something like mashed potatoes, mashed cassava is surprisingly gummy and soft in a way that reminds me of warm mochi (mashed glutenous rice) and poi (mashed taro). It feels just a little bit sticky and chewy but still very easy to eat bite by bite.

My experience with cassava is very Vietnamese oriented because, well, I’m half Viet. San Jose, California has the largest concentration of Vietnamese outside of their home country which gave my childhood a strong sense of my ancestral culture and cuisine. Cassava is a pretty foundational carb in Vietnam. In chè (sweet desert drink), cassava is chunky and starchy like real taro milk teas. In bánh khoai mì nướng (cassava cakes), it acts as the foundational starch forming a cake vaguely resembling butter mochi when it’s extra crispy but with a warm stickiness.

That’s why when I found out this little Costa Rican restaurant served mashed cassava, I was pretty interested and confused! I thought it was just a root vegetable grown in the tropical South East Asia. Is this restaurant trying to explore new flavors and textures by including some foreign tastes? Maybe there’s some Asian immigration that brought it over. I know there’s been lots of Asian immigration throughout the world, where Chinese fled the cultural revolution, Vietnamese fled after the fall of Saigon, and Thai intentionally sent out their culinary diplomats.

What tripped me up here is discovering that cassava and yuca are the same! That’s right, those yuca fries that are all deep fried and served in all those health oriented hipster restaurants I’ve been eating all this time are actually the same starchy root vegetable that I’ve always grown up with! Suddenly things make sense, like how yuca fries were so commonly served with tostones (fried smashed plantains) in the Puerto Rican parts of Chicago.

Then it just took a little bit more for me to realize tapioca is just the starch of cassava! Those tapioca pearls in boba, tapioca starch used in noodles… it’s all over the place! It’s interesting to take a step back away from food and just look at constitutes it. So rolled cassava starch makes boba and rolled palm starch makes sago. But then we have Northern Africa rolling wheat flour to make couscous! Same idea but a totally different application. Should we start putting couscous in milk teas too?

A lot of the world cuisine and culture is through various amounts of globalism and colonialism, with Costa Rica being no exception. Why does Costa Rica speak Spanish? Because Spain colonized it. Why is Costa Rica’s currency colón? Because Christopher Columbus is Cristóbal Colón in Spanish. Why is it called Costa Rica? Because Christopher Columbus landed first on a beach here and notice natives wearing lots of gold jewelry and believed that this was a coast of riches. Cassava originated from somewhere around this part of America. Europe imported it and, through vast global trade, cassava eventually made its way to South East Asia.

Steamed white sea bass served on top of mashed cassava and smothered in seafood gravy. Ribbons of carrots balance on top of a slice of grey squash.

I like eating food because it makes me think and learn a lot, not only about culture and history, but also about what I want to incorporate into my life. It kicks me out of my routine. I’m always hunting for new inspiration for what to cook either on a regular basis or for parties. Parties in particular make me excited because I get to share my experience with other people.

The ribbons of carrots on top of a single slice of squash also really interested me. Obviously, there’s an aesthetic appeal to the looping tower of root but I think this style lends itself to be cooked VERY quickly. It’s extremely noticeable how fast Costa Rican food comes out after being ordered. Usually, we wait at most 10 or 15 minutes, versus most places in the United States we can easily wait up to 45 minutes. Is it a cultural thing here to get served fast food? I’m not really sure, but it’s definitely something noticeable.

Also, the seafood gravy — another inspiration bit. If I make anything with shrimp, I peel it and boil the shells in some water to make a shrimp broth, leaving the meat for whatever I originally intended (paella, fried chicken eggs, tacos). Normally, I just boil the shrimp shells for a while, add some salt, and then mix in a bit of dissolved corn starch to thicken it. This is similar to a Chinese style of making any type of sauce or gravy. On the other hand, Kiré served it european style where you make a roux from frying flour in butter and then using that to thicken the seafood stock. Perhaps this is an indication of Spanish colonialism? While it was overly salty in my opinion, the texture really goes well with the dish, strongly resembling a traditional American mashed potato with turkey gravy.

Beyond the difference in texture and consistency, the gravies here also seem to be fairly spiced or even spicy. Maybe it’s the Caribbean influence or maybe it’s the South American influence, in either case, this is another dimension of gravies I’ve never explored and it’s opening up a whole new world of culinary ideas! Gravies are always savory yet kind of bland in a very French European way. It’s a meat reduction with butter and flour. Can we add spices? Can we add more herbs? Can we make it sweet instead of savory? Butter, flour, and milk is foundational to pastries and gravies so I don’t think it’s too far off.

All in all, I found this dish to be super interesting and I learned a lot about colonialism and Costa Rican culture while digging into this. I hope this excites you too! Want to try it? Go visit Kiré located in Koora Hotel in Monteverde, Costa Rica or invite me to your next potluck.

Happy travels y pura vida!

Update Oct 17: I should have waited to write about this because apparently yuca cakes are a thing here too! Remember how I talked about cassava cakes on Vietnamese cuisine? They’re pretty similar! This particular yuca cake is served with condensed milk and is fairly chunky, whereas the Vietnamese one is much less sweet and has a thicker bite. While the Vietnamese cassava cakes are a snack, these Costa Rican yuca cakes are like a dessert—soft, warm, fluffy, sweet.

Top left are “yuca cakes” as described by our nature guide. They served this with fried plantains and recommended to eat with the cheese in the same bite.

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