Roots are something often discussed in the Caribbean, either for nostalgia or for dinner. Forming a substantial part of Caribbean cuisine, but increasingly under threat from the quick-release carbohydrate of American fast food, root tubers are assembled and sold under the heading “Ground Provisions.” Fearsomely substantial, healthy, and magnificent at absorbing the flavors of, say, salt fish or stewed goat, provisions are found in abundance in Caribbean markets or overseas Caribbean supermarkets, and can be stored for weeks.
Sweet potatoes were brought to the Caribbean by Amerindians from South America centuries ago, and were an established island staple long before the root was “discovered” as a super food packed with vitamins and antioxidants. In the US, they are called “Yams” to add to the confusion, but in the Caribbean they are easily identifiable whether the inside flesh is orange, yellow or white. Sweet potatoes can be prepared like normal potato to make an alternative to chips or French fries.
Yams, on the other hand, have a West African background where the often giant tubers are still revered in Nigeria during the Yam Festival. With a rough, brown, earthy skin, yams yield after a little tussle to heat and can be boiled or baked. Take care to avoid excessive contact with the raw flesh which leaks an irritating juice which is slightly toxic. Expect to find yam chunks, sweet and tacky to the touch, alongside saltfish or scrambled eggs for breakfast in Jamaica, or tossed into a stew all over the Caribbean to add bulk.
Cassava is also known as manioc, yucca, and casabe, and is distinguished by its waxy brown bark, which must be removed entirely. Another provision which must be cooked entirely to remove toxins, cassava goes great in stews or can be grated to make flour for the delicious cassava bread.
Taro, which is also called dasheen, is the subterranean counterpart of the bush which produces callalloo leaves. Yet another provision which irritates the skin when raw, taro needs little more than peeling and boiling to produce a sturdy side dish with a dense, nutty flavor which balances well with salted meats or scotch bonnet peppers.
Even though it is a part of the banana family, the plantain is treated as a ground provision in the Caribbean, where it is ubiquitous. Harvested green, and often boiled with the skin still on along with saltfish or salted meat, plantain has a fibrous but gummy texture with a little sweetness. Alternatively, it is fried and flattened, either to make plantain chips or tostones. Mashed plantain is called mangu in the Dominican Republic, where it is served for breakfast.