The yucca plant is also known as manioc or cassava. It is a woody shrub currently found in most tropical and subtropical climates worldwide and was domesticated because of the manifold properties of its tuberlike roots. Yuccas are grown in both "sweet" and "bitter" varieties, not because of their inherent flavor, but because the "bitter" variety contains high concentrations of chemicals which act as a natural pest deterrent.
The yucca root grows between 6 inches to 1 foot long in a cluster beneath a singular fleshy stalk and wide, waxy leaves. Yuccas bear great physical similarity to sweet potatoes in the fibrous tendrils extending from the central tuber, which has a craggy barklike hide that is not actually detached from the root's flesh and can be pealed away with a sharp tug. Coloring ranges from dark brown to grey, with the flesh being starch white and firm to the touch. Yucca roots are high in carbohydrates, calcium, phosphorous and vitamin C.
According to studies performed by the National Academies of the Sciences of the United States of America, the yucca root originated in Brazil and was domesticated around 10,000 BC. From there, cultivation spread throughout Pre-Colombian Mesoamerica with the growth of the Mayan, Inca, and Aztec Empires, reaching the Caribbean islands by the time Portuguese explorers arrived in the early 1400s. At that point, Portuguese and Spanish travelers brought it to trade in West Africa, India, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand, China, Polynesia and other South East Asian nations, where it is still cultivated today.
Yucca roots are the third most prevalent staple food worldwide, behind rice and potatoes. As a result, cultural dishes across the world use it as a primary ingredient. It can be powdered and made into cakes, mashed, chipped, deep fried, baked and stewed. The sweet variety of yucca root is used to make liquor by the native people of Guyana as well as a number of the indigenous tribes of the Amazon rainforest. Since 2007, the Development Plan for Renewable Energy instituted in China has led to the creation of a biofuel processing plant in Beihei, which utilizes the starchy quality and short growing time of yucca roots to produce ethanol.
Coeliac disease is a progressive disorder in which the body reacts adversely to food containing wheat gluten. As yucca roots contain no gluten, they are a prescribed long-term alternative to wheat-based bread products. They can be powdered and dried, after which they act and taste no different than flour in baking. In Brazil, tea and soup derived from yucca root are a traditional treatment for malaria and diarrhea. This is primarily due to the diuretic qualities of the root.
While yucca roots are often used as an alternative to potatoes for carbohydrates in the South American diet, raw yucca roots contain low concentrations of a chemical similar to cyanide. Eating several yucca roots raw is sufficient to kill a full grown adult. This means yucca roots must be processed in one of several ways to allow for safe consumption. These processing methods vary from culture to culture, but usually involve grinding up the root, rinsing out all its juices, and then boiling, frying or fermenting it. Insufficient care taken in processing can result in a paralytic neurological disease known as konzo.