(Xanthosoma sp. – Family Araceae)
Malanga (Cuba), yautía (Puerto Rico), tannia (English West Indies), cocoyam, coco, tanier, lila, taro (names overlap with other similar tubers)
This potato-like vegetable consists of corms and cormels, and not tubers, which is only just the beginning of the confusion.
Tannia is a corruption of the original Caribbean name taia. Most of the names are local ones used to describe the various colours and attached to whatever is customary in the region, but might also include vegetables from other species.
Xanthosoma species are native to the American tropics and belong to the same family as the taro (Colocasia esculenta), a plant from the Old World.
Some forms of malanga and taro resemble each other enough to have resulted in dozens of overlapping names. Adding to the confusion, these similar vegetables are often planted side-by-side and harvested together and, no doubt, creating new varieties along the way.
After Xanthosoma was introduced to the South Pacific by botanists in the early 1900s, yet another batch of names arose. The malanga types sold in the US are imported from Central America which can, to the untrained eye, be very similar to the taro. The young leaves of some varieties are also used as an important green vegetable throughout the tropics.
Many malanga cormels are elongated and tapered, bumpy and crumply, with shaggy, scaly skin that does not quite cover the flesh.
The corms may be a foot long, brown or yellowish on the outside, and ivory or yellowish on the inside. The skin is thick and often exhibits a ring pattern towards the apex and, unlike the taro, are blunt and potato-like in shape.
They weigh between one-half pound and two pounds and, when cooked, reach a starchy texture that is either loved or hated. Like the taro, however, malanga tends to have a central corm, with secondary ones forming around it.
They also contain the calcium oxalate crystals, especially in the skin, which has to be neutralized by peeling and cooking. It does have the superior texture and flavour of most starchy tropical roots.
Although similar, malanga grows best in dry places, while taro flourishes in wet ones. In Africa, both are staple foods and known as the old and new cocoyam. They are second in importance to the cassava and yams.
Yautia/malanga blanca (Xanthosoma sagittifolium)
is the most common variety found in the US and varies from a light, earthy, and waxy form to mild and smooth.
Yautia/malanga lila/colorada (X. violaceum)
is simply lila in Cuban markets and has the same club-shaped, scruffy look as the blanca; but the interior is a light grayish-lavender, which turns a putty colour when cooked. The texture is heavier than the white as is the flavour, which has a hint of bacon.
Yautia/malanga amarilla (X. atrovirens)
is very different from the others and cooked differently as well. It is barrel-shaped, ridged, and dense.
It is unusual in that the central or “mother” corm is the part eaten and not the lateral “babies” that surround it. This is the only one of the species where this takes place and, for what reason, is not readily known.
When cooked, the corm is sweet, nutty, and a warm ocher in colour, but extremely dry and dense in texture. It is this dryness that makes it ideal for turning into dough to make local pastries, breads, and desserts.
To cook, the yellow variety must be boiled, cooled, and then pressed through a meat grinder or sturdy food mill and then blended with starches and flavourings to form a dough. It can also be cut into small chunks and added to stews or soups.