El orgullo de ser mocano: People of Moca, Puerto Rico — Ellen Fernandez-Sacco

Lele’s Festival de ñame, 2007
April 4, 2015, 5:37 pm
Filed under: Festival de ñame, food, Moca | Tags: , ,

Lele’s Festival de ñame, Moca, 2007. Photo: Ellen Fernandez-Sacco

In March 2007, Lele set up a stand outside his store in Moca so that a group of friends could share in cooking and eating the delicious root they dug up in the hills the previous day. ñame (NyAH-meh), a variety of yam, grows to various sizes and has pale yellow or white flesh or pith. There are several varieties of yam some, like ñame blanco, Dioscorea rotundata is originally from West Africa; others come from tropical Asia, Brazil and other areas of South America. Dioscorea and its varieties is a plant that’s been cultivated for over 5,000 years around the world. Here Lele made a sancocho, adding oxtail for the broth the ñame cooks in.

I also got to go ñame hunting with my cousin Papo in the hills of a farm that his friend owned. One searched through brush for the right leaves, and with knives began to carve out the soil to yield the root. Large and heavy with moisture, the roots can easily weigh several pounds.

Grated, people make bunuelos de ñame, or have them along with other roots, as in verduras con bacalao, which can include a selection of yuca, batata, malanga, yautia and guineos verdes (green bananas), simply boiled with bacalao (cod fish) on the side, drizzled with olive oil. Mash it, bake it, boil it or sauteed, roots can provide a filling, tasty meal.

“Man coming out of jungle with wild yam ‘cabezo de negro’. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Here’s a photo taken in the 1950s of a man coming out of a jungle carrying a large wild yam on his shoulder from the Library of Congress website. (This yam was not eaten but used as a source for hormones.) Still, it gives an idea of the size these roots can often grow to- and they can reach 130 pounds. Ideas around race are linked to food and that’s reflected in the local name in the image, however where the photo was taken is not mentioned.

Many in Moca know how to differentiate the leaves of different varieties and where they grow. As a child in the Bronx, I learned the varieties from the refrigerated bins in bodegas, with my mother teaching me which root was which from the different shapes and skins.


© Ellen Fernandez-Sacco, 2015