Most people are familiar with the common staple foods of the frugal community. Rice, beans, pasta, corn, and lentils are rightfully touted for their versatility and affordability. Or maybe you’re in college, and your cupboard is stocked with Top Ramen. (Don’t worry, it gets better.)
As great as those foods are, I like to mix things up by eating three other, lesser-known staple foods: plantains, cassava (yuca), and sorghum. These foods are widely eaten across the world, but relatively underappreciated in mainstream America.
They’re just as cheap as our American favorites, but they have added benefits. For one, they offer variety. Even the most simple eater gets bored every now and then and wants to try something new. Furthermore, they provide a different balance of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants than you’d get were you to stick to a more basic diet.
Here’s a bit about the history and makeup of these exotic staples, as well as some tasty recipes.
My personal favorite of this bunch is the oft overlooked plantain. I say overlooked because they can be easy to confuse with bananas, and are sometimes even referred to as “green bananas” or “cooking bananas.” While plantains are a cousin of the banana and technically a fruit, their texture and high starch content lead them to be treated more like a potato than a banana.
Plantains are originally from Southeast Asia, but they’re now widely consumed all over the world, especially in Africa. In some African nations, plantains provide more than 25% of the calories for over 70 million people.
Since they’re feeding that many people, it’s good to know that plantains are packed with vitamin A, vitamin C, potassium, vitamin B6, and iron.
While very ripe plantains can be eaten raw, most people cook them because of their starchiness. I used to be a fan of boiling them and eating them plain, so my mind was blown upon discovering fancier ways of preparation that tasted much better. Baking is an especially delicious and common preparation method.
This baked plantains recipe is always a hit in my house:
Baked Plantain Chips
- 2 pounds green plantains
- 1/4 cup oil
- Salt and granulated garlic, to taste
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit, with racks in upper and lower thirds. Divide plantains between two rimmed baking sheets. Toss with oil, then arrange in a single layer on sheets. Season with salt and pepper. Bake until golden and crisp, 30 to 35 minutes, rotating sheets and flipping plantains halfway through. Drain plantains on paper towels. Serve with pico de gallo, if desired.
Cassava is a starchy tuber (root vegetable) that is widely eaten in the developing world. It is known as “yuca” in America, but cassava pretty much everywhere else in the world. The fact that America uses a different name feels like the vegetable equivalent of our refusal to adopt the metric system. We Americans love confusing people!
Whatever you call it, cassava is a major source of calories for over a half a billion people worldwide, from Nigeria to South America to Thailand. It’s also a vitamin and mineral powerhouse, with particularly high amounts of vitamin C, folate, manganese, potassium, and choline.
As with all staple foods, cassava is versatile. Anything you can do with a potato, you can do with cassava. It can be fried, baked, boiled, mashed, powdered, and everything in between.
This recipe for boiled cassava with mojo sauce is easy and delicious:
Boiled Cassava with Mojo Sauce
- 3 pounds of yuca
- 4 medium cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon cumin
- 3 tablespoons freshly squeezed orange juice (about one-half of an orange)
- 3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice (about one lime)
- 1/3 cup olive oil
- Chopped parsley, oregano, or cilantro for garnish (optional)
- Peel the yuca and cut into 2-inch pieces along its length. To safely peel the yuca, cut off the end to create a flat, round base. The yuca should be firm and white inside. Stand the yuca on its base on the cutting board for stability to remove the peel with a knife.
- Cut each 2-inch long piece of yuca in half to form half-moon shapes. In a large pot, cover the yuca well with water, by a couple of inches. Bring to a gently rolling boil. Gently boil the yuca for 50 to 60 minutes until it is cooked through. A Cuban trick is to shock the yuca halfway through the cooking time by adding a few cups of cold water and allowing it to come to a boil again. The tradition states that this helps yuca properly open up.
- To make the mojo, or garlic sour sauce: Mix the garlic, salt, cumin, orange juice, and lime juice in a small mixing bowl. Add the olive oil to the bowl and set aside.
- When the yuca is finished cooking, drain and place in your serving dish. Remove the fibrous core that looks like a thick string. While yuca is still hot, pour the mojo sauce over the top. Serve hot. Garnish with a freshly chopped herb sprinkled on top if you’d like.
Sorghum is an antioxidant rich, gluten-free, ancient grain. Those are three buzz-phrases in one food, making you think it’s a good candidate to be the next hyped up “super food” (it’s coming for you, kale).
Whether or not it gains wide adoption with foodies and health nuts, it remains a critical staple crop for much of the world, partly due to the fact that it’s drought and heat tolerant.
As with the other foods on this list, the methods of preparation are only limited by your imagination. For instance, sorghum flour is particularly well loved as a replacement for white flour in making gluten-free pancakes. But, as you might have guessed, I like to keep it simple and boil my sorghum. Other fun things can always be added after you’ve got your base.
Here’s the no-nonsense recipe I stick to:
- 1 cup sorghum grain
- 3 cups water or stock
- Rinse, drain, and pick through sorghum. Combine water or stock with sorghum in a pot with a tight-fitting lid. Bring to a boil.
- Cover, reduce heat to low and let simmer until tender, about 50 to 60 minutes. Drain any excess water.
Plantains, cassava, and sorghum aren’t too common in most American cuisine, but that doesn’t mean you can’t incorporate them into a healthy, cost-efficient, delicious meal plan. As with financial planning, diversification can help you achieve good long-term results. Whether you want consistent investment returns or consistently tasty meals, mixing in some of the unfamiliar can be a powerful way to improve your results.