Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Harvest Ingredient 17: Manioc (Cassava)

This humble tuber from the Amazon has gotten little attention and even less respect, despite that it in number 3 on the list of crops that give the maximum amount of carbohydrates per cultivated are, second only behind sugarcane and the sugar beet.  It is second only to sugar canes in providing the largest source of carbohydrates in meals world wide.  And, along with true Yams and Sweet Potatoes, Cassava has become  the most important food crop in the tropics world wide.  Yet it is so humble!

Cassava also goes by the names:  Manioc, and Yuca (pronounced You-kah) and also to the bane of a lot of English school children...Tapioca.  Knowing that tapioca comes from this rather unattractive woody looking tuber, immediately informs how important this plant to the rest of the world.  It is of immense importance to sub-Saharan Africa, where it was introduced by the Portuguese in the 1700's.  It grows in poor soil and can survive on little rain fall.  But tapioca is very important in the Southeast Asia as well, and, of course, as mentioned above, Europe as well, where it is universally made into sweets.  

Manioc plant

Although generally low in other nutrients, manioc is pretty hgiht in calcium, phosphorous and is a surprisingly good source of Vitamin C, even when highly processed.  It is a very source of protein, which accounts for it nearly always being paired with a protein source of some sort, from meat and fish or dairy products.  It is estimated that it has been under some form of domestication for more than 10,000 years, and owed to it's wide spread use and types had to come from the Amazon.  However, the the oldest direct evidence of cassava cultivation is only 1,400 years old and comes, from of all places, a Maya site in what is now El Salvador; though manioc pollen in Central American that is as old as 6,600 years has been found.  Interestingly, the Maya have no dishes that include cassava in their diets today and apparently haven't had in a long time, since Europeans make absolutely NO mention of it anywhere north of places like Panama.

Yet another Moche pot, this time of Cassava tubers

The yuca come in two varieties: sweet and bitter.  The sweet variety if the kind you will always find in your local supermarkets, but the bitter variety is actually grown twice as much as the sweet variety because it is easily to grow, and because it is "bitter" has a natural resistance to pests and insects.  The difference between the two is the amount of cyanogenic glucosides contained in the tuber; and if that looks like cyanide to you--IT IS!  Growing the bitter kind, not only produces larger crop yields and tubers twice as large as the sweet variety, it also deters theft.  The "bitter" variety needs a good deal more preparation to remove the cyanide and make it fit for consumption, than does the sweet variety.  It should be noted, however, that just because it is called "bitter," a bitter taste is not necessarily an indication that the cyanide levels have more processed out.  

Amazonian woman (Yanomami??) processing Manioc

The importance of the cassava or yuca to the Amazonian people is seen in the legend of ManĂ­ (from which the word Mani-oc comes from).  Of Tupi (Guarani) origins, ManĂ­ explains the origins of of how the tuber grows under the soil and why.  The story as parallels with the Christian virgin birth.  The bitter yuca must be processed with water to removes the toxins; the pre-Columbian ways of it differed a bit from place to place.  Some communities ground the tubers and mixed them with water to form a kind of thick paste, and then spread this out on a thing weaving in the shade for at least 5 hours, this allowed the vast majority of glycosides are broken down, and the rest of the hydrogen cyanide escapes into the atmosphere.  Other places processed by a fermentation process.  In other places, including in the Caribbean and in native communities is modern Colombia, the grate poisonous flesh is processed with water.  This was, and remains the most wide spread practice in the New World.  When processed with water, the cyanide is water into the water with poisonous starch crystals, the resulting water is highly poisonous.  Indeed this method of processing has close enough ties with Native communities both past and present in south American and Caribbean, precisely because of the cyanide laden water that collects after processing.  Some native communities in the Caribbean committed mass suicide to escape Spanish exploitation and abuse by drinking this water.  Several groups of Tupi speaking people in the Amazon threatened or did they same thing after their coastal fishing grounds were seized by the invading Portuguese.  More recently a tribe in Colombia threatened mass suicide in 1997 over Occidental Petroleum's trespassing and exploitation of their lands.  Most threatened to jump to their deaths as a group from a place called the Cliff of Death, where, in the 16th century, they had done the same retreating from the Spanish.  But they have also been known to commit suicide with cyanide water.

Traditional manioc woven "press"

After the Columbian Exchange, this plant made it's way around the globe.  In modern day Africa many communities process the bitter plant by fermentation, just like in some New World indigenous communities.  In the case of Africa, whole roots are put into water after peeling, and allowed to sit for a minimum of 3 day, up to 5, to ferment; then they can either be cooked or dried.  This process actually increases the nutrients in the tuber.  In some parts of Africa the leaves are eaten; after cooking in several changes of water, they are fried in palm oil.  In Thailand tapioca balls are filled with pork, in Indonesia, sweet yuca is fried and served with chili sauce for dipping. In parts of Africa and the Middle East and really sweet, really heavy cake is made from powdered tapioca, and in places like Zambia, the processed starch can take the place of corn mush for the starch component of the meal that goes with dishes that are like "protein gravies"--I've made these myself at home.  In other parts of Africa, the processed meal made into a past in wrapped in leaves, like banana leaves, and boiled.  In still other parts of Africa, it is made into an actual bread.


As far a native preparations go, the most common way to eat it is after the processing, toast well over fire and eat a a meal.  The meal is sometimes wrapped in something and steamed or roasted.  Since the African plantain has become a gift from the Old World to the New, many, largely uncontacted, tribes in the Amazon river basin now wrap a lot of food in the banana leaves to roast with barbecued meats.  In Brazil the gift of roasted cassava meal is everywhere. Called Indigenous Couscous (most of Spain and Portugal's close proximity to North Africa), the Brazilian name is Farofa.  It is simply toasted "firanha de manidoca" or manioc flour.  It serves as a side dish on it's on, often with native meals of fresh water fish or crabs, or as a base for a kind of indigenous pilaf.  Different native groups in South American also make a fermented beverage or manioc beer from the tubers.  In most cases this is made from the sweet variety of yuca.  In Suriname a flavoring called kasaripo  from the local Cassava Beer, which is called Kasiri--a type of beverage made by chewing sweet manioc.  Kasaripo is a dish that travelled to the Caribbean in pre-contact times and it the backbone for the flavoring there called "Cassareep." In other parts of the Caribbean, large flat breads are made in mixed blooded indigenous communities--there is even a kind of frybread made from processed cassava flour. 

Deep Fried Cassava Bolitos with Dipping Sauce

Of course it is well known that tapioca is made into pudding of various sorts.  This actually dates back to native recipes in the upper Caribbean, and even some parts of extreme southern Florida, where the processed tapioca was boiled until think and season with allspice and wild honey.  They are also used in Native fruit fillings for "sticking power."  Now a days they show up in all kinds of weird places, and not just in icky school puddings, either!  They are those strange balls that come in some Oriental fruit drinks, they are steamed into sweet cakes in places like Malaysia, in India they are prepared like couscous  In some native Pacific communities they are even mixed with native mashed taro (remember poi??)  Infused, or flavored, tapioca pearls have recently become all the rage in so-called high cuisine.  Some are even makes their way deep into the vegan diet, going into everything from a vegan gelatin, to vegetarian caviar!  Who knew the lowly tapioca could be so sexy??

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