Cassava Root: Its Gastronomical Uses and Nutrition
For many of us the words ‘tapioca pudding’ evoke memories of school dinners and those little pearls of milky sweetness, which were, lets face it, the highlight of an otherwise dismally bland lunch. At that time we had no idea that our tapioca was made from a processed tuber, which had been a staple food of South American Indigenous tribes since ancient times. Or that the type of cassava from which tapioca is made from contains hydrocyanic acid and is actually poisonous eaten raw. Or that the word tapioca is the name for cassava in the language of the Tupi peoples of Brazil. I wonder if we would have found tapioca pudding quite so appetizing if we had known the facts?
Cassava, also known as yuca in many South American countries and manioc in Africa, is one of the most popular starch tuber throughout the tropical world. The cassava plant is native to South America and is thought to have spread from Northeastern Brazil to the rest of the tropical Americas and the West Indies. It is particularly popular in Colombia, Panama and Brazil.
There are two varieties of cassava. Bitter cassava (Manihot esulenta) contains poisonous acrid juices and cannot be eaten raw. However, because of its high starch content this variety is highly processed, dried and made into tapioca. It is the dehydration process and starch which form the tiny white beads that we know as ‘pearl tapioca.’ Tapioca is also processed into flake, flour or granular form. Tapioca or cassava flour is mainly used as a thickener for soups, stews and sauces. In Brazil the flour is toasted with butter, salt and bacon to make a meal called 'farofa' which is an integral part of Brazils national dish 'Feijoada'. The flour is also used to make bread and cakes.
Sweet cassava; (Manihot dulcis) the variety available in supermarkets, contains little or no hydrocyanic acid and is generally not considered poisonous. It is used in much the same way as the potato, yam or green plantain; boiled, fried or mashed. In Indonesia, the philippines and Africa, the leaves of the cassava plant are cooked like spinach and eaten as a side dish.
Buying, Storing and Preparing: Cassava is perishable and does not transport well. No doubt if it did it would be a serious rival to the potato in Europe and North America. Rarely can you find cassava that is in perfect condition, outside of the regions where it is grown. Look for cassava with as little damage as possible. If the cassava has mold or soft spots on its skin, it is probably bad. If you are not sure, ask the vendor to slice one open. What you are looking for is clean, white flesh with a pleasant scent. Avoid cassava with blue-grey streaks and a sour smell.
Cassava should be refrigerated as it spoils rapidly in temperatures above 70°F. This tuber can also be peeled sliced and frozen. To prepare cassava, first cut the cassava lengthways, then cut it into two or three pieces. Use a paring knife to ease away the skin from the flesh. Always boil the cassava until it is soft before frying or sautéing.
Nutrition: Like the potato, cassava is mostly starch, although cassava has more calories than potato because of its higher carbohydrate content. Instant tapioca has about half as many calories as raw cassava. Pearl tapioca has slightly less calories than raw cassava, which has 120 calories per 100 gram serving. Aside from starch, cassava is a good source of vitamin C and potassium. Cassava contains vitamin B6, and the antioxidant rich vitamin B5 or pantothenic acid; also vitamin B9 or folic acid. Trace minerals include iron, magnesium, thiamine, niacin, copper, calcium, riboflavin and phosphorus.
Farofa is a staple food in Brazil. A variation called 'gari' is prepared in West Africa. Image credit.