Today I just ate manioc with salt, and tomorrow I don’t know what I’ll do.
~ Maria Gonzalez
Manioc, also known as yuca or cassava in Central America and the U.S., is a white starchy tuber with a delicate taste. It has been a staple of the Brazilian Indians’ diet for centuries. In Tupi, the native language, manioc is called mandioca in Southern Brazil, macaxeira in northeastern Brazil, and aipim in Rio de Janeiro; it’s called tapioca when referring to its starch. Manioc is native to west-central Brazil, and evidence shows that it was domesticated over 10,000 years ago. A volcanic eruption that buried a Mayan village 1,400 years ago preserved a manioc field – the first evidence that the crop was cultivated by the ancient people, and the first evidence of new-world cultivation.
Manioc is a perennial woody shrub with an edible root, which grows in tropical and subtropical areas of the world. It has the ability to grow on marginal lands where grains and other crops do not grow well; it can tolerate drought and can grow in low-nutrient soils. Because manioc roots can be stored in the ground for up to 24 months (some varieties for up to 36 months) harvest may be delayed until market, processing, or other conditions are favorable – a definite plus for low-income farmers. In Africa and Latin America, manioc is mostly used for human consumption, while in Asia and parts of Latin America it is also used commercially for the production of animal feed and starch-based products. In Africa, manioc provides a basic daily source of dietary energy. Roots are processed into a wide variety of pastes and flours, or consumed freshly boiled. In most of the manioc -growing countries in Africa, the leaves are also consumed as a green vegetable, which provides protein and vitamins A and B. In Southeast Asia, manioc starch is used as a binding agent, in the production of paper and textiles, and, what I found most interesting, as monosodium glutamate – the controversial flavoring agent in Asian cooking. In Africa, manioc is beginning to be used in partial substitution for wheat flour.
This website has a really interesting list of the many different uses manioc can have after processing.
The manioc root is long and tapered, much like a domestic sweet potato. The skin is a dark brown, almost like tree bark, and outside of the immediate growing region it will always be coated in wax, due to its highly perishable nature. The flesh is firmer than a potato, very starchy and white, and a woody ribbon runs along the axis – it’s helpful to find and remove this before cooking or serving. Store whole manioc as you would potatoes, in a cool, dark, dry place for up to one week. Peeled manioc can be covered with water and refrigerated or wrapped tightly and frozen for several months.
Manioc is classified as either “sweet” or “bitter” depending on the level of toxic cyanogenic glucosides. The “sweet” (actually “not bitter”) varieties can produce as little as 20 milligrams of cyanide per kilogram of fresh roots, whereas “bitter” ones may produce more than 50 times as much (1 g/kg). Manioc grown during drought are especially high in these toxins. A dose 40 mg of pure manioc cyanogenic glucoside is enough to kill a cow. It can also cause severe calcific pancreatitis in humans, leading to chronic pancreatitis. Improper preparation of bitter manioc most commonly causes a disease called konzo (which means “bound legs” in Yaka), an epidemic paralytic neurological disease which causes permanent disability, but doesn’t progress at all. Nevertheless, farmers often prefer the bitter varieties because they deter pests, animals, and thieves. The poisons are destroyed by soaking in water and by heat during cooking – manioc should never be eaten raw. A safe processing method used by the pre-Columbian indigenous people of the Americas is to mix the cassava flour with water into a thick paste and then let it stand in the shade for five hours in a thin layer spread over a basket. In that time about 5/6 of the cyanogenic glycosides are broken down by the linamarase; the resulting hydrogen cyanide escapes to the atmosphere, making the flour safe for consumption the same evening.In my opinion, it’s amazing that the native Indians figured out that manioc was even edible at all!
The traditional method used in West Africa is to peel the roots and put them into water for 3 days to ferment. The roots then are dried or cooked. In Nigeria and several other west African countries, they are usually grated and lightly fried in palm oil to preserve them. The result is a product called ‘Gari’. Fermentation is also used in other places such as Indonesia. The fermentation process also reduces the level of antinutrients, making it a more nutritious food.
Manioc is the third largest source of carbohydrate energy in the world – here in Brazil, you see manioc everywhere. Much like the potato, the culinary possibilities of the manioc seem infinite. Manioc can easily be substituted for potatoes in soups and stews. It can be boiled and mashed, and it doesn’t need as much butter or salt as mashed potatoes often do. At DOM, the nighttime interns make about 10 gallons of manioc puree per day.
My favorite way to eat manioc is definitely fried. I think it’s a thousand times better than french fries. Fried manioc is super crunchy on the outside, and soft and flaky on the inside – I think it’s actually better without a dipping sauce. To make fried manioc, simply boil the peeled roots until they are “fork tender”. Cut into 2″ rounds and separate into sticks with a fork or knife. deep-fry in very hot oil until they are golden brown and crispy; sprinkle with salt and enjoy. In our brief introduction to South American cuisine at the CIA, we made manioc chips – the exact same process as potato chips (peel, slice thinly on a mandolin, fry).
Boba pearls, used in the popular Bubble Tea drink, are made from tapioca starch. At DOM, I’ve had the “sagu” duty all week – cooking tapioca pearls with açaí and red wine.Most people are also familiar with tapioca pudding – tapioca pearls cooked with milk, sugar, and egg, chilled and eaten as a dessert. Tapioca starch can also be used in gluten-free baking (remember pão de queijo?).
Of course, no meal here in Brazil is complete without farofa, which I’ve mentioned several times already – the coarsely ground manioc flour that’s sprinkled on just about every dish here. It’s taken me a little while to get used to it, but I now actually kind of like it – the crunchiness that comes from dipping a piece of rare meat into a pile of farofa isn’t all that bad.
What’s your favorite way to eat manioc??