Known throughout the tropical world, the versatile cassava plant includes a showy variety that is anything but plain-as-pudding.
Photos courtesy of Tropilab
Cassava, manioc, mandioca, yuca, gari, tapioca, farine — all are synonyms that in parts of the world refer to Manihot esculenta. This remarkable plant ranks fourth in the world’s agriculture, behind rice, sugar and corn, and grows throughout the tropical world, thus accounting for its many names. The most popular common name for Manihot esculenta is cassava, and the plant likely had its origins in South America, according to the early history of Brazil. When the Portuguese arrived in the 15th century, they found the starchy tubers a vital part of the culture.
This root food isn’t one that can go directly from the garden to the mouth. The tuber’s juice contains hydrocyanic acid (HCN), commonly called cyanide or prussic acid. If this acid is not removed or neutralized, it can cause death by cyanide poisoning. Recipes refer to bitter cassava (M. esculenta) and a related species, called sweet cassava (M. dulcis), with smaller roots, but research at the University of Florida shows that there is some hydrocyanic acid in all cassava plants.
According to folklore, the Brazilian Indians worked out a simple system to remove the cyanide-laden acid: the women chewed the tubers! The mastication released the acid in the juice, which the women then spit out. The soft, well-chewed tubers were spread out to dry, then grated to a meal-like consistency. Happily, safer and more sanitary methods are now used to process cassava for food products.
In addition to providing a small amount of protein, the tubers have been an important source of nutritious carbohydrates for hundreds of years. They remain an important part of the diet of many cultures in the Caribbean, parts of Africa, and Central and South America.
Cassava grows to 7 or 8 feet tall as a small tree or shrub in Zone 8. The showy, dark green leaves are deeply parted into three to 10 lobes, all on the same plant. The flowers are nondescript but produce six angled, winged seeds. Cassava freezes to the ground here in Central Texas, but rebounds in spring. The roots and tubers are both “walkers and creepers” that can, after a few years, fill in an area, particularly if there is good drainage. Cassava makes a fine container plant but will need winter protection if temperatures drop much below freezing. Planted in a shady area, cassava gives the garden a lush, tropical look.
M. e. ‘Variegata’ is a golden-hued plant with leaves shaped like the workhorse green-leaved cassava. The leaf colorings are chartreuse, light green and yellow, and white lobes sometimes appear. This plant is a ray of light that brightens the patio, a sheltered spot in the garden, a large sunny window in winter or in the greenhouse. Here in Round Top, we rely on its bright, colorful leaves during the dark and dreary days of winter. Our M. e. ‘Variegata’ is growing in an 18-inch container where it maintains its growth at about 5 feet. We keep it in the greenhouse in winter so we can enjoy its beauty year-round. The tubers of this cultivar are not generally harvested.
Cassava is easy to propagate from a 6- to 8-inch cutting taken from a branch of a plant. Strip leaves from the lower part of the stem so at least two leaf nodes can be inserted into the soil. It is not necessary to use a rooting hormone. Place several cuttings in a 6- or 8-inch container filled with moist potting soil, and set the pot where it is protected from harsh sunlight. When the cuttings have rooted they should be transplanted into separate containers with good potting soil. The rooted cuttings should be transplanted in the spring to normal garden soil. If growing in a container, transplant to larger sizes as needed; fertilize with a balanced formula, as for most potted herbs.
Little maintenance is required to keep cassava looking well. Windy days may break the brittle leaves or branches, making them look ragged, but they easily can be removed. New growth quickly makes the tree a nice tropical specimen again.
Although we have grown cassava for many years, we don’t normally dig the tubers because we are fortunate to have the fresh and dried forms (usually labeled “yuca”) available in our local markets when needed. The simplest method for rendering cassava safe to consume is by cooking the tubers thoroughly; any usual method — boiling, frying or baking — will remove the troublesome acid. The fibrous peeling, which also contains HCN, must be removed, but the tubers may be left whole or cut into chunks or sliced to cook. A tough, fibrous core — similar to that sometimes found in large carrots — may be present and should be removed before cooking to ensure tenderness. Contrary to most information we found, 1-inch pieces only took about 15 minutes to cook on the stove. Most recipes say cassava must be cooked for hours, but the recipe we found refers to huge tubers, which are not seen in our produce markets. The flavor of cooked cassava is quite intriguing: similar to white potato and slightly sweet but not overpowering in savory dishes.
Another traditional method to render the cassava safe to eat is to grate the peeled raw tubers and squeeze the juice from the flesh, thus releasing the HCN. This technique is much safer than that practiced by early Indian women in South America and the Caribbean! The grated raw flesh is primarily cooked for a variety of flat breads or might be dried, creating the meal form, which is toasted and used for many delicious dishes in Latin cuisines. Note: Do not consume — or even taste — any cassava tuber in its raw state.
The dried meal may be ground into smooth flour, allowing cassava to be used in other baked goods. Rarely do any traditional breads or baked desserts with cassava use leavening of any type, including eggs. Cassava contains no gluten and might be appealing for people on gluten-free diets.
No matter the method used to process cassava for the table, the juice is not considered a waste product. It is the primary ingredient of the popular Caribbean condiment called cassareep, which is available in some ethnic markets or by mail order. Cassareep is one of the oldest seasonings in Caribbean cuisines, lending a flavor that is difficult to describe — extremely sweet, yet bitter. The juice is combined with brown sugar, cinnamon, cloves and other secret ingredients. Cooked down to a thick liquid, cassareep is highly valued as a seasoning in classic pepper pot soup, as well as other soups, stews and vegetables dishes. Some recipes for pepper pot call for plain, cooked-down cassava juice, with brown sugar and spices added. Pepper pot soup and other thick stews are a traditional part of the cuisine throughout the Caribbean and certain areas of South America, and many feature cassava shreds or chunks. In most countries, after the meat is served, it is a tradition to save some of the cooking liquid to start the next pepper pot. There are tales of pots of soup cooking continuously on the back of the stove for more than 100 years.
While cassava is grown for both human and animal consumption, it is also a major source of commercial starch. Cassava starch is used in prepared foods, soft drinks, high-fructose syrup, alcohol, textiles, adhesives, paper manufacturing and in the pharmaceutical industry. While folklore likely exists for uses of cassava to alleviate pain and foster human comfort, valid medicinal uses for cassava are not well-documented.
For a plant so widely known in most of the world, it is interesting that in the United States, except for immigrants from the Caribbean and some parts of Africa and South America, we generally know only about tapioca, and little at that. Tapioca is gelatinized cassava starch prepared from moist cassava flour heated in shallow pans, causing the wet starch to bind together into beads; it is also forced through a sieve, much like making spaetzle. The beads are dried and packaged as tapioca, to be cooked with sugar, milk or fruit juice. Egg is sometimes added to enrich the bland flavor, along with various spices, fruits and nuts. Tapioca makes a delicious old-fashioned pudding, one long associated with childhood comfort food.
Grated fresh, dried as a meal or ground into a fine flour, cassava is primarily used for making flat breads in much of the tropical world. The meal is called farine in Dominica and used in a thin batter, which is cooked on a griddle like pancakes. The grated fresh tuber is sometimes mixed with salt, pepper and a bit of lime juice, then made into a patty and fried in butter until crusty. In Haiti, the flat bread is called pain de kassav.
In Jamaica, bammies are a popular street food. They are a thick pancake made by compressing grated fresh cassava into a round, metal bammie mold. Cooked on a griddle until crispy on the outside and moist inside, bammies are excellent hot, but most often are eaten cold as a street food. Some young and trendy Jamaican chefs cut their bammies into shapes of stars and batons. Fried and served as an accompaniment to more modern dishes, bammies for the new millennium are being introduced with great pride.
All these simple breads are usually patted into a thin cake and, whether made from fresh or dried cassava, most are cooked the old-fashioned way on an open-air griddle or skillet. In some parts of Africa, a bread called gari is made from raw, grated cassava meal that is fermented, giving the bread a sour taste, not unlike sourdough bread. Gari foto is the toasted meal cooked with onions, tomatoes and scrambled eggs, producing an excellent brunch or lunch dish.
Another traditional use of toasted cassava meal is the national dish of Brazil, called feijoada completa. Pronounced “fejwada,” this hearty dish is not unlike the cassoulet of France, in that it always has several kinds of meat, such as fresh or dried beef, pork, lamb, sausage, bacon, chorizo and smoked sausage. Beef tongue and pig’s feet or ears are often added to the pot, plus dried black beans. The meats are cooked separately, then arranged on a large serving platter. The beans are usually prepared with part of the meats and accompany the feijoada, along with shredded kale or collard greens, rice steamed with tomatoes and onions, and sliced tomatoes and oranges, all served in separate bowls. The crowning finale for feijoada is the generous topping of farinha de mandioca, or toasted manioc meal. The last garnish to this stupendous dish is olives and hard-cooked eggs, for another layer of flavor, texture and color.
Young, tender cassava leaves are utilized as a potherb in many cultures. They are prepared in a manner similar to spinach leaves, resulting in tasty and nutritious dishes and adding valuable protein to many cultures’ diets. Care must be taken to eliminate toxic compounds during cooking by draining water and adding fresh water several times. We must confess that we have not ventured there yet.
Cassava is probably a foreign word to most readers, but we hope that you are sufficiently intrigued to seek out the plants and fresh tubers, as well as meal and flour of this most basic and ancient food of the New World. Experience them in your garden and kitchen and move beyond tapioca!
Madalene Hill and Gwen Barclay are a mother/daughter team who cook and garden at the Festival Institute in Round Top, Texas. Madalene is the curator of the gardens and Gwen is the director of food service.
Makes 6 to 8 generous servings
This adaptation for herb lovers is the ultimate comfort food. Serve it as a dessert.
1 egg white
6 tablespoons sugar, divided
3 tablespoons dry tapioca
2 cups milk
1 egg yolk, slightly beaten.
2 to 3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh rosemary
1 tablespoon finely grated orange zest, colored portion only
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup chopped dates
1 cup coarsely chopped or broken walnuts
1/2 pint whipped cream
In a medium bowl, beat egg white with electric mixture until frothy. Gradually add 3 tablespoons sugar and continue beating until soft peaks form; set aside.
Mix tapioca, remaining 3 tablespoons sugar, egg yolk and rosemary in a medium saucepan. Let stand for 5 minutes for tapioca to soften. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until mixture comes to a full rolling boil. Remove pan from heat; quickly stir in egg white mixture until well blended. Stir in orange zest and vanilla extract. Mixture will thicken as it cools.
In a 2-quart bowl, preferably of clear glass, spread about a third of tapioca mixture, and top with almost half of dates and walnuts. Add another third of tapioca, top with most of remaining dates and walnuts. Add final layer of tapioca and remaining dates and walnuts. Serve warm or chilled, topped with a dollop of whipped cream.
Variations: Substitute apple, mango, orange or pineapple juice for milk. Compliment with different herbs and spices, such as cinnamon, sweet or lemon basil, lemon verbena, orange mint, spearmint and lemon thyme. Add mild herbs, such as basil, after tapioca has cooled slightly to retain its flavor. Assemble tapioca mixture in bowl with fresh or canned fruit and chopped nuts.
Serves 6 to 8
This stew is inspired by the many versions of pepper pot soup found on all the islands. The exact quantity of vegetables is not critical, as long as they are as plentiful as the chicken and the broth is very rich.
1 whole fryer chicken (3 to 31/2 pounds), cut into 8 serving
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 large cloves garlic, mashed
1 large green or red bell pepper, cored, seeded and coarsely chopped
2 cups diced ripe, fresh tomatoes or 1 (24-ounce) can diced tomatoes
3 to 4 bay leaves
1 tablespoon whole allspice berries
4 sprigs (4- to 6-inches long) each oregano* and thyme
1 pound each butternut squash, sweet potatoes, russet potatoes and cassava tubers, peeled, seeded and cut into 1-inch pieces (about 2 cups each)
2 to 3 small dried hot red chiles or fresh hot chiles, to taste
11/2 to 2 cups fresh or frozen corn kernels
1 cup unsweetened coconut milk
1 firmly packed cup slivered kale, spinach, green chard or collards (tough center stems removed)
3/4 to 1 teaspoon salt
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
Juice of 1 lime
Cassava meal if available, toasted in butter until golden
Chopped fresh parsley and/or cilantro for garnish
Rinse chicken pieces well and place in a large pot (a Dutch oven works well and can be used at the table), along with onions, garlic, bell pepper, tomatoes and seasonings — except hot chiles. Cover with cold water, to a depth of about 2 inches above chicken and vegetables. Bring ingredients to a boil, reduce heat and cover; cook for 30 to 45 minutes, or until chicken is tender. Add more water as required to keep it about 2 inches above ingredients. Lift out chicken pieces at this point; set aside and keep warm. The meat may be removed from bones if desired.
Add butternut squash, sweet and white potatoes, and cassava to broth; bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium. Cover pan and cook until vegetables are tender, stirring carefully. Add chiles, corn and coconut milk, bringing liquid to a boil. Add slivered greens of choice, along with salt and pepper to taste; cook just until greens are wilted. Return chicken to pan, cooking briefly to heat throughout. Add lime juice and top with toasted cassava meal and chopped fresh herbs.
* We prefer cooking with a mild oregano such as Origanum majoricum, but a very robust Greek type, O. vulgare or O. onites, or Spanish thyme (Plectranthus amboinicus) with the same flavor, would be more traditional in the Caribbean.
Serves 4 to 6
Serve these yummy fries with your choice of tangy, savory dipping sauces.
2 pounds small cassava tubers
Vegetable oil for frying
Peel cassava and cut into 1/2- by 3-inch pieces. Rinse under cold water, pat dry with paper towels.
In a heavy cast-iron pot or a deep fryer, heat 2 inches of oil for frying to 350 to 375 degrees. Add a few cassava slices at a time into the bubbling oil, turning carefully to brown evenly on all sides. Remove the pieces with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Lightly salt the cassava and keep warm. Continue frying remaining cassava. Note: Extra-large tubers may require parboiling in order to ensure tenderness.
Makes about 11/2 cups
Great for dipping cassava fries into, you also may want to try using this as a marinade for poultry and meats, or as a dressing on salad greens and vegetable salads. It makes a delicious dipping sauce for raw and fried vegetables, as well as fried and grilled chicken and shrimp.
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lime juice
1/2 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano
1 tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro
6 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 to 2 teaspoons chopped, fresh hot chiles, such as habañero or serrano
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
Combine all ingredients in food processor, mixing until finely chopped. Check seasoning and add more chile, salt or pepper as needed.
Makes about 2 cups
This recipe is a variation of our favorite rémoulade sauces of the Texas and Louisiana gulf coast and can be used with the Cassava Fries or served with seafood.
2 hard-cooked eggs, peeled and finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled and mashed with 1/2 teaspoon salt
11/2 tablespoons Creole or Dijon mustard
11/2 cups mayonnaise
1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
1 tablespoon paprika
11/2 tablespoons prepared horseradish
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1/2 teaspoon Tabasco sauce
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar or lemon juice
1 tablespoon chopped fresh lemon thyme
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
1 tablespoon small capers (chop if using large capers)
Combine all ingredients in a medium non-reactive bowl, mixing lightly. Taste for salt and hotness; adjust seasonings as needed. Sauce is best if prepared at least 4 hours before serving but can be made several days ahead; store in the refrigerator. Allow sauce to come to room temperature to serve with Cassava Fries or hot dishes. Sauce may be warmed in a bowl set over hot water, stirring several times. Sauce is delicious as a topping or dressing with seafood, served both chilled and warm.
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