Cassava, One Rugged World-Traveling Ingredient

Cassava London 2 rs
Cassava for sale in Brixton Market, London (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

Cassava, for me, remains the Sleeping Beauty of Latin American  kitchens.

I remember clearly the first time I ever ate cassava. I was sitting on a porch in a Paraguayan boarding house, torrential rain streaming hard off the thatched roof. I really didn’t know what I was doing there, on so many levels. Behind that wall of water, the cook – a dour-faced Ukrainaian Valkyrie,  a kerchief veiling her thick blond braid – plunked down a painted enamel platter in front of me, stacked high with what appeared to be chunks of potatoes. She then shoved a small bottle filled with vinegar and tiny green hot peppers next to my plate. The incessant rain sprayed us both, spurting through the banana leaves thatching  the lean-to roof, showering us like so many straight pins breaking lose from their tomato-strawberry cushion.  Before sawing into a tough chunk of beef, I upended the bottle of peppers over the meat. Then I forked a couple of potatoes onto my plate, too.

Only they weren’t potatoes. No, the white tuber was cassava, which originated in central Brazil. Known scientifically as Manihot esculenta and other common names such as manioc or yuca, it later spread to Africa’s Congo Basin, introduced by the Portuguese in the 16th century.

In my case, it wasn’t love at that first chewy bite. The strings filling up the center of the root caught on my fork and twisted this way and that. But whenever I saw cassava afterward, I made sure it ended up on my plate or in my shopping bag. Potatoes don’t grow well in the torrid tropics, where I lived at various times. So cassava began to take potatoes’ place in my kitchen. I learned to love cassava because of its texture and propensity to soak up other flavors.

A staple of the African diet, too

In the years I lived in Africa, I came to know cassava especially well. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, cassava provides a whopping 37% of daily caloric intake. It is popular throughout Africa and ranks third in a list of the most widely eaten starchy food in the world, after wheat and rice.

According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, “the most important traditional culinary preparations of cassava in Africa are:

  • boiled or roasted roots (akin to potatoes),
  • fufu (cassava flour stirred with boiled water over low heat to create a stiff dough like polenta),
  • eba (called gari in Nigeria, is similar to toasted bread crumbs, then soaked in hot water to produce a thick paste),
  • and, chikwangue (steamed, fermented pulp wrapped in leaves, not unlike tamales).”

Cassava grows underground and is easier to cultivate than corn, requiring far less labor. Resistant to drought and most insects and diseases, it is highly sustainable. It also cannot easily be burned and destroyed in war situations. It served as food for slaves, mostly in Brazil, since the Africanization of diet there cut a wider swath than in the United States where – not withstanding the current hype – the basic cuisine stems from Britain and Europe, with only an occasional African influence (e.g., Hoppin’ John and gumbo, certainly not mainstream dishes).

This scraggly-looking plant also can take climatic abuse, growing well in poor soil and during droughts. The long, brown roots stay fresh in the ground, sometimes for up to two years. But once harvested, cassava rots fast, in spite of its bark-like peel. That’s the reason for the wax you see on most cassava sold in Western markets.

And now cassava merits serious reserarch as production surges in Asia.

A tip for finding the freshest cassava

Sometimes “fresh” cassava in supermarkets tends to be old, with black lines running through it, especially under and around the peel. I constantly poke and prod cassava that’s for sale. My hope is to find roots bearing small wounds inflicted by some savvy shopper: one who has broken off the pointed tips of the waxed roots to peer into the whiteness, seeking — and rejecting — the telltale black lines.

Having chosen pristine cassava to grace your pot, what happens next?

First, peel the cassava with a sharp knife. A vegetable peeler does not work as well, but if it is really, really sharp, it does a fairly job. Remove the thin, white membrane surrounding the cassava under the bark-like peel. Cut the roots into equal lengths. Boil in salted water until tender enough so a knife slips in easily.

Cassava can be quite fibrous; remember that tough, stringy core. Generally this is not a problem, because as cassava cooks, it splits apart and the core can easily be removed before serving. If you’d rather not hassle with peeling and boiling, seek a market specializing in Asian and other international foods. In the freezer section, you will likely find frozen cassava, ready to cook. You might also find cassava in cans there, too.

Now that you’ve got your peeled cassava on the kitchen counter, you’re probably wondering about the best way to cook it.

Skilled cooks in Latin America and Africa developed a number of methods — grating, pounding and drying cassava into flour — to make cassava’s rather bland flavor pop in the mouth. Such techniques have resulted in commercial products that take a lot of the burden off of the cook. Tapioca pudding is made from dried cassava, available in nearly any grocery store.

Cassava flour can be used for making fufu, too. Gari adds texture to soups and other dishes. It can also be used in place of panko, a real boon to those on a gluten-free diet.

But if you opt to start from scratch, add large chunks of cassava to a meaty stew instead of potatoes. Try eating boiled cassava drenched with a spicy peanut sauce. Or simply fry it in the same way you might do with potatoes for French fries. Served with a fiery pepper sauce, fried cassava offers a fresh taste of Africa and Latin America.

I guarantee you will fall in love with cassava, too, just as I did that rainy day in Paraguay.  When I finished that memorable meal, I wiped my mouth on the table cloth, lacking the civilizing touch of napkins, cloth or paper, sealing my connection to the diners before me and the ones yet to come.

Come to think of it,  a sort of Sleeping Beauty kiss, awakening to a new life.

Cassava fries rs
Photo credit: C. Bertelsen

Cassava “French Fries”

Cook time: 25 to 40 minutes

Total time: 40 minutes to 1 hour

Yield: Serves two

Ingredients

4 10- to 12-inch-long cassava roots

1 tablespoon salt

Vegetable oil for frying

Directions

1. With a sharp knife, remove the pointed tips and peel the cassava, making sure to remove the thin membrane just under the bark-like peel.

2. Cut the cassava into 4- to 6-inch pieces. Cut each piece in half lengthwise and then cut those into French fry-size sticks.

3. Bring a large pot of water to a boil on the stove top. Add about 1 tablespoon of salt and the cassava. Reduce heat to a fast simmer, and cook the cassava until quite tender, usually about 20 to 30 minutes. Check doneness by poking a piece with a knife.

4. When done, drain the cassava and let cool slightly. Meanwhile, in a large, heavy skillet, heat oil to a depth of 1/4 inch over medium-high heat. Add the drained cassava and cook until cassava is a light golden brown.

5. Remove cassava from the oil, drain on paper towels, arrange on serving plates, and place a few tablespoons of the pepper sauce (recipe below) on each plate. Serve immediately.

Pepper Sauce

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 25 minutes

Total time: 40 minutes

Yield: Makes 2 1/2 to 3 cups

Ingredients

10 habanero or Scotch Bonnet peppers, orange or red, seeded and roughly chopped

1 medium onion, peeled and finely chopped

4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced

3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

4 Roma tomatoes, chopped

2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

3 tablespoons tomato paste

1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves

Salt to taste

1 cup vegetable oil, divided

Directions

1. Place all the ingredients, except for 1/2 cup of the oil, in a blender or food processor. Purée.

2. In a heavy skillet, heat the remaining 1/2 cup of oil over medium-high heat. Being cautious to avoid splattering oil, add the sauce and reduce the heat immediately to medium-low. Cook the sauce for about 25 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking and burning.

3. Remove from heat, and let the sauce cool.

4. Store in a clean glass jar in your refrigerator, where it will be good for about a week. Be sure the sauce is always topped with a thin layer of oil. This helps to keep it safe and fresh.

© 2016 C. Bertelsen

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