The small Paraguayan girl – all of maybe 8 years old – yelled “Chipa, chipa!” She thrust an enormous flat basket draped with a smudged white cloth against the open window of the bus. And I smelled the warm cassava bread even before she flicked off the cloth with a flourish, much as a magician reveals the white rabbit cowering under his top hat. I pointed to the bread closest to me and she held out her hand. Payment first, then food. I plunked one guaraní (about 10 U.S. cents at that time) into her other hand and she passed the bread to me, after twisting it into a small paper napkin.
At that moment, the driver snorted, “Jaha! Let’s go,” and the bus slowly rambled down the rutted road, tiny tornadoes of red dust billowing behind us. I tore open the chipa as I settled onto the wooden bench and bit into the chewy cheesy center first, the best part, just as I used to scrape out the frosting of an Oreo before eating the cookie-like outsides.
Cassava – known by myriad names, but called mandioca or mandió in Paraguay – originated in central Brazil and/or Paraguay and spread around the world. It is a good source of energy, thanks to carbohydrates. In many regions of the world that’s not such a bad thing, because the carbohydrate calories from the mandioca help to ensure that other nutrients such as protein will not be used for calories instead of tissue maintenance. Accepted wisdom states that cassava might be either bitter or sweet, but both contain varying levels of cyanogenic glucosides, the toxicity of which can be reduced with proper processing and culinary treatment.*
Until I lived in Fram, a small farming village in southern Paraguay, I never ate a morsel of mandioca, not even when I spent three months in Puerto Rico in Peace Corps training, where cooks based their menus on rice and beans. At least the ones whose food I ate.
Peeled, cut into six-inch chunks, and boiled in salted water until tender enough so that a knife slips in easily, mandioca can be quite fibrous, with a tough stringy core that must be removed. Generally this core is not a problem, because as the chunks of mandioca cook, they split apart, and the eater or cook can easily remove the core by hand.
After long days spent in training out in the countryside, I found my first bites of mandioca rather tasteless. The bland flavor – really no different in degrees of blandness from the white potato – requires some sort of embellishment. That, I soon learned, came in a bottle plopped down on the table. Pickled hot peppers, swimming in vinegar, livened things up considerably. And a big slab of grilled beef – lomito – didn’t hurt either, provided that meat appeared in the local market at all.
But the greatest pleasure of all with mandioca happened when the cook at my pension fried it after boiling it. Hêe, yes. A crisp outer layer hid the slightly soft insides, adding texture and mouthfeel.
Here in the States – unless I buy it in a market geared strictly to people from Latin America or the Caribbean or Africa – mandioca tends to be old, with black lines running through the whiteness. And so I constantly poke and prod the mandioca for sale, hoping to find roots that bear the wound inflicted by some savvy shopper, who has broken off a tip of the waxed roots to peer into the whiteness, seeking the telltale black lines.
You know, it’s fascinating to me that even after all these years I still crave foods like mandioca. With each bite, I recall that little girl rubbing the red dust out of her eyes as she waited for another bus to pull up along the side of the road, selling chipa to another traveler. I wonder what happened to her, just as I ponder the fate of the cook in my pension, a miracle worker in the kitchen, really, given the food shortages and lack of access to markets other than the local village market.
Again, I marvel at the power of food to forge connections, to rouse long-buried memories.
*For more about cassava:
Note that although I did not emphasize enough here the importance of cassava in certain regions, it is an extremely vital food staple around the world. Read this short piece about the disease that is threatening this calorie source, brown streak disease. In addition, there’s a vast amount of literature about cassava and the bitter/sweet divisions. A Google Scholar will lead you to more information.
Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research. Cassava. 2005.
Montagnac, Julie A., Davis, Christopher R., and Tanumihardjo, Sherry A. Nutritional Value of Cassava for Use as a Staple Food and Recent Advances for Improvement, Wiley Online, 2009.
Ohio State University. Researchers get to the root of cassava’s cyanide-producing abilities. 2003.
Olsen, Kenneth M. and Schaal, Barbara. Evidence on the origin of cassava: Phylogeography of Manihot esculenta. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States 96(10); 5586-5591, 1999.
“What’s the Difference Between: Yuca and Yucca?” (Article by Faith Durand, for The Kitchn)
Zeder, Melinda A., Eve Emshwiller, Bruce D. Smith, and Daniel G. Bradley. Documenting domestication: the intersection of genetics and archaeology. Trends in Genetics 22(3):139-155, 2006.