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Manioc From A to Z: 26 Things to Know

Manioc From A to Z: 26 Things to Know

Also called cassava (or yuca), manioc is a woody shrub native to South America, a great superfood: here are 26 facts and figures about manioc you should know.

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Ají negro. It is a spicy sauce typical from the Amazon region from Peru, made with bitter manioc root. After a long and complex process in which the pulp is processed and fermented, then added to hot chili peppers, it results in a dark, dense, acid sauce. It is traditionally produced by the indigenous people of North West Amazonia (such as the Uitoto, Muinane, Andoke, Nonuya, and others) as a basis for a variety of recipes.

Beer. Cassava has been used for hundreds of years by various indigenous peoples on different continents as an ingredient in making fermented alcoholic beverages - in some places, as in Latin America, it was the first ingredient to be used to produce the first beers registered. It has also been used by generations of home brewers in Africa, an age-old technique practiced in villages across the continent. In 2011, the brewing group SABMiller launched the world's first commercially produced cassava beer in Mozambique, Impala, marketing it as a safe alternative to illicit local home brewed alcohol.

Christopher Columbus. The Italian explorer, navigator, and colonist is responsible for the diffusion of manioc into the world's diet – especially in Europe. When he crossed the Atlantic in search of Pacific spices 500 years ago and instead arrived in the American continent thanks to a miscalculation, he came across the Taíno, a peaceful people who used to live in the Caribbean and mainly cultivated manioc, the starchy root vegetable. Thanks to him (and his route error), manioc today feeds billions of people around the world.

Dadinho de tapioca. When Brazilian chef Rodrigo Oliveira, from the gastronomic institution Mocotó, in São Paulo, decided to create this recipe, he could never imagine that it would get so far. He mixed tapioca and curd cheese to create these fritter dices that showed up even in the menus of restaurants from other places in the world, like the Parisian Le Dauphin, from chef Iñaki Aizpitarte.

Escondidinho. It is a very popular Brazilian recipe made of a layer of shredded jerked beef (or any other meat), then another layer of a creamy manioc stew purée and a crusty gratinated cheese topping. Escondidinho means hidden, in English, and the recipe gets its name because the meat is hidden under the manioc purée.

Ferran Adrià. The Catalan chef went head over heels with the tucupi when he was introduced to the ingredient by chef Alex Atala in one of his visits to Brazil. Mainly, tucupi is a yellow sauce extracted from wild manioc root in Brazil's Amazon jungle and widely used in many recipes such as the tacacá, a soup from North region, made with dried shrimp, tucupi and jambu leaves, an exotic native plant which creates a pleasant tingling sensation on the tongue. On the occasion, Adrià dubbed jambu “eletric plant”.

Guarani. According to a guarani legend, the origin of the mandioca (how manioc is called in tupi language) occurred with the arrival of a white unknown girl to a tribe of guaranis. The affection she showed for the indigenous people made them adopt her and call her Mani. The friendship that was born of this relationship was eternalized by a plant that began to feed the whole village, to which they gave the name of 'mandioca'.

Hydrocyanic acid. Bitter manioc varieties have significant levels of highly toxic hydrocyanic acid (cyanid) in its roots. So, they need to be carefully peeled, grated, soaked, or heated before being ready (and safe) for consumption. Other way to neutralize it is through fermentation, a technique dominated by many ancient people.

Incas. The Incas were one of the first ancient people to develop agriculture in an organized way. It is estimated that the Incas grew about seven hundred plant species. The key to the success of Inca agriculture was the existence of roads and trails that enabled a good distribution of crops to a vast region – using advanced techniques of contour lines and irrigation system. The manioc figured as one of the main crops grown by them, and became the basis of their diet.

Java. The manioc plant was brought to Indonesia by the Portuguese in the 16th century and it became a popular food, especially in the island of Java, as rice was scarce there. Many recipes made with manioc can be consumed everywhere, as is the case of Klepon, a manioc cake which originates from Java. The dumplings are made with chewy manioc flour, filled with palm sugar and then coated with freshly grated coconut.

Kilograms. Each manioc plant can provide up to 8 kilograms of root, enough to feed a lot of people. Thats why it became so widely harvested – and consumed. Another fator is that its crops are resistent to droughts and can even adapt to poor soils.

Leaves. Not only the starchy roots from maniocs can be eaten. Its leaves are also edible. And used in recipes such as soups and stews.

Mille feuille. One of the most iconic recipes created by acclaimed chef Alex Atala at his award-winning D.O.M. restaurant is his golden and crunchy manioc mille feuille, made up of layers of thin slices of manioc combined with two other very popular ingredients in Brazil: Northern curd cheese and manteiga de garrafa, a bottled butter, liquid and dense.

Nigeria. Manioc is produced in the highest quantities first in Nigeria, followed by countries such as Thailand, Brazil, Congo Democratic Republic, and Indonesia – almost 70 percent of world cassava production are concentrated in these five countries. In 2016, the world production was 288 million tons, according to FAO. -

Origin. Archeological evidence of manioc cultivation dating back to 1785 BC has been discovered close to Peru’s Casma Valley, and ancient manioc griddles have been excavated in the Caribbean Islands of St Kitts, St Vicent and Martinique.

Polvilho / pão de queijo. The first is the main ingredient for the second. Pão de queijo is an iconic dish in Brazil: a dough with a mild, cheesy flavor made with manioc flour (also called polvilho). Eaten for breakfast or as a snack for any time all over the country, the secret for its success is the use of the polvilho, which gives the little balls an irresistibly moist, chewy texture. In Colombia and Equador, there is a very similar recipe known as pan de yuca (yuca bread).

Quality. Manioc is one of the most efficient producers of carbohydrates and energy among all food crops - so it is so consumed and plays a key role in many diets, as a superfood. It is also paleo and vegan-friendly as well as being nut- and gluten-free.

Rain. Manioc is one of the most drought-tolerant crops, that can be successfully grown on marginal soils, and gives reasonable yields even without the need for constant rainfall.

Saliva. It is one of the most important ingredients to make chicha, the chew-and-spit alcoholic drink made with manioc in Ecuador's Amazon region. Chewing and spitting the manioc is determinant since it is the combination of starch and spit enzymes that convert the starch to a simple sugar, allowing it to ferment. The sugar is then converted by bacteria found in the saliva into alcohol, creating the mild sweet and sour beverage quite consumed by the Huaorani people.

Tapioca. An ingredient that took over the food world by storm, tapioca is a starch extracted from the cassava flour. It can be made into flour flakes or into chewy pearls in varying sizes. In Asia, it is floating in glasses of now-globally-popular bubble teas. In Brazil, one of the most popular recipes is made with the tapioca flour over a frying pan (just like a pancake) that can then be filled with many different ingredients, from cheese to dulce de leche.

Uarini. The flour from Uarini is made in the interior of the Amazon, more precisely in the city of Uarini, in the North region in Brazil. The base is the manioc, which is harvested and placed in the yeast until softening. Then, the manioc passes through numerous processes, ranging from the tipiti – an object made of straw created by the indigenous people to dry the manioc mass – until it is finally sifted. At the end, the flour is put in iron pans for toasting. It is very consumed with fish and other meats.

Virgilio Martínez. Peruvian chef Virgílio Martínez, from acclaimed Central restaurant, usually uses yuca (how manioc is called in Peru) in many recipes in his kitchen. “We find yuca everywhere in Peru, from to coast to the Andes and the Amazon. It’s a special crop, which is why it appears at diferente altitudes”, he says in his book Central (Phaidon).

West Africa. Manioc was only introduced to the African continent via its West Coast by Europeans in the 16th century, and it became a major food crop there, consumed in many countries and recipes. Fufu is one of them: it is the starch staple of large parts of Africa, very common in Congo, made by mixing and pounding manioc and green plantain flour thoroughly with water. It is a comfort dish, similar to what mashed potatoes represent to English people. 

XXL. Manioc is a tall, woody shrub with dark green leaves. Its roots are mainly up to 30 cm long, but they can be even longer. Supposedly, the world’s largest manioc tuber grew in a private farm in Abaokuta, Nigeria, measuring a whopping three meters.

Yuca. It is how manioc is called in some countries, such as Peru, Colombia, Equador, etc. If you're wondering how to cook yuka, here's a guide for beginners.

Zimbabwe. Climate change is already affecting many agricultural areas around the world, such as in Zimbabwe. Past droughts have had devastating environmental impacts in rural areas where livelihoods are mainly dependent on agriculture. Now, scientists and scholars are exploring the potential of cassava production as a climate change adaptation strategy in Chiredzi and other areas in the country. They already figured out that manioc has an extensive root system that can penetrate poor soils which may not support other crops - becoming a superfood capable to adapt to these changes.

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