(what’s that food?)

Take a look around the root vegetable section of your grocery store and you will probably see some cassava tucked in amongst the potatoes.

This brown tuber is also called manioc, yuca, and macaxeira along with other names, and is native to Brazil. It is a starchy root that is a major staple for many people worldwide, with nearly a billion people relying on it as a food source. In particular, cassava is grown in Africa because it does well in poor soils and with low rainfall. It was introduced to the continent in the 16th century by Portuguese traders from Brazil, who also introduced it to Asia. A perennial plant that can be harvested over a wide harvesting window, it acts as a famine reserve and offers flexibility to farmers because it can be either a subsistence or a cash crop.

There are two varieties of cassava: sweet and bitter. However, you will not find the bitter variety in our stores, which is good because bitter, or wild cassava, can contain enough hydrocyanic acid to make it fatally poisonous if eaten raw or undercooked. Bitter cassava is processed into safe edible flours and starches, which in turn are made into breads, pastries, and cakes.

The outside of cassava is tough and the rind must be removed to reveal the inside flesh, which is usually white or yellowish. Tubers must always be cooked or fermented in some manner, and never eaten raw. A traditional method used in West Africa is to peel the roots and put them into water for three days to ferment. The roots then are dried or cooked.

Cassava is a starchy tuber //photo credit: Cheryl Young/Salty

Although cassava is a starchy tuber, it is naturally gluten-free, so useful for celiac sufferers and others trying to avoid gluten. One aspect of cassava is that it’s defined as having a low glycemic index (GI). Foods with low GIs are generally considered good foods for diabetics to consume as low glycemic foods control the release of glucose into the bloodstream at a steady and sustained rate, keeping the body’s metabolic processes and energy levels balanced. The leaves of the cassava plant are also used for food and contain 100 times more protein than the root. Like the root, they must be cooked.

As a starchy vegetable, dried and ground cassava creates tapioca, a traditional thickening agent. Tapioca can be used in foods, as a biodegradable substitute for plastic products like bags, or as laundry starch.

If you purchase cassava, look for firm roots with no soft spots. Also, if possible, buy whole roots that have not had their ends removed. It should be kept in a cool, dry place until you use it. Once peeled, it can be used much like potatoes. It has a nut-like flavour and you can mash it, bake it, grill it, make fries out of it, or get more adventurous and try creating casabe, a flatbread that is popular in the Caribbean. Casabe is generally used to accompany fried foods, or used like crackers with dips or soups.

About Salty Staff

A diverse group of people, the Salty team works hard each month to bring you great stories about PEI's food and farming community.

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