Taking Root: Cassava Claims Its Place On The American Table
Enlarge Image Credit: Todd ColemanA cassava is an ugly-beautiful thing. Formidable. For years I saw the gnarly brown root vegetable at different markets in New York City, where I live, and I'll confess I was a little intimidated. Surely it would take some special tool, one I didn't have in my kitchen, to remove the bark-like peel, which, on most cassavas I've seen, has been coated in a disconcerting layer of wax.
I was fascinated to discover that I'd actually been eating this vegetable all my life, in the form of tapioca—the pure starch filtered out of juice extracted from the cassava, and further processed into a fine powder, coarser granules, or the round pearls found in tapioca pudding. The gap between the pearls in the pudding I'd grown up with and the vegetable I saw at the market seemed too vast to comprehend. So, I decided to connect the dots by cooking.
First I determined what cassava is, exactly: a starchy, tuberous root native to Central and South America, typically sold at a size of six to ten inches in length and two to three inches in diameter. I'd seen it referred to as yuca and manioc, and I learned that its many other aliases—aipim, mandioca, and macaxeira in Brazil alone; mihogo in Swahili-speaking Africa; kappa in South India; singkong in parts of Indonesia—reflect its distribution across a vast portion of the globe. The plant that produces the tuber, Manihot esculenta, is a woody shrub that grows quickly and vigorously—a sort of miracle plant, really. In tropical conditions with natural rainfall, it requires no irrigation, and its roots can be harvested year-round; unharvested, they can remain underground for an astonishing three years without spoiling. For all those reasons, cassava is ubiquitous throughout the tropics and a staple food for, by some estimates, 15 percent of the world's population.