Taking Root: Cassava Claims Its Place On The American Table
The cookbook Tasting Brazil (Macmillan, 1992), by the historian Jessica B. Harris, provided me a richer picture in its recipes and descriptions of the many ways that cassava is used in Brazil—one of the homelands of cassava and therefore, I reasoned, as good a place to start as any. Take farinha de mandioca, a coarse meal made from cassava that's been soaked, dried, ground, pressed, and (sometimes) toasted. Brazilian cooks further toast this cassava meal in butter or palm oil to make farofa, a crunchy condiment found on tables throughout Brazil. On the country's northeastern coast, there is also vatapá, a creamy, polenta-like dish of coconut milk and palm oil thickened with farinha de mandioca and studded with shrimp, fish, or chicken. In the same region, fresh cassava is boiled and mashed, shaped into fritters around a filling of spiced ground beef, and deep-fried to make bolinhos de macaxeira recheado. Farther south, Brazilians use two kinds of powdered tapioca starch—a sour, fermented kind called polvilho azedo, and an unfermented kind, polvilho doce—to make a gougère-like pastry, pão de queijo, enriched with grated hard cheese. In Tasting Brazil, Harris notes that cassava even "turns up batter-fried in São Paulo's Japanese tempuras."
As I collected recipes from other parts of the world, I learned that cassava has been a staple crop in some places for thousands of years—though its distant history is somewhat difficult to trace. Four years ago, Payson Sheets, an anthropology professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, led the excavation of a field of cultivated cassava at the ancient Maya village Cerén, in El Salvador. He called the finding "a jackpot" because it revealed, as no other ancient site has, what the Maya ate besides corn, beans, and squash—all of which require fertile soil and are sensitive to drought. Those more finicky crops figured in Maya religious practices—and the artifacts associated with them—while dependable cassava was used strictly as food; the evidence was consumed, and so cassava has remained largely invisible to history. "I like to think of cassava as an old Chevy gathering dust in the garage," Sheets said. "It doesn't get much attention but starts right up every time when the need arises."
In my own kitchen, I embraced cassava in stages. Farinha de mandioca was, for me, the gateway cassava: already processed and ready to add to all kinds of dishes. After finding a bag in Manhattan's Little Brazil, I couldn't wait to make farofa at home. The cassava meal, similar in texture to cornmeal, was labeled torrada, which means it had already been lightly toasted. To begin I simply melted butter in a cast-iron skillet, lightly sautéed some diced onion, then added a handful of farinha de mandioca and cooked it, stirring constantly, for just a couple of minutes, until it took on a pale brown color and a lovely, nutty flavor. I served it as one of the garnishes for a big pot of feijoada, the hearty Brazilian black bean and pork stew, along with wilted collard greens, orange segments, and white rice. The final flourish, a showering of farofa over top, added to the dish a wonderful crunchy texture.
Now I was eager to cook with the tuber itself, though one fact I learned did give me a moment of pause: in its pulled-from-the-ground state, cassava is actually poisonous. Like bitter almonds and raw bamboo shoots, raw cassava contains hydrogen cyanide, a colorless, toxic gas. I was assured, however, by written sources and produce vendors alike, that it took nothing more than cooking it until tender to dissipate the gas and make the vegetable completely safe for eating. In any case, two kinds of cassava grow in the tropics: the bitter, more toxic kind, and the sweet kind, which contains very little of the toxin, concentrated in the peel. In New York City, or anywhere else in North America, I would find only sweet cassava for sale. And even the toxin in bitter cassava is easily extracted by soaking, grinding, pounding, or just cooking the root thoroughly.