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Cassava: Manihot esculenta (Euphorbiaceae)

Considerable give-and-take marks cultural exchanges. A prime example is the ritual family dish for the Brazilian Saturday meal, feijoada. It consists of several different pork parts, black beans and farofa, made from manioc flour. This dish. taken over from the Black slaves, has the symbolical meaning of hybridizing the two past cultures, that of the Portuguese masters and that of the African slaves. Manioc is taken to stand for the African element.

It descends from the wild subspecies flabellifolia found in forest patches in the transition zone between the cerrado (savanna scrub) vegetation of the Brazilian shield plateau and the lowland rainforest of the Amazon basin. Flabellifolia grows there as a sprawling underbrush shrub. Genomic analysis points to a domestication by local Indian populations along the southern border of the Amazon basin. This crop was already widely grown through the South America neotropics 3,000 years ago. It was likely first domesticated more than 10,000 years BCE.

That domestication occurred at the hands of Amerindians in Brazil concurs with lexical evidence. The name ‟manioc‟ stems from the Tupi-Guarani language. Likewise with the name ‟tapioca,‟ given to one of its edible forms.

Before we come to its status as a foodstuff, a little additional description of the plant is in order. A member of the family of euphorbs, described in another ‟plant of the month‟ entry, manihot is a tall semi-woody perennial shrub or tree, up to seven m high, with the diameter at breast high measuring up to 20 cm. The tuberous edible root grows in clusters of four to eight at the stem base. Roots are from one to four inches in diameter and eight to 15 inches long, although roots up to three feet long have been found.

The cassava root is toxic and bitter in its untreated state. It contains glycosides that release cyanides. Hence, it has to be thoroughly washed, and soaked in water, before it becomes sweetened and can be eaten.

Its high carbohydrate content makes it a desirable foodstuff. After rice and maize, it is the third largest source of starch carbohydrates in the tropics. The cassava plant gives the third highest yield of carbohydrates per cultivated area among crop plants, after sugarcane and beets. Since it does well on poor soils and low rainfall, and moreover is a perennial, that can be harvested as required, cassava has been a widely disseminated crop in underdeveloped countries all over the world. In the sixteenth century, Portuguese traders brought it from Brazil to Africa, where it displaced more traditional crops.

In like manner to potatoes, there are many ways to prepare manioc for eating. One of them, from the Extreme-Orient, is as pearls of tapioca.

These can serve as a thickener of broths, as a substitute of egg yolks. I vividly recall eating such soups, in the aftermath of World War II, when we lacked better items. Not only was such a soup nourishing, it was also great fun to eat. We children called it the ‟soup with eyes,‟ on account of the little translucent pearls of manioc, about three mm across, suspended in the liquid.