The word tapioca conjures memories of a tasty, lumpy pudding that was a popular dessert and comfort food in the 1950s. Today, our experiences of tapioca have expanded to include Thai restaurant desserts, as well as the soft globes that barely fit through a large straw in sweet “bubble” drinks.
For those living in tropical climates throughout the world, tapioca has long been a staple food known by many names including cassava, yuca and manioc. The root provides a starchy carbohydrate source while the leaves serve as a nutritious cooked green. Young roots can be baked, fried, steamed, boiled or processed into flour and used in numerous ways.
The starchy flour can be extracted by soaking grated cassava in water. It is often used to thicken soups or stews and can also be formed into the gummy orbs we know as tapioca. The word tapioca is derived from a native South American Tupi language word referring to the process of making the starch usable.
Native to Brazil, Manihot esculenta, or cassava, remains a major carbohydrate source in the Brazilian diet, especially as a dish called farinha, which is made from the grated and dried roots. Today, cassava is grown throughout Africa, Asia, Latin America and the tropical islands of the Pacific and the Caribbean. Brazil is still the largest producer of cassava worldwide, but Thailand, Nigeria, Zaire and Indonesia also supply the world market.
Cassava is often found in Hawaiian gardens — both as an ornamental and an edible plant — though it is not yet commercially grown here. The large palmate leaves emerge singly from a petiole that is sometimes reddish in color. The leaves can be pale to dark green or variegated with white and yellow coloring along the reddish midveins of the lobes. The large fans usually have five lobes but some varieties have as many as nine “fingers.”
The stems of the shrub are herbaceous though they appear woody when mature with numerous nodes that are leaf scars left by fallen leaves. The plant can be useful as an open hedge up to about 10 feet tall of attractive, edible leaves supported by light brown, tuberous roots that appear just above the soil line.
Though the distinctive feature of the plant is its leaves, it does produce small yellowish flowers that develop into a round, green-ribbed fruit containing seeds. Propagation from these seeds is reliable, but the plant will just as easily reproduce from a cutting, which means it will retain the qualities of the parent plant.
Successful propagation can be accomplished by taking a woody stem, about 18 inches long, and placing it into a rooting medium such as a combination of vermiculite and perlite or establishing it directly in the garden in native soil. Shoots should appear soon from the latent buds found in the axils of the leaf scars.
Cassava plants grow best in full sun, but have very few other requirements. Even in the poor soils of some of the low atolls of the Pacific, cassava provides a reliable food source for the inhabitants. Though it can be grown at elevations from sea level to nearly 2,000 feet, the tender leaves of the plant need to be shielded from salt spray or heavy winds. Young cassava plants get a better start with a reliable water supply, though mature plants are fairly drought-tolerant.
The plants require little maintenance once established. To maintain lush growth, regular pruning can control its tendency to become leggy. Occasionally adding fertilizer will also encourage leaf and stem growth. Little else is required since the plant is not usually attacked by pests or diseases. To avoid pest or disease problems, do not overwater or overfertilize your plants. Either of these practices will attract problems to an otherwise trouble-free plant.
New cassava plants should form roots large enough to harvest in eight to 12 months. The leaves can be harvested at any time but should be cooked before eating. Though some varieties of cassava contain toxic amounts of hydrocyanic acid, the sweet cassava traditionally grown for food contains only small amounts that are easily neutralized by cooking. Eating any part of the plant raw can be toxic, however. Leaves are best when cooked fresh and eaten the same day. Harvested roots do not have a long shelf life. It is best to refrigerate them and eat them within two to five days.
The roots can often be used in the same way you might prepare potatoes. Agroforestry expert Craig Elevitch has grown and eaten cassava for many years. His favorite way to prepare the roots is to peel them, grate them and fry them like hash brown potatoes. He forms them into cakes and fries one side then adds a little water and covers them to steam for a few minutes. He then turns the cakes over and fries the other side. The result is a tasty, slightly sticky pancake that can complement any meal. Spices, herbs, onions and garlic can be added to enhance the mild cassava flavor.
Cassava recipes abound on the Internet, including yuca mofongo, white beans with manioc leaves and tapioca in coconut milk. Roasted cassava is both easy and delicious. Peel and chop the roots and cook them in a pot of salted water for 15 minutes or until tender. Toss the cassava pieces in olive oil and herbs with salt and pepper then roast in a 400-degree oven until brown, about 30 minutes. Sprinkle with lime juice and enjoy.
Cassava plants are experiencing a recent surge in popularity as gardeners are seeking edible plants to grow and prefer ones that are attractive and useful in many ways. Nurseries that carry or feature edible plants are likely to carry cassava. Call around to find a plant for your garden.
Diana Duff is a local organic farmer, plant adviser and consultant.