Cassava has amazing properties, so this sweet, starchy and nut‐flavoured tuber may become a staple in your pantry.
Also, known as manioc or yucca, cassava belongs to the spurge family of plants called Euphorbiaceae. It most likely originated in South American forest regions, but it’s also grown very inexpensively in parts of Asia, Africa and the Southern US. For centuries, it’s been a food mainstay for millions of people.
Cassava is a perennial, usually grown in tropical climates and is very simply propagated by using a cut portion of the stem. Often compared to large yams, the roots can weigh several pounds. They have tough, scaly and brown skin and starchy, white ‘meat’ inside, but care must be taken when harvesting because the shelf life is only a few days.
Purchase cassava roots at large groceries, and store them at room temperature for a week. They can then be peeled and boiled, baked or fried, cooked and dried for later use, or fermented. The leaves are also used for food and contain one hundred times more protein than the root, but both must be cooked and the water discarded.
Whilst cassava roots are like white potatoes, cassava contains almost twice the calories, and may be the highest‐calorie tuber known. One cup of boiled cassava contains 330 calories, 78 grams of carbohydrates, 3 grams of protein and 4 grams each of fibre and sugar. If you’ve ever had tapioca, you’ve had a form of cassava, as tapioca is the starchy liquid extracted from the root; cassava is the ground root itself. The content is essentially pure carbohydrates, with negligible fibre, protein or nutrients.
Moisture is removed from the root either by evaporation or squeezing it out after being ground, leaving a fine, white powder. Dried, it’s often sold as flour or pressed into flakes or ‹pearls’, which should be boiled before you eat them; 1 part dry pearls to 8 parts water is a good ratio.
While tapioca starch provides energy with very little nutritional value, it is gluten‐free, which is valuable to a growing number of people who are allergic or sensitive to gluten. It also has several uses in place of flour for both cooking and baking such as:
- Tapioca makes a popular pudding made up of chewy, mildly sweet ‘pearls’ as well as bubble tea, an Asian concoction usually served cold.
- Gluten and grain‐free bread made from tapioca is sometimes combined with other flours such as coconut flour or almond meal to improve the nutrition.
- As a thickener, tapioca is excellent for bulking up the consistency of soups or stews, and is essentially flavourless.
- Flatbread made from tapioca is most often found in developing countries because it is inexpensive and very versatile.
- Added to burgers and dough, tapioca is a binder that can improve the texture and moisture content in foods without becoming soggy.
Cassava roots contain the toxic compound linamarin, which converts to hydrogen cyanide. Improper cooking of cassava root is associated with cyanide poisoning, which can cause symptoms of vomiting, nausea, dizziness, stomach pains, headache, irreversible paralysis from a disease called konzo and even death. Cassava should never be eaten raw.