One of the advantages of visiting my foodie family is that I am treated to my favorite foods – and this time around I was lucky enough to enjoy fresh kappa and meen (tapioca and fish) not just once, but three times. Tapioca is technically the starch taken from the cassava root, but in Kerala, India, the root and its preparation are interchangeably called tapioca – a custom derived from its Portuguese origins. Originally from Brazil, cassava is a carbohydrate that is eaten throughout Asia, Africa, and South America. Aside from eating the fresh tuber, starch from cassava root is made into flour and tapioca pearls, the glistening “pearls” that are found in bubble tea, falooda, and tapioca pudding.
With the advent of low-carbohydrate/high-protein diets, complex starches like potato and cassava have come under unfair scrutiny. However, for a properly functioning system, we do need plant-based starches for energy. It is for this reason that I decided to post about a complex carbohydrate source. I chose to showcase cassava in a two-part blog – the first on cooking the root tuber, and the second, using the gluten-free tapioca flour and pearls, derivatives of the original root.
The taste of cooked cassava is similar to a potato – with maybe a little more of a fibrous texture. A fresh cassava root has a tough outer skin similar to winter squashes, and travels well thereby extending its shelf life. The hardest part of using fresh cassava is cutting and peeling the tough skin. Once that is done, cassava cooks as simply as boiling a potato. Cooked cassava has a mild taste and adds bulk to stews; it also makes an ideal pairing with fiery dishes.
Note: The root contains toxins that are removed when cassava is boiled. If you want to try out the raw taste, you can also buy the pre-cooked frozen cassava.
How to prepare and cook fresh cassava:
- Bring a pan of water to boil.
- In the meantime, scrub the cassava root under running water.
- Place it on a cutting board; use a sharp knife to cut through the root.
- Hold the cut half upright, and peel back the tough outer layer and the purple skin. Repeat for the other half, cut off the ends, and you should be left with a white root.
- Wash the root well. Cut into large cubes.
- Add the root to boiling water. Let it cook for 30-50 minutes, depending on the freshness of the root. It is ready when you can pierce it easily with a fork.
- Drain the cassava pieces in a colander. Rinse with fresh water.
Fu Fu: In Africa, the cooked cassava is mashed like potato. While it is still hot, add butter, salt and pepper. Serve Fu Fu (or Fufu) with a hardy stew.
In Sri Lanka and Kerala, the boiled cassava is served with a punchy chutney made with green chili, onion, and coconut oil.
Tapioca (Kerala style)
Cassava – 1 medium
Oil – 3 tbsp
Mustard seeds – 1 tbsp
Cumin seeds – ½ tbsp
Shallot (or 1 small onion) – 2, chopped finely
Red chili – 3
Curry leaves (optional) – 1 sprig
Turmeric powder – ¼ tsp
Unsweetened shredded coconut – ½ cup
- Cook the cassava (above).
- Heat the oil in a pan.
- Add the mustard seeds. Wait until they pop before adding the cumin seeds.
- As soon as the cumin seeds start to sizzle, add the onions.
- Sauté until the onions start to brown.
- Add the rest of the ingredients and stir-fry for one minute.
- Add the cooked tapioca and blend it with the mixture.
Enjoy with a spicy stew or as a savory snack.