A Tale of Tapioca: Daddy’s Little Deception


Miffed and mildly embarrassed, my high school senior, Jo, admitted one more time to friends at school that, as a little girl, her dad told her that tapioca was fish eggs. I smiled back then as I overheard him, but I guess I figured she’d know he was kidding. Since no one corrected her misconception, she went on believing this for several years before the topic came up again, (probably with friends at school) when she discovered the truth.
During her most recent discussion about it, something new came out — the fact that other kids had been deceived about tapioca, too. This begged the question: how much do most people know about tapioca? A little research helped me produce the following summary.
Tapioca is easily digested, almost pure, starch (too bad, Atkins enthusiasts) used to thicken soups and broths and also make pudding combined with cream or fruit. It comes from the manioc, cassava, or yucca plant which grows in tropical or subtropical climates. Native to South America, the world’s largest grower, Brazil, uses manioc flour, ground from the root, as a staple part of the diet, often used as widely as we use wheat flour. Manioc root may be boiled or roasted much like a potato. One web site states that manioc is Brazil’s answer to French fries.
When the Portuguese arrived in the New World in the early 1500s, the manioc tuber was the main staple of the natives. It is a wonder that the Brazilian Indians determined these tubers were edible at all. To be detoxified, they had to be peeled, grated, and the pulp put into long supple cylinders made of woven plant fibers. Each tube was hung with a weight at the bottom, which compressed the pulp and expressed the poisonous juice. The pulp could then be removed, washed and roasted, rendering it safe to eat.
The product was a toasted, coarse meal known as farinha de mandioca, which is as basic to the diet of Brazilians today as it was to the early Indians (often found as a tabletop condiment accompanying the salt and pepper shakers.) Starch settling out from the extracted juice was heated on a flat surface, causing individual starch grains to pop open and clump together into small, round granules – tapioca.
Today, after roasting and sifting the roots, tapioca is graded and sold as flake, bullet, medium, and pearl. The starch sometimes sold as “native tapioca” in the U. S. (meaning “native” to the United States) is not cassava but made from potatoes. Although this is an adequate substitute as a thickener, it does not contain the same nutritional value. The energy found in tapioca’s sugar is absent from the potato substitute.
In common Brazilian cooking, farofa (toasted manioc meal) can be used in many ways. Manioc meal is available in most Asian food stores. Try this simple dish (I’m wondering if this would work with our cream of wheat granules):
Farofa de Manteiga
2 to 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 small onion, coarsely chopped
1 egg
1 cup manioc flour
2 tablespoons fresh parsley, minced
salt and pepper to taste
Saute onion in butter until soft and golden. Reduce heat and add egg, stirring until scrambled and well mixed. Gradually add manioc flour stirring until mixture becomes golden and resembles toasted bread crumbs. Add salt and pepper and stir in parsley. Can be embellished by adding olives, bacon, sausage, cashews or other nuts, bananas, prunes, etc.


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