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Cassava or manioc (Manihot esculenta) is a starch-producing plant of the euphorbiaceae family, originating in the Brazilian Guiana (northern Amazonas and Pará), in the south of the three Guianas (British, Dutch and French), in the south of Bahia and in the northeast of Minas Gerais. It was the Tupi-Guarani Indians, who occupied the Northeast Brazilian coast, who were responsible for spreading the edible use of manioc, which, produced through subsistence agriculture, represented their food base, at the time of discovery (by means of beijus and cauim, a very popular drink among the natives). In Olinda, manioc flour has been consumed since the 16th century with the Portuguese invention of flour mills.
There are two types of manioc: sweet, better known in Portuguese as aipim, macaxeira or mandioca mansa; and bitter, called mandioca brava. Both are identical in appearance: they have a brown rind and a white flesh that contains an acrid, milky juice. This liquid, because it contains a high proportion of hydrocyanic acid, is poisonous in wild manioc. However, through a process that involves boiling, the plant loses all its toxicity, being converted to flour or powder.
Largely used for food, cassava has both a high energy value and a low protein content. In turn, accompanied by dried meat, manioc flour was the main element in the diet of African slaves. For this reason, plantation masters and cane farmers were obliged to cultivate the tuber through permits and royal provisions (dated 1642, 1680 and 1690). Later decrees came to emphasise this obligation, demanding that they plant at least five hundred setts per slave.
Over time, along with sugar and coconut, manioc has been incorporated into the roll of important elements of the confectionery industry and Brazilian cuisine. Delicious recipes of cookies, cakes, biscuits, jellies, porridge, breads and other delicious foods are prepared with it. Since the 17th century, it has represented a significant ingredient on the tables of the Northeast and North, especially during June cooking. Manioc – which represents the true ‘bread’ of Brazil – is not cultivated in lands that have too much clay, in dry mountainous stretches, in fields full of stones or very steep, and on slopes with excess moisture.
It is necessary to clarify how manioc gum is made. The process of extracting this element is very simple. First, the root (previously peeled) is grated and squeezed, from which a milky liquid is extracted. Then this liquid is placed to rest in a container. At the bottom of it, after a few hours, a kind of mass will be deposited, which separates completely from the water: this mass is the manioc gum. You should then drain the water and place it in the sun to dry. When it is dry, it should be crushed with your hands and passed through a sieve, so that it turns into a fine white powder.
And how is the tapioca made from the gum?
Tapioca represents a traditional Brazilian delicacy, of indigenous origin, made with the starch extracted from manioc, known as gum. In other words, originally it is a kind of beiju [manioc gum which when spread on a hot plate or skillet coagulates and turns into a type of pancake or dry crepe] that has a layer of grated coconut inside.
To make tapioca, heat a fairly round nonstick metal pan of about twenty centimetres in diameter and spread a thin layer of cassava gum with a pinch of salt on it (enough to cover the bottom of the pan). With the back of a spoon, spread the gum and cover the bottom of the container evenly. As the plate heats, this powder coalesces, taking the form of a pancake or crepe, and its edges peel off the bottom. Heat the tapioca for a minute or two, turn with a spatula and let it heat for a few more seconds. While still on the pan, fill the tapioca with fresh grated coconut or a piece of curd cheese, fold it in half, seal it well making a semicircle (a half moon), add some ghee (optional) and serve hot.
In some tourist spots like Alto da Sé in the city of Olinda, Pernambuco, you can sample a tasty tapioca made on the spot – a product that is considered an immaterial cultural heritage of the region. In Alto da Sé, this tradition began with a lady named Dona Conceição in the 1970s, who became tapioqueira [tapioca maker] to support herself. At that time, during the height of the military dictatorship, the place was considered one of the places of the counterculture’s manifestation, and Olinda represented the focus of cultural resistance. The tapiocas were sold to students, intellectuals, politicians and popular and erudite artists, who promoted concerts and avant-garde theatre there. With the growth of tourism in Olinda, attracted mainly by the Carnival, the tapioqueiras multiplied in the city that is a cultural patrimony of humanity. Today, there is even an organised association.
One of the traditional foods in Pernambuco is wet tapioca. According to the recipe collected by the sociologist Gilberto Freyre, the milk is extracted from a coconut (with water), sugar and salt is added (to taste) and this liquid is poured over tapiocas (stuffed with grated coconut), wetting it well. Then they are layered, sprinkled with cinnamon, stuffed and served hot.
In restaurants a few years ago, tapioca was attracting the attention of chefs, who decided to turn it into attraction. Thus, at the intersection of creativity and skills, they invented various recipes and fillings and reinvented tapioca itself. At present, it is a hit in Brazilian cuisine and makes up part of the region’s delicacies.
The varied fillings offered today give a really special touch to tapioca. In the case of sweets, or sweet and savory, it is possible to taste it with the following fillings, besides the traditional grated coconut: cheese and guava jam, condensed milk, guava jam, strawberries, honey, chocolate, dulce de leche, brigadeiro, banana with honey, banana with cinnamon, banana and chocolate, grape jam, guava and mozzarella, strawberries and chocolate, chocolate and mozzarella, curd cheese and fried banana and cinnamon, fresh cheese and grape jam, banana and condensed milk and cinnamon, condensed milk and passion fruit.
In relation to savoury fillings, tapioca can be eaten with: butter and salt; mozzarella; mozzarella and catupiry; mozzarella, catupiry and provolone; mozzarella and cheddar; mozzarella and catupiry; provolone and cheddar; parmesan, ham and mozzarella; ham and provolone; ham and catupiry; ham, mozzarella and catupiry; chicken; chicken and catupiry; chicken and cheddar; chicken, mozzarella and catupiry; salami and catupiry; salami and provolone; fresh cheese, curd cheese, turkey breast and cheddar; fresh cheese, turkey breast and tomato; shrimp; peanut; brazil nut; beef jerky; sundried meat; and so many other tasty combinations.
From basic food of the Indians, from a shy dry beiju made from gum, the tapioca has become delicious folkloric delicacy. It is worth remembering that at present there are some commercial operations in the Southeast that only sell this traditional food, and which offer customers the opportunity to taste tapiocas with more than fifty types of fillings.
Recife, 27 December 2007.
Translated by Peter Leamy, December 2016.
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