Manioc: From Indigenous Staple to Brazilian “French Fries”
by Joan Peterson
Bill Hinchberger Edmar serves up the manioc at the A La Carte Mineiro Bar and Restaurant in São Paulo
Manioc is Brazil's answer to French fries. The tuber, also known as cassava root, was the main staple of the Brazilian natives at the time of discovery and has become an important food in all of Brazil. It is presented in several versions: as paçoca, carimã, mingau, beiju, farinha de mandioca and tucupi. Here in this excerpt from Eat Smart in Brazil is a little of the history behind manioc and some recipes, so you can also taste this delicacy.
The coast of Brazil was already a legal possession when the Portuguese arrived in the New World in April 1500 - by chance according to some accounts, having been blown off course on a voyage originally intended for India. The rights to this land were made possible by the Treaty of Tordesillas, signed by Portugal and Spain in 1494, which effectively parceled the lands of the New World between them.
The new arrivals were essentially traders, who saw little other than the plentiful dyewood called pau brasil that might be profitably traded in the New World. For the next several decades, occasional forays were made inland by these brazilwood merchants, or brasileiros,to obtain this commodity for which the new land ultimately was named. It was not until the 1530s, however, that settlers began to arrive.
The coastal Tupi Indians were the first aboriginal people to interact with the Portuguese, and in general, these contacts were peaceful.
For years, settlers came to Brazil without their women - wives, if they were married, or female relatives. They soon found that the native women were far from reluctant to assume the white women's role in bed as well as in the kitchen. As a result, Brazilian cookery developed with a solid native core - the heritage of these first Brazilian cooks and mothers of the first Brazilians born in the New World.
Since the humid, tropical environment was unsuitable for wheat and several other crops the Portuguese men were accustomed to eating, they were forced to develop many new eating habits based on indigenous foods. Of the many foods introduced by the native cooks, the manioc tuber, or cassava root, was a profound dietary change for these colonists. It was the main staple of the natives, a carbohydrate-rich food that is easy to propagate but difficult to process, at least for the bitter variety, which is poisonous when raw.
It is astonishing that the Indians determined that these tubers were edible at all. To detoxify manioc, the tubers had to be peeled and grated and the pulp put into long, supple cylinders - called tipitis - made of woven plant fibers. Each tube was then hung with a heavy 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 or flour known as farinha de mandioca, which is as basic to the diet of Brazilians today as it was to the early Indians. (Invariably, it will be found as a table top 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 called tapioca. The extracted juice, boiled down to remove the poison, was used as the basis of the sauce known as tucupi. In the northern region of modern Brazil, several noted and delicious dishes incorporate this traditional sauce.
Manioc meal became many things in the hands of the Indian women. Pulverized meal was mixed with ground fish to produce a concoction called paçoka, or paçoca as it is known today. For the children, small, sun-dried cakes called carimã were prepared. There was a porridge or paste known as mingau, and thin, crisp snacks called beijus, made of either tapioca flour or dough from a non-poisonous, or sweet variety of manioc known as macaxeira or aipim. These sweet manioc tubers, which are somewhat fibrous but considerably easier to prepare, were also pared, boiled for several hours to soften them and eaten like potatoes.
The popularity today of a snack of fried, sweet manioc strips, Brazil's answer to French fries, further attests to the important contribution of this foodstuff to Brazilian cuisine by the Indians.
Corn was another Indian staple that the colonists used as a substitute for wheat. Learning from the Indians, the Portuguese made corn porridges called acanijic, which can be found today as canjica or mugunzá, and used corn husks as containers to steam a sweet mixture of corn and coconut called pamuna, which came to be known as pamonha.
The continuing preference for manioc and corn flours over wheat is apparent in many areas of Brazil today. A great variety of these flours is available, including the fine, sweet or sour types, called polvilhos, made from tapioca starch. Cheese rolls called pão de queijo (see recipe) made from polvilho flour and eaten while still warm are incomparable.
It is clear that the Portuguese settlers early on had come to appreciate the indigenous foodstuffs that they had originally eaten out of necessity because the climate did not allow for wheat production. Eventually, they began cultivating sugar cane and in the middle of the sixteenth century had turned to Africa for slaves to work the fields. In the process, they introduced to the African continent both manioc and the Indian way of processing it into an edible form. Thus manioc took "root" in Africa also and became an important part of the foodways of many people there.
For a taste treat, try the following recipes using manioc meal. Outside of Brazil, this product is obtainable in specialty stores carrying Brazilian and other South American food items, and is also available in most Asian food stores.
FAROFA DE MANTEIGA
Buttered manioc meal
This recipe is one of many ways plain manioc meal can be embellished with flavorful ingredients.
2-3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 small onion coarsely chopped
1 cup manioc meal
2 tablespoons fresh parsley, minced
salt and pepper to taste
Sauté onion in butter until soft, but not browned. Reduce heat and add egg, stirring until scrambled and well mixed. Gradually add manioc meal until the mixture becomes golden and resembles toasted bread crumbs. Add salt and pepper and stir in parsley.
PÃO DE QUEIJO
These rolls are especially popular in the center-west, southeastern and southern regions of Brazil.
1 cup tapioca starch
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup water
1 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons plain yogurt, nonfat or regular
1 cup grated parmesan cheese
Preheat oven to 450°F. Put tapioca starch in a metal bowl. Mix oil, water and salt in a pan. Bring to a boil. Pour the sputtering mixture onto the tapioca starch carefully to protect yourself from hot spatters. Mix together with a wooden spoon. Dough will be stiff. When cool enough to touch, add egg and mix well. Blend in yogurt. When well mixed, stir in cheese. Rub hands with oil and form batter into balls. Place on a greased baking sheet. Reduce oven temperature to 350°F. Bake 25_30 minutes, or until done. The rolls puff up during baking, but become flattened when cool.