Monday, May 7, 2012

On The Road - Belém (Pt.5) - Manioc, Let Me Count the Ways

As we mentioned in last Friday's post about the three cornerstones of the cuisine of Belém, the staple carbohydrate upon which the cuisine in built is the tropical tuber manioc (Manihot esculenta), alternatively known in English as cassava or sometimes yuca. Manioc is to Belenense cooking what rice is to Chinese, wheat is to Italian cooking and the potatoes is to Irish - the supplier of the major portion of the population's daily nutritional intake. In the Amazonian region of Brazil, where Belém is located, up to 33% of the daily caloric intake comes from manioc in some form or another.
Bitter manioc tuber

What is most astonishing about this tuber, first domesticated in the southwestern portion of the Amazonian basin as long as ten thousand years ago, is its chameleon-like nature. Manioc shows up in all kinds of shapes, forms and consistencies in Belém and it's hard to imagine that two dishes as different as the soupy broth called tacacá and the crunchy, gritty flour called farinha that is sprinkled on top of grilled meats share a common ingredient. And that ingredient could only be manioc. Manioc can look like mashed potatoes, as when it tops arrumadinho, the Brazilian take on shepherd's pie. It can look just like french fries. Or it can be an airy, light form of bread - as in Brazilian  pão de queijo. It even makes an appearance at North American dessert tables, disguised as tapioca pudding. Those pearly balls in the pudding are manioc, as are the "bubbles" in Asian bubble tea. It's an infinitely versatile food, and the cooking of Belém would be radically different without it.

Producers, vendors and cooks of manioc in Belém sort manioc plants into two types, normally called sweet (doce) or bitter (amargo). It's a good thing that they do, too, for bitter manioc is highly poisonous in its natural, uncooked form. Both types of manioc contain cyanide poison in their tubers, roots and leaves, but the quantity is much less in sweet manioc. A kilogram of sweet manioc contains approximately 20 mg. of hydrogen cyanide, but the same quantity of bitter manioc can contain 50 times as much. Since as little as 40 mg. of this chemical can be fatal, bitter manioc is toxic indeed.

Fortunately, the toxins present in bitter manioc can be removed by processing and cooking the plant, something that Amerindians discovered at the time they first domesticated manioc. This detoxification can be accomplished by long cooking - the technique that's used when cooking manioc leaves, which must be cooked for an entire week without stopping before they are served. Tubers are processed by mashing or milling the root, then squeezing out the liquid which contains most of the toxins, and cooking the remainder.
Ground manioc leaves, Ver-o-peso market, Belém

Brazilian Portuguese makes it easy to differentiate between sweet manioc and bitter, though there are regional dialectical differences which cloud the picture. The bitter type is called mandioca, from a Tupi word that is also the basis for English manioc. Sweet manioc is called mandioca-doce, mandionca-mansa, macaxeira, or aipim depending on region. In English, dangerously, both bitter and sweet are called manioc or cassava.
Tucupi, Ver-o-peso market, Belém

As we explore the gastronomy of Belém in this series of On The Road posts, we'll run into manioc again and again. It already showed up in a liquid form in yesterday's recipe for pato no tucupi (duck in tucupi). Tucupi is made by squeezing the liquid from bitter manioc tubers, then letting the liquid sit until the starch settles out and can be removed. The remaining liquid is cooked to rid it of poisons, resulting in  tucupi. That settled starch, by the way, is later dried and becomes tapioca. Just one more transformation of this remarkable plant.


  1. Wonderful blog about Brazilian Food!

    Will be checking on it again! Nice job@

  2. Very interesting! The sweet variety is just called "mandioca" in Sao Paulo (although "aipim" is gaining popularity). Some people call the other type "mandioca-brava". (mansa/brava, get it?)

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