- Cassava is the third largest source of food carbohydrates in the tropics after rice and maize. Around 60 percent of global production is concentrated in five countries: Nigeria, Brazil, Thailand, Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. World cassava production since the 1970s has risen on average by 2.2% per annum.
- Without cassava, we wouldn't have tapioca, the base to the much-maligned school pudding of the same name. Made by extracting starch from the cassava root, tapioca comes in many forms – flour, flakes, pearls – and has recently come back into fashion, appearing on menus at restaurants such as The Ledbury.
- Cassava contains a toxin called linamarin, which is converted into cyanide if eaten raw. Each kilogram of cassava is said to contain 20mg of cyanide, so roots must be properly prepared and cooked before being consumed.
At first glance, cassava may seem like a simple root vegetable, but study it more intently and you'll find it featuring in dishes in ways its fellow tubers can merely dream of.
A staple ingredient in African, South American, Caribbean and Asian cuisines, it also known as yucca, mandioca and casaba, among other names. It is used in multiple ways: boiled, fried and baked, grated and fermented, or ground into flour for use in bread and cakes. (In this way it also functions as a gluten-free wheat substitute.)
As Collin Brown, executive chef at Caribbean restaurant group Cottons, says, cassava’s fairly neutral flavour – sweeter than potato but not as intense as sweet potato – means it works well with stronger flavoured foods, or as an accompaniment such as chips or crisps.
At Las Iguanas, head of food Glenn Evans is currently developing a number of dishes featuring cassava in all its glory. They include chips made from cassava, a seasoned cassava flour to make a crumb for calamares, a cassava-flour-based dough for pao de queijo (a Brazilian cheese dough ball) and farofa – a textured seasoning used to thicken curries or stews.
Growing interest in West African cuisine in the UK is likely to expose us further to cassava, with the root vegetable used heavily in cooking across the continent, whether boiled and mashed, thinly sliced and fried, or grated, pressed and dried to make garri – a starchy type of grain which itself is used in multiple ways. The possibilities with cassava, it seems, are endless.
Collin Brown, executive chef of Cottons Restaurants & Rum Shacks, makes a flat bread using cassava: Cassava is a great and versatile root vegetable, which complements and enhances so many things. We use it in our bammy, which is a Jamaican type of flat bread. To make the dish, you grate the cassava, add a little bit of water and then run it through a sieve. You then separate the water and use the remaining dry part as the basis for your bammy. Next, you add a little salt, shape it into disks and fry in a pan. Bammy goes wonderfully with escovitch (a pickling sauce made with vinegar, pimento, onions, pepper and sometimes carrots).”
Patricia Roig, head chef at Lima Floral, makes a dish of black cassava, seared octopus, semi-dried tomatoes and seaweed aioli: “We cut the cassava into 5cm batons and cook them in prawn stock coloured with squid ink. Once fully cooked, they are left to cool in the liquid. The octopus is steamed in the oven for an hour, then placed flat on a tray and chilled. When chilled, we take one tentacle of the octopus and sear it in a very hot pan. To make the aioli, we combine egg yolk, olive oil and add some chopped seaweed. Finally, we deep-fry the black cassava until crispy. Cooking the cassava in prawn stock gives a strong shellfish aroma to the dish, which works in harmony with the octopus. Deep-frying it then gives it a lovely crispy texture, striking the perfect balance with the tender octopus.”
Glenn Evans, head of food at Las Iguanas, makes farofa with cassava flour, which he uses in Brazilian curries like xinxim and moqueca: “We use a rustic cassava flour that we toast with coconut and butter for a popular Brazilian accompaniment called farofa. Farofa is served with most Brazilian curries and stews as a textured seasoning. Our farofa is made with equal quantities of cassava flour and desiccated coconut, and then mixed with melted butter and toasted in a pan until golden brown. The farofa can give a nice texture to any of our Brazilian curries, with the coconut giving a little extra sweetness too.”