What’s cassava? Is that the process of how cava is made?
Nope, there is no sparkling wine in sight. Cassava is a tropical plant native to South America’s rainforest, but it has expanded across Asia and Africa, including India, Indonesia, Ghana and Nigeria.
Also known as yuca, it’s a staple food for about 700 million people worldwide as it’s grown in around 90 countries. The plant is very resilient, surviving where many other crops fail, and involves less human investment per calorie than potatoes.
Okay, so no bubbles then. What’s it good for then?
The leaves and the tubers of the cassava plant can be used in a wide range of food. The tubers are similar to potatoes, which means they can be boiled, fried or mashed. Back in 2015, McDonald’s outlets in Venezuela outlets offered cassava fries as there was a shortage of potatoes.
But it’s not taking off in fried form in the West. Instead, it’s the latest wheat substitute to hit the shelves, as the tubers can be ground into flour and used in bread and cakes.
And just to clear up any confusion, it is not the same as tapioca flour. Tapioca is the starch extracted from the cassava root, whereas cassava flour is the whole root.
Why should I be popping the cork on this one?
Its biggest selling point is that it’s closest in flavour and texture to traditional wheat flour and can generally be used to replace wheat flour on a 1:1 basis.
Also, it can save you money. Flour made from cassava can be up to half the price of regular wheat flour, says the Food and Agriculture Organisation.
Plus, there have been warnings that wheat crops could be hindered by rising global temperatures, meaning it will become scarce and more expensive, so cassava flour could help fill the hole.
At a recent talk on trends at Hotelympia, Sylvia Garvin, founder of Sejuiced, noted that cassava flour is popping up more and more in health products.
So where can I top up on cassava flour?
In the UK, health stores like Holland & Barrett, as well as Amazon, sell the flour.
So far it’s made much more of an impact on foods in America. Texas-based company Siete uses it to replace corn – helpful to those who struggle to digest legumes, beans and corn.
Siete has a line of tortillas made with cassava flour combined with either coconut or chia, and it also makes a range of flavoured tortilla chips that are produced with the flour.
In an appeal to the paleo crowd, US outfit Birch Benders makes a pancake mix from cassava flour (as well as organic coconut flour and almond flour). They are also launching frozen waffles in April.
In Boston, a mother-and-son duo are opening a restaurant called Delicias 100% Express, which will specialise in cativias – the cousins to empanadas. They are a typical Dominican street food made with (you guessed it) cassava flour, stuffed with various ingredients and then deep-fried.
Back in the UK, the Modern Pantry in Clerkenwell has coconut and cassava flour waffles with maple syrup on its menu.
Are there cheers on the health side?
The reviews are mixed. While it is vegan friendly, paleo, gluten free and nut free, making it excellent for those with intolerances, it is low in fibre and protein and can contain excessive sodium. Apparently, it is a good source of vitamin C though.
There is also naturally occurring cyanide in cassava root – mostly concentrated in the peel – so care should be taken to remove it if making the flour from scratch.
So is Sparkie going crazy for cassava flour?
It’s part of the pursuit for ever more gluten-free, low-GI, high-nutritional and clean-label ingredients.
Most "free-from" consumers accept that they will pay a higher price for the products they need but the overwhelming sentiment is that the consumers who take up this mantle following the health fads have been a double edged sword. It has grown the market massively and introduced a much wider selection of products but also pushed prices higher because the fad-followers will pay it.
As the fads are dying down, the products that will be the most successful in this category are those that can match a similar price point of the allergen-containing foods while maintaining some interesting innovation.
As for cassava flour specifically, it seems to have potential – there are a wide range of online recipes for making gluten free products but the only consistent trails of products are premium mixes. If it offers much in the way of quality or price benefit over what is currently used, making actual food products from it could do well.
A word of warning – if anyone plays with the root-to-tip trend with cassava, they could fall flat on their face literally! Cassava contains two cyanogenic glucosides which can turn into hydrogen cyanide which isn’t very good for anyone. It requires the right kind of treatment for it to be safe, and in general when people play with new ingredients, they don’t look at the small print.
It is plentiful, light and works quite well in gluten-free baking, good for thickening and good for energy.