Friday, March 4, 2011

ingredient: TAPIOCA

To talk about tapioca we have to start by talking about cassava. About what? About cassava.

Cassava is the world’s largest crop you’ve never heard of. Or, at least, that you’ve never actually purchased or cooked with. (It’s O.K., I hadn’t either until I was working on a menu for a Brazilian-themed party.) But as the third most eaten carbohydrate in the world, I think it’s time we give cassava a little love.

Also known as manioc, boba, and yuca (not yucca), cassava is a woody shrub whose starchy, tubular roots were a prime food source for the pre-Columbian peoples of South America. It seems incredible to me that cassava has always been so popular because you can’t eat it raw. This isn’t like potatoes; they don't just taste bad when raw, they’re actually poisonous. Cassava roots contain toxic levels of cyanogenic glucosides, and you can get sick or even die if they're not properly prepared. Yet those ancient peoples, they just didn’t take no for an answer. Through what I’m guessing was a pretty nasty series of trial and error, they figured out that to make cassava root edible you must grind the root into flour, mix it with water until it becomes a thick paste, then spread the cassava paste over a basket and wait for at least five hours until most of the cyanide has evaporated. An obvious solution, I’m sure.

Cassava is an important crop in developing countries because it is highly caloric and contains substantial levels of calcium, potassium, and vitamin C. Cassava is an important crop in my own little world because it is used to make tapioca. Tapioca is a starch which is extracted from the cassava plant. The highlights of tapioca are that it’s gluten free, useful as a thickener, and can be made into those cute little balls we call tapioca pearls. I love tapioca pearls.

My love affair with tapioca stems from the fact that I’m a big fan of tapioca pudding. As with other foods that really wowed me, I remember the very first time I ever ate tapioca pudding. I was at my friend Kate’s house and she pulled a giant bowl of the stuff out of the fridge. At first I thought it was “just” vanilla pudding, but it turned out to be oh so much more. The homemade egg yolk-yellow pudding had an intense vanilla flavor and the most delightful texture. Though tapioca really has no flavor in itself, it makes other things, like bubble tea, seriously fun to eat. In fact bubble tea is reason #2 why I love tapioca. Sucking gummy balls through a giant straw while sipping on flavored sweet tea? Yes please.

My love was cemented this past week when I baked for the first time with tapioca flour. The following cheese bread is my new favorite thing ever (sorry, stuffed meatballs), and the chewy texture of tapioca flour is so fun that I'm going to continue play around.

P.S: Have a gluten allergy? This flour's for you.

Pão de Queijo
(Brazilian Cheese Bread, with a variation for Greek-Brazilian Cheese Bread)

I’ve loved Brazilian food since my childhood when my family would go over to a friend's house to eat feijoada, a hearty stew of black beans, salt pork, and sausage. The husband of the family was from Brazil, and on trips home he’d always pick up a bag of manioc flour so that we could have the traditional feijoada topping: lightly toasted coarse manioc flour. The topping was my favorite part and I top-loaded, not realizing I was blowing through a precious ingredient like it was table salt.

Feijoada is warming, flavorful and, at the time, unlike anything I was eating anywhere else. What I'm ashamed to admit is that until recently, despite my cooking exploits, despite this early introduction to real Brazilian cooking, I had still never picked up manioc flour or tried to make feijoada myself. Manioc flour was one of those ingredients I had dismissed as being too hard to find when the truth is that it took me one trip to one store (which wasn’t my crappy supermarket) to get it.

In a happy coincidence, just as I was thinking about Brazilian food a friend decided to lament the absence of good pao de quijo in America. I did a double take because I didn’t even know that Brazilians had their own special cheese bread. Admittedly this is something that I should have known or guessed, because cheese + bread is the universal recipe.

I was worried, again, that the cheese bread might be difficult to make, but quite the contrary. In fact, it belongs to my favorite category of recipes: Things You Can Make In Your Food Processor. The prep was fast and the results so delicious that I don’t want to admit how many of these little suckers I ate. The tapioca flour makes them pleasantly chewy in a way that they wouldn’t be with white flour. They also meet the you-want-to-eat-this-now requirement of being cheesy, hot, and salty.

NB: These are traditionally made with a South American cheese, and for my first batch I used queso fresco, a white farmers cheese from Mexico. I wanted to make a second batch because they were that good, but I was out of queso fresco. I always have feta lying around, and I happened to have haloumi as well. Haloumi is a salty, semi-firm cheese from Cyprus that’s ideal for melting, so I grated it up and threw it in. The results? Amazing. I see a continuing Greek-Brazilian alliance in the future.

1 egg
1/3 cup olive oil
2/3 cup milk
Scant 1 1/2 cups (170 grams) tapioca flour
1/2 cup (packed, about 66 grams) grated queso fresco (variation for Greek-Brazilian Cheese Bread: Haloumi)
1 teaspoon of salt (or more to taste)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Grease two twelve cup mini muffin tins.

Put all ingredients in the bowl of a food processor.

Pulse until smooth, about 7 seconds. Pour batter into cups, filling 2/3 full.

Bake until puffed and golden brown, 15 to 20 minutes. Serve warm.


  1. I used to eat yuca all the time when I was younger!

    My grandmother would make it with "mojo." Cubans tend to eat it one of two ways - fried like french fries, or boiled with "mojo." We make mojo with sauteed onions and garlic and lime juice.

    I haven't really eaten it since my grandmother passed away because it's really hard to find yuca that's cooked just right. People tend to either under cook it, in which case it's hard as a rock and stringy, or make it too dry.

    I might have to try making yuca con mojo now that I see this recipe.

    I'm also definitely going to have to try this recipe as well. If I could live off cheese and bread, I think I would...

  2. Erm, I regularly cook Cassava root that I've simply boiled for 15 minutes and not died.
    There are two different types a bitter one and a not bitter one, the bitter one is the one with poison and doesn't really get sold outside of regions where it grows...