Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Tropical Forest Foods: Sharing Manioc’s Story

Manioc Plant (flavorsofbrazil.blogspot.com)

Sharing food is sharing a story. No matter where in the world I find myself, every food has its own tale to tell. Food stories often involve where and with whom we shared the ‘best’ meal. But, many stories about food remain untold. This weekend, in preparation for a farewell dinner before I head off to Costa Rica, I uncovered manioc’s food story.

Manioc Roots (fruits-veges.blogspot.com)

The edible part of the manioc plant we find in supermarkets (Manihot esculenta) is a large root. Similar to the sweet potato, this is a storage root also called a tuber. The roots of manioc are harvested from plants 1- 5 meters tall; these shrubs belong to the Euphorbiaceae family of plants. In the tropics, manioc plants are typically found in people’s gardens and cultivated for small-scale use. 

Manioc (also known as cassava, yuca, or mandioca), may not be well known in Canada or the United States, but it is a dietary staple for people living in the tropics. In fact, next to wheat and rice, manioc contributes more to the diet of people living in the tropics than any other food.

Indigenous people have practiced manioc cultivation for millennia. The manioc domestication process began in South America somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 years ago. Much later, around 400 years ago, manioc was introduced into West Africa.
Edible Manioc Roots 

There are many different manioc varieties and indigenous peoples in Latin America may manage the cultivation of 100 or more varieties at a time (here in North America we likely only see one of these varieties). Some varieties of manioc are bitter and some are sweet. The bitter varieties are toxic for human consumption if eaten raw because they contain cyanide. Indigenous peoples have devised various systems to detoxify these bitter varieties of manioc. One such system involves the roots (tubers) being peeled, grated (like you would grate cheese), and the pulp placed into cylinder shaped containers. These cylinder containers are hung with a heavy weight attached to the base. The weight attached to the containers serves to compress the manioc pulp and expel any toxic juices. Once the toxic juice is removed, the manioc pulp can be washed and roasted, and prepared in many different dishes. In Brazil, for example, manioc pulp is made into flour (farinha) and used to make bread or tapioca. In Ghana, manioc is made into a paste (fufu) and served with many dishes, much like rice elsewhere. In many countries manioc is also fermented and used to make beer.

One of the reason’s manioc is an attractive food source is that it is easy to grow. It tolerates drought and infertile soils, recovers quickly from pest damage, and can be planted at any time of the year. While living in Costa Rica, I was always surprised with manioc’s heartiness when I found manioc plants in unexpected places, such as abandoned fields or roadsides.

Although manioc is high in calories, it is low in protein, vitamins A and E, iron and zinc. Considering manioc’s role in meeting the needs of many people, it may not be a surprise for me to tell you that research is underway to modify the nutritional content of these plants. This research is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Monsanto, and is an attempt to genetically engineered manioc varieties that are relatively high in iron and zinc.

Monsanto’s support was not provided without certain conditions. This corporation reserved the right to charge farmers for the use of these improved varieties if their income exceeds $10,000 a year.

Nutritional improvement, such as genetic engineering, is one way to address hunger, nutrition, and food security. Another is to work with people to understand some of the root causes of malnutrition, poverty, and food ‘insecurity’. As outsiders, often our perspectives of these problems are different from those of the people eating and growing plants. In planning my research, I received some wise guiding words from my Bribri (an indigenous group) colleague in Costa Rica. He expressed to me, in reference to studying how people use plants, how important it was to talk to people that use plants before making assumptions regarding what is needed to improve people’s lives. All too often, outsiders go into research with preconceived notions that indigenous people are poor and malnourished. In the case of many Bribri people, my colleague expressed this was not the case. Rather, tropical forests provide them with ample nutritious foods. More pertinent problems for the Bribri concern their rights to access plant resources in the face of rapid changes in land-use planning and property rights (e.g., intellectual property rights). This is a grave reminder that support for genetic engineering on rural people’s crops should not be granted without the guarantee that access and rights to these resources will not be lost in the process.

For those interested in trying manioc, it can be used as an alternative to potatoes or grain. In fact, 80 % of manioc’s total dry weight is edible (compared to only 35% for grain). And, even though manioc is highly perishable if left unprocessed, manioc products, such as flour and breads, can be stored a year or more. If you want to try manioc but don’t have an idea of how to prepare it, I suggest you start with fried manioc. Here is my Costa Rican recipe for yuca frita with chimichurri salsa.

Fried Manioc Recipe (serves 4):

1 – 2 manioc roots
butter and/or oil


Using a sharp knife, cut the manioc roots in half or in three parts. Peel the waxy thick brown skin off and rinse the white inside of the root. Chop this white root into rectangle-sized pieces, a little thicker than the size of carrot or celery sticks. I boil these sticks until you can stab them easily with a fork. Drain and set aside. Heat a pan of oil at medium heat and fry the boiled manioc sticks until golden brown. If you wish to use butter add this near the beginning of the frying process. Eat the fried manioc with chimichurri or dip these manioc fries into any of your favorite salsas.

Chimichurri (Salsa):

1 tomato
1 white onion
1 cucumber
1 juicy lime


Dice tomato, onion, and cucumber. Add a handful of cilantro and the juice of one lime. Add salt and pepper to taste. 

Nassar, N., & Ortiz, R. (2010). Breeding Cassava to Feed the Poor Scientific American, 302 (5), 78-84 DOI: 10.1038/scientificamerican0510-78

Heckler, S., & Zent, S. (2008). Piaroa Manioc Varietals: Hyperdiversity or Social Currency? Human Ecology, 36 (5), 679-697 DOI: 10.1007/s10745-008-9193-2

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