Sunday, June 02, 2013

Cassava: beyond tapioca pudding

In graduate school back in the 1980s, "cassava" was pretty much  a dirty word: empty calories, starchy, toxic, starvation/subsistence food, nutrient-deficient. etc. Not a food for the future, I was advised. Everyone seemed consumed by rice research and the "green revolution."

I vaguely knew there was an International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, based in Nigeria, that did something with cassava (aka yuca, manioc, mandioca), and had heard somewhere in Colombia there was a group (the International Center for Tropical Research) working with cassava, too. But this, anyway, was apparently unrelated to "cuisine."

How the times have changed. There is today a burst of enthusiasm about this tuber (and its leaves), both within African countries and around the world. Cassava is periodically featured in this blog. For example, I have written about the widespread consumption of  cassava in Brazil, and work of some of my colleagues to further respect for it. I have also included recipes using cassava flour, such as Brazil's popular pão de queijo as well as how to make cassava (yucca) dough or cassava (gari) biscuits.

Ghana is a huge wheat importer (estimated in 2010 to be about 270,000 million tons). Periodically, African governments encourage (or require by law) bakers to substitute cassava flour for part of this amount (e.g., in Ghana, in Nigeria, in Tanzania. However, there is still higher status attached to using (expensive) imported wheat flour, or using (expensive imported) rice (see my comments on Flora Nwapa's Cassava Song and Rice Song)

In 2001, an influential book was published, called The Cassava Transformation: Africa's Best-Kept Secret. The book challenged a number of myths about cassava, while also recognizing its growing importance in Africa and other parts of the tropical world. There have also been major research advances in improving varieties of cassava. Today cassava's image has been largely rehabilitated, and there is renewed interest in using it to replace part of the wheat flour commonly
imported into places like Ghana, Nigeria, or Tanzania. A few years ago I was delighted to see a factory near our house near Tema producing tasty Obama biscuits (cookies) from cassava flour.

I was reminded of the subject of cassava flour in May by a news announcement lauding one of Nigeria's former presidents, Obasanjo, on exporting cassava bread to Tanzania. I hope the rhetoric is matched by government and public support in Africa to raise the stature of cassava, not just for economic, but also culinary reasons.