In this country, the question of how to round out a meal of meat and vegetables with a starch usually leads straight to the potato. But in other regions of the world, particularly Latin America, Africa, and parts of Asia, the answer is frequently cassava. Large, starchy, and seemingly inedible when raw, the tuber can initially be intimidating, especially if you’ve never prepared one or lack a cultural connection to it — its rough skin and rootlike appearance might make you question how long it will need to boil until you can realistically sink your teeth into it. But for much of the world’s growing population, cassava is a major source of sustenance, making it a big player in our increasingly complicated food chain.
While cassava has recently become more visible in this country as an ingredient in health-conscious snacks and plant-based food products, it hasn’t quite found its way onto the average American’s dinner table. A lack of awareness is undoubtedly a factor, but cassava also finds itself the target of misinformation and even controversy. Needless to say, this important but misunderstood tuber deserves a closer look.
What is cassava?
Also commonly known as yuca or manioc, cassava is a tuber crop native to South America. The root grows similarly to potatoes, yams, or ginger by swelling underneath the earth to store nutrients for the following season. For centuries, cassava was eaten by Indigenous communities who live along the banks of the Amazon river, where it is believed to have originated.
From the ground up, cassava looks like a tall, thin tree with long leaves that can grow up to 3 meters in height. The thick roots underneath the surface are what usually get consumed as food, but the leaves are commonly eaten in West African cuisines as well.
There are two main varieties of cassava: sweet and bitter. The sweet variety is what you’ll find at your local supermarket and in cassava-based products; its flavor profile is mild, somewhat nutty, and subtly sweet. When boiled, both its taste and texture are very reminiscent of a cooked potato ready