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 for a mash or wedge of butter.
Where does cassava grow?
As its Amazonian origins suggest, cassava grows well in tropical and subtropical climates, but its adaptability is what led it to become a global staple. One of the world’s most drought-resistant crops, it can withstand various harsh conditions and thrive in poor-quality soils. Durability and adaptability made cassava a predominant food source throughout the developing world, and today it helps feed over 800 million people across Latin America, Asia, and Africa. Nigeria, Thailand, and the Democratic Republic of Congo are its biggest producers.
What is cassava used for?
In addition to being nearly indestructible in the wild, cassava is also incredibly versatile. Once the roots are harvested, they can either be sold as-is or transformed into an array of products.
If bought whole, the roots can be peeled, boiled, and then fried, mashed, or pureed. Their high levels of starch can be extracted to create tapioca, a common thickener for desserts, soups, and manufactured foods. Tapioca is also the key ingredient to the jelly-like pearls that so many of us enjoy in boba teas.
“Cassava is the most popular food crop in the whole of West Africa,” says Lookman Afolayan, co-owner of Brooklyn’s Buka. Opened in 2010, the Nigerian restaurant has become a gathering place for the local Nigerian community and others who are fans of West African cooking. “Preparation varies according to region, but every part of the cassava plant is used in West Africa,” Afolayan explains. “You can soak garri (fermented cassava flour) in cold water and eat it like a cereal with sugar or you can mix it in boiling water to make eba. The young, fresh leaves of the plant are used to make soups with smoked fish. It’s also the most common source of animal feed for goats and can be used as firewood once it’s dried.”
Tell me more about cassava flour.
Cassava can be ground and dried into a gluten-, grain-, and nut-free flour, making it a popular baking alternative for those with dietary restrictions.
“Ninety-five percent of my customers love our dough, while 5 percent ask if it’s undercooked because they’re not used to the chewy texture of cassava bread,” says Jorge Flores, owner of Cassava Empanadas in Chicago. Born and raised in Ecuador, Flores grew up eating meat-filled empanadas and pan de yuca (cheese-flavored cassava rolls) made from the root’s nutty flour.
“When I go back to Ecuador once a year, pan de yuca is the first thing I want,” he says of his decision to open his own cassava-focused shop. “There is some nostalgia that comes with eating these in the U.S., but I also liked the idea of having my own business.” When he first opened in 2010 he enjoyed a good reception, but was “more surprised by how many customers love our empanadas or bread because it’s gluten-free,” Flores says. “Now about 20 percent of my clientele is either celiac or gluten-free, so we slowly made it a big part of our concept.”
Where can I buy cassava?
Raw cassava is commonly found in American grocery stores, especially those with extensive Latin American and Asian food sections. You can also often find cassava peeled and prepackaged in frozen food aisles. Latin American, Asian, and African food stores typically stock cassava-based products, and many health food stores sell cassava flours and sweeteners.
How do you prepare cassava?
As mentioned above, raw cassava should always be peeled before being prepared. If you buy it frozen, the pieces of cassava will come pre-peeled and ready for a boil in salted water. Once it’s soft and thoroughly cooked, the root can be fried to create delicious yucca fries, which are great with aioli, Parmesan cheese, or a steak dinner. You can also soak, ferment, grate, and press raw cassava in a cheesecloth to create garri flour, which is a process that typically takes about three days (you can also buy garri flour at the store).
“You’ll see every student in Nigeria with a bag of garri, which gets soaked in cold water and sweetened with sugar or honey to create a cereal. Garri is also how you make eba, which is a swallow food. In West Africa, swallow food is a type of soft food we eat with our meals,” says Afolayan.
On the sweet end of the spectrum, grated cassava can also be cooked with sugar and coconut cream, wrapped in banana leaves, and boiled to form suman, a Filipino snack similar to the Mexican tamal. Other sweet recipes include Indonesian kuih bingka ubi (a baked tapioca cake), tapioca puddings, and other various cakes.
“Once you boil it, you can fry cassava with some butter and garlic, which tastes great. But I’d say I eat cassava as a root about once a year,” says Flores. “I much prefer it as a flour to make empanadas or baked bread.” In its flour form, cassava can also be toasted for a salty side dish like or act as the base for some gluten-free flour tortillas and crackers.
But wait: I’ve heard that cassava is toxic. What gives?
The answer to this complicated question is: It depends. While that might not sound too reassuring, please note that sweet cassava (the variety sold commercially) has very low levels of cyanide, most of which is in the peel, which gets removed entirely when cassava is prepared properly. At least 50 percent of the root’s cyanide content is removed by boiling, and further reduced by other cooking methods like frying and baking. Cassava flour, which has been dried and pounded, has lost almost all of its cyanide content by the time it’s sold.
Cassava contains cyanogenic glycosides, which release cyanide into the body when consumed. Soaking or cooking the root thoroughly will eliminate small traces of cyanide, but those who consume yuca in large quantities, prepare it improperly, or don’t eat enough protein (which helps rid the body of cyanide) are still at risk, particularly if they consume bitter cassava, which has up to eight times the amount of cyanide as sweet cassava per kilogram. Consequently, the FDA warns against the consumption of bitter cassava since it requires a more thorough preparation process than sweet cassava to make it safe to eat. Although it can be found in markets in parts of Africa and South America, it is often used to make byproducts like cassava starch, flours, and condiments such as Guyanese cassareep, all of which involve heavy processing. It can also be used for bioethanol.
One case of cassava poisoning that made international headlines took place in Venezuela in 2017. Following the country’s economic collapse and subsequent food shortages, 28 people in a Caracas suburb died within days of each other, leading some to fear that a deadly virus was spreading within their community. The actual culprit was bitter yuca, which is illegal to sell as food in Venezuela, but had been sold by black market vendors looking to make a quick profit. Their victims had prepared the toxic tuber like its sweet counterpart, and therefore hadn’t thoroughly processed it to make it safe for consumption.
“Only two or three people have asked me if it’s safe to eat cassava in the past 11 years, but I usually reassure them that it’s safe to eat when cooked and that many things in our daily diet, like apple seeds, cherry pits, or bitter almonds, can be potentially toxic,” says Flores. When he makes his empanadas, he uses an already processed cassava flour that’s free of harmful toxins.
Almonds provide a good comparison to cassava. Like the root, there are both sweet and bitter types of almonds, with the bitter variation containing significantly higher amounts of cyanide.
Does cassava have any ecological benefits?
Because so much of the developing world relies on cassava for food security, the crop’s mass harvesting and subsequent ecological impact have made it a target for controversy. It’s widely believed that improperly managing cassava harvesting can lead to soil degradation, as the crop depletes essential nutrients from farmland. As populations in the developing world continue to rise, so does both the need for food security and the demand for cassava. The result is mass deforestation and lower yields for other essential crops.
And yet, if properly harvested, cassava can have ecological benefits. According to a recent report by the Alliance of Bioversity International and the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture, there is evidence that planting cassava may revive degraded land, making it suitable for other essential crops to grow. Studies on these possible benefits are ongoing, as environmentalists continue to voice concern about further deforestation in areas designated for cassava harvesting. But the effects of climate change, such as rising temperatures and more frequent droughts, mean that the hardy crop will remain a necessary component of our future food supply.
So what does the future of cassava look like?
“Latin Americans use cassava almost just as much as Africans do,” says Afolayan. “I can see it going mainstream, but I don’t think our communities have done a good job of promoting it. People haven’t been talking about it, but it’s used for too many things. People even bake bread with it.”
We can expect cassava to play a more prominent role in our day-to-day lives as we combat the side effects of climate change. The changes to our environment have encouraged research on cassava as a substitute for maize, which has experienced yield declines as temperatures rise and annual rainfall levels drop. Some modern-day uses include the manufacturing of fabrics, paper, and building materials like plywood. Cassava has also been used in the pharmaceutical industry as an ingredient in medications, as well as a source of feed for livestock. With less corn being harvested, cassava has been seen as a probable supplier of sucrose syrup and bioethanol fuel. In other words, expect to see cassava more frequently discussed in the worlds of environmentalism, science, and, hopefully, cooking. The next time you find yourself scratching your head about what potato recipe to serve guests, try your hand at any of the countless cassava-based recipes that span our world’s diverse gastronomies.
Here are a few recipes to get you started:
Eat Peru’s Yuca Fries
Olivia Mesquita’s Garlic Yuca Mash
Michelli Guimaraes Knauer’s Farofa
Huy Vu’s Filipino Cassava Bibingka Cake
Brazilian Kitchen Abroad’s Pão de Queijo
A Cuban American Kitchen’s Oven Roasted Yuca
Panlasang Pinoy’s Cassava Suman
Sylvio Martins is a freelance writer and actor based in Los Angeles. Sophia Pappas is a Pittsburgh-based illustrator.