What is Mandioca?
Mandioca is an edible root also known as cassava, yucca and manioc. It is native to Brazil and parts of Central America. The name mandioca is derived from the word mani’oka in the indigenous Tupi language. The most well-known bi-product of mandioca is tapioca, otherwise known as arrowroot. Tapioca is the starch remaining after processing the mandioca for consumption. Today mandioca is one of the most consumed foods globally and is a staple for approximately 800 million people.
The History of Mandioca
Mandioca is native to Brazil and was first domesticated approximately 7,000 years ago and spread across the pre-colonial Americas. It was consumed by Brazil’s indigenous peoples, primarily as tapioca (arrowroot), the white starch extracted when processing the mandioca root. In fact, the word tapioca is derived from an indigenous word from the Tupi language, tipi’óka, which means ‘sediment’.
Early European colonists in Brazil initially avoided indigenous foods. However, many agricultural plants that thrived on the Iberian Peninsula, like wheat, failed in the tropical climate. Out of necessity, the colonist’s diet adapted. This was accelerated when the first of what became millions of slaves were brought into Brazil from Africa. Sold and forced into labour to support the rapidly growing plantation economy. Mandioca was discovered to be a cheap and reliable food source that could feed the rapidly growing slave population. Mandioca became a major component of the Afro-Brazilian diet, which has had a major influence on Brazilian cuisine.
Using slave labour and machines, the indigenous techniques of extracting tapioca starch were adopted and adapted to produce the white powder on an industrial scale. Tapioca was used to thicken stews and soups, and bread was made that became very popular across colonial South America. Portuguese traders realised the value of Mandioca as a commodity for trade. They took it to Africa via the slave ports of Angola and Asia via the spice ports in Indonesia and India. Mandioca was on its way to becoming an important global food source.
Today mandioca is a staple in South America, Asia and Africa. It is drought-resistant and highly productive in poor soils, which is why over 800 million people depend on it as their primary food source every day.
Mandioca in Brazilian cooking today
Mandioca is used to make several essential ingredients:
- Polvilho Azedo – Sour mandioca starch / sour tapioca
- Polvilho Doce – Sweet mandioca starch / sweet tapioca
- Sagu – Tapioca pearls
- Farinha de Mandioca – Cassava flour
- Farinha de Mandioca Torrada – Toasted cassava flour
- Tucupi – A yellow sauce made from fermented wild mandioca and consumed mostly in the Amazon region
Typical mandioca based dishes
To learn more about Brazilian food, I recommend you check out our article: What is Brazilian food?
Many recipes can be listed, but here are several of the most famous:
- Beiju de Tapioca – Crepes made from re-hydrated tapioca starch and eaten with a savoury (salgado) or sweet (doce) filling. Indigenous Tupi peoples have made the recipe for thousands of years.
- Bobó de camarão – A stew made of mandioca puree and shrimp, flavoured with coconut milk and azeite de dendê (red palm oil). This is a West African recipe brought to Brazil via the slave trade and is iconic in the state of Bahia.
- Bolo de Tapioca – A sweet cake made from tapioca and coconut.
- Farofa – Raw mandioca flour toasted with butter and mixed with bacon pieces. Other ingredients are included, such as egg, onions, linguica, depending on the region it is made in.
- Mandioca Frita – Deep friend mandioca chips.
- Tacacá – A soup from North Brazil, particularly popular in the state of Pará. It is made from Tucupi (fermented mandioca sauce), jambu (a native Amazon herb ) dried shrimp, and yellow chilli peppers. The soup is served in a cuia (a traditional bowl made from a gourd) and eaten with a small wooden skewer to pick out the solid ingredients.
- Pão de queijo – Brazilian cheese bread balls made out from sour mandioca starch (polvilho azedo).
- Vaca Atolada – A beef and mandioca stew that is very popular in São Paulo and Minas Gerais.