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(Manibot esculenta) Also known as manioc or yuca, a large tuber used as a staple in the Pacific. Native to tropical America, it is thought to have been introduced to the tropics of Asia by the Portuguese in the 17th century. There are different varieties of cassava. The long, fairly even-shaped tubers, 5-10 cm in diameter, have dark brown rough skin and hard white flesh.

There are two distinct kinds of cassava and they are 'bitter' (M.utilissima) and 'sweet' (M.palmata). Both have hydrocyanic acid in the juice of the roots, with the 'bitter' type containing a higher percentage. For safety, they should all be cooked thoroughly before eating as hydrocyanic acid is volatile and driven off by cooking. The tubers are relished by people the world over with perfect safety once cooked and drained.

The 'sweet' variety of cassava is used mainly as a source of starch. In order to produce granulated tapioca the roots are grated, thoroughly washed, pressed through fine meshes and heated. The tuber contains very little in food value apart from starch, which is a source of concern to nutritionists in countries where this is a staple food. It has very low fat and protein content, consequently fat-soluble vitamins A and D are lacking, but does contain vitamin C. A staple in much of the Pacific, its use is supplemented with greens, meat and seafood, fat and legumes.

In countries with a preference for pungent foods, cassava or manioc tubers are well boiled until tender in salted water and drained, and serve with fresh grated coconut and an accompaniment made with pounded chilies, onions, lime juice and salt.

Grated fresh cassava is a popular ingredient in the Pacific islands, and is now available in Western markets. It may be already packaged in 1 kg plastic bags sold by weight from the pile of snowy white, finely grated cassava. Eagerly awaited by customers, it never last long. It is made into cakes and dumplings dear to the hearts and taste buds of those brought up with them, though the texture is not fluffy and light as are Western cakes, but rather glutinous and solid.

Purchasing and storing : Look over the tubers and make sure the skin is unbroken, that there are no moldy spots and that the smell is fresh. The tubers will keep, in a basket or cupboard protected from light, for up to 10 days. Frozen cassava, peeled and cut into convenient lengths, is sold in plastic packets. Grated cassava will keep in the refrigerator for 5 or 6 days.

Preparation : If you purchase the whole fresh tuber, don't try to peel it with a vegetable peeler as you might a potato. The skin is too tough for that. Scrub the tubers, then cut into short sections about 5 cm long. With a sharp knife slit the skin and its underlying layer along the length of the section, slip the blade underneath, lift up one end and pull both layers away from the flesh. The outer skin is like the rough bark of a tree. The under layer is smooth and leathery, pink on the outer surface and creamy white on the inside next to the yam. Any tubers which smell strongly of almonds should be avoided as they may be poisonous.

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