Tapioca gives more food calories per unit area than a cereal writes Thilaka Baskaran

Last year I visited an enthusiastic gardener who had just harvested tapioca. She gave me a few stems and vouched for its taste. On my return home, I planted three of those stems. Now, 10 months later, I have harvested two of the three I planted: each plant gave me about 6 kg of tender tapioca. This root gives larger food calories per unit area than any other tuber.

Tapioca originates in South America and is cultivated as a food crop in tropical regions the world over. It is the major source of carbohydrate in many of the African countries, Brazil and Thailand. Though it was introduced in India by the Portuguese as early as the 17th Century, only in the last 50 years has it become a popular commercial crop.

This tuber can grow even in poor soil. But the yield will be higher if conditions are good. Choose a spot in the sun, dig deep and loosen the soil. Mix mature manure into the soil. Select healthy stems at least 2-cm thick and 20-30-cm long from a plant that has borne tubers.

Stick the stem into the soil at a depth of 15 cm. Leave 90 to 100 cm between the plants. Weed the beds for the next six weeks and mound the soil around the plant to protect it against wind. Water at least twice a week and fertilize with manure once a month.

The tubers will be ready in eight to 10 months. A single plant can produce six to eight large tubers. If you do not need all of them, they can be left in the soil and harvested when you require it. Once harvested, it should be cooked within a day or two. These tubers are covered with a thick outer layer that has to be peeled before cooking.

Slice the peeled tuber discarding the middle fibrous section. Wash the chopped tapioca, boil and throw away the stock.

As nourishing and tasty as it is, all parts of the plant have a toxin (cynogenicglucoside) which is destroyed when cooked. Tender tapioca leaves are rich in protein and can be cooked again with the precaution that it is first boiled and the water discarded.

Tapioca-based dishes are widely eaten wherever the plant is cultivated.

It can be baked, boiled, made into chips and, being gluten-free, substituted for wheat-flour for those with gluten allergy.

Kerala cuisine has a variety of dishes with tapioca and my favourite is kappa puzhukku – best served with fish or chicken curry.

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