How tapioca came to Travancore

Tapioca   | Photo Credit: M Srinath

How did a tuber that has roots in Brazil finds its way to Kerala? Apparently, after a great famine hit erstwhile Travancore during the reign of Ayilyam Thirunal Rama Varma (1860 to 1880), the ruler adapted a number of measures to ensure that the people would not have to go through such an ordeal again. Vishakham Thirunal Rama Varma, the King’s younger brother, was also a keen botanist and that after a great deal of research it was he who introduced this starchy tuber in Travancore.

Many old timers in the city remember several stories about the tuber and some have recounted it in their memoirs. During the reign of Vishakham Thirunal Maharaja (1880-1885), who succeeded his brother to the throne, he is said to have issued instructions to have the tapioca cooked and served to him to instil confidence in his people that it was safe to be eaten. In fact, I remember my seniors saying that the King had issued a proclamation explaining how it had to be cooked. It explained in great detail that after cleaning the tapioca, it had to be cooked and the water discarded and the process repeated to remove the bitter taste,” recounts 105-year-old Aiyappan Pillai.

Another story that makes the rounds in the city is about how the King encouraged people to start planting it in their backyard. The tale goes that he had had tapioca planted on land owned by the royals. A sign was put up that said that the plants were that of tapioca, which was imported from Brazil, and that anyone caught taking a cutting would be severely punished as tapioca was very tasty. Soon, it was obvious that there were several cuttings from the plants. Gradually, it gained acceptance among the people and became a staple of the labourers.

Veteran journalist VK Madhavankutty writes in his book The Village before Time about tapioca arriving in his village in North Kerala.

During the Second World War, after the fall of Burma, there was a shortage of rice in Travancore and that is when tapioca, a.k.a. kappa, became popular. Tapioca has several names in Malayalam. While it is popularly known as maricheeni in the city and its surroundings, it is known as cheeni or kappa in Central Kerala. In Kozhikode, if it is known as Kolli kizhangu; it is called Poola kizhangu in Palakkad.

Elderly residents in the city remember that Jawahar Nagar, one of the elite residential areas in the city, was once known as ‘Maricheeni vila’.

Although tapioca is used to make many desserts and pies in South America, in Kerala, the hotseller continues to be kappa and meen curry (tapioca and fish).

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Printable version | Jan 21, 2021 6:17:54 PM |

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