Every week I try to pick up a new fruit or vegetable or at least a new use for the mundane, ordinary varieties we see every day. Today, I would like to introduce you to the Cassava root. Cassava is also known as Tapioca, Manioc, Mandioca, or Yuca Root; not to be confused with Yucca Root, which is a completely different plant. I found some in the grocers produce section (a rare find) and thought I’d see what I could do with it. I quickly found that they are an excellent substitute for creamy, vegan, mashed potatoes and my husband really enjoyed the delicate flavor of the dish.
Cassava is widely cultivated in Africa, Asia, South America, and the Caribbean. Both the root and the leaves are used for a variety of purposes. For consumption, Cassava is usually boiled or steamed. It can be fried but it should be boiled or steamed first. It is a gluten-free food and is widely made into flour and used in pastries, breads, or pastas. It can be used as a thickener for soups, left as a boiled side dish to meats, or made into dumplings. It can also be fermented and made into beer, or processed to make tapioca pudding.
Cassava is very high in carbohydrates. It MUST BE COOKED. Cassava is a good example of a plant food that is useful and beneficial if it is properly processed. However, eating raw Cassava is not safe because it contains two different cyanogenic glucosides, linamarin and lotaustralin which are decomposed by linamarase, a naturally occurring enzyme in Cassava. This decomposition produces hydrogen cyanide (HCN). Societies that traditionally eat cassava understand that some processing (soaking, cooking, fermentation, etc.) is necessary to avoid getting sick.
“Chronic, low-level cyanide exposure is associated with the development of goiter and with tropical ataxic neuropathy, a nerve-damaging disorder that renders a person unsteady and uncoordinated. Severe cyanide poisoning, particularly during famines, is associated with outbreaks of a debilitating, irreversible paralytic disorder called Konzo and, in some cases, death. The incidence of Konzo and tropical ataxic neuropathy can be as high as 3 percent in some areas.” 
To remove the poison, the tuber must be washed, peeled, grated or blended, then carefully pressed or wrung to remove the liquid. The flour is left to dry. The liquid is set aside in a clean container to settle. Pour off the remaining liquid and you’ll get starch for your clothes. The portion that was put to dry for a day or two is put in a sieve and the fine portion is made into flour, cake, pudding, etc. 
For medicinal purposes, Cassava leaves are used to treat headaches, hypertension, and pain. Cassava paste is eaten to treat Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and the bitter variety is used to treat malaria. Because Cassava is a gluten-free starch, it is becoming more popular in Western cuisine as a wheat alternative for people who are allergic to gluten and suffer from Celiac Disease.
The Cassava Root plays a major role in the diets of many nations but it has little nutritional value. The leaves actually contain a fair amount of protein and in some cultures they are ground into a sauce or used in soup. The leaves are also used as a nutritional supplement for livestock.
My overall opinion of this unusual root (at least here in America), is that it can be very beneficial to those with Celiac Disease. It is a versatile plant and a high carb, high energy food. While I have not attempted to make tapioca pudding, I will admit that I am intrigued by the idea as I absolutely love tapioca! However, with that being said, although I was able to make a wonderful, creamy, vegan imitation of mashed potatoes, this plant has little to offer in the way of nutrients and will probably not see my plate anytime in the near (or distant) future.
So…. weigh in. Have you ever used this food? I’d love to hear your perspective of it.
*note- the amazing photography is not mine. Click here to find more awesome photos by Shanta.