Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The Tapioca Fusion: Plating a Class Question

Tapioca, 'kappa' as it called in Malayalam has always had its identity connected to the poorer sections of the society. It has been perceived as a poor man’s food, for decades. I fondly remember this popular Malayalam movie scene of the 1980s, in which a classroom teeming with students stands shell shocked, as the 'Hero’s' lunch box falls down and cubes of tapioca spread on the floor. Such is the stigma associated with this very tasty food. 

A probable reason for this connection could be traced back to the very history of tapioca farming in Kerala. Tapioca was introduced in Kerala by the Portuguese in the 17th century (There are contradicting literature stating that it was introduced in 1860). The crop was popularized in Malabar by the peasant migrants of Central Travancore. Starting from 1942, as the Japanese invaded Myanmar (then Burma), Kerala lost connection with its source of rice import leading to serious shortage in rice availability. Tapioca, which was then scarcely cultivated was popularized as a staple food alternative by the British. This resulted in rice being a very expensive commodity and those who could not afford it, had to restrain to this alternative option.  

Reminiscences of times of food shortage thus identifies Kappa as a symbol of poverty.  Many of those memories of the times of shortage would have faded over generations, but the association of Kappa as a working class food remained.
There are of course, stylized presentations and marketing strategies tried these days, placing tapioca as an adventure cuisine. Even those trials are ultimately reinforcing the underlying class association of this staple diet.
This is not a trend limited to Kerala. Internationally, tapioca has been reported to be associated with poor man’s diet.  Indonesia has the largest percapita consumption of this food. Another interesting fact is that cassava’s (technically-the root from which tapioca is extracted) consumption pattern matches with that of maize. In lower income groups, the use of rice lowers and the consumption of maize and cassava rises.  
In Vietnam, Tapioca is celebrated as  a war food  and again relates back to the times of dispair.
Vietnam Tapioca
A major format of consumption of cassava is as flour. Gaplek, the most common Indonesian version is reported to be gluten free and high in carbohydrates.  Cassava cakes and other desserts are made out of this flour. Sabudana, a form of Sago is quite exhaustively used in North and Central India as diet in times of fasting. 
Further, in Latin America cassava is associated only with marginal farm environments. The largest producers in this part of the world are Brazil and Paraguay and most of their produce is used as animal feed. The Brazilian version of tapioca flour is called fariha. In Colombia and Paraguay the roots are eaten fresh and raw. Casabe is a flat bread made of dried, mashed roots, which is used in the Caribbean and North-eastern South America.  

Boiled Tapioca

Did you know that Kerala and very rural parts of Vietnam and China are the only places in the world where cassava is boiled and eaten without processing?  FAO states so in one its researcharticle and claims this practice of preprocessed consumption as a very rural practice. (I wonder why Srilanka, which has parallels for almost all Kerala versions of Tapioca dishes is not mentioned here). Look at this quote from that paper “Fresh consumption has limited growth potential, and in fact will probably decline with increasing urbanization and changes in dietary preferences”.

It is proven that raw tapioca has cyanide in it and it can be toxic if eaten raw. However, all the people I know who enjoys munching through even a whole tuber are very much alive  
Kerala has improvised quite a bit on the boiled format of kappa. Seasoning with mustard and adding grated coconut adds a lot of flavor.Kappa Biriyani, flavored with spices and mixed with beef used to be a typical wedding eve snack (quite heavy a snack) for Syrian Christians. 
Kappa Biriyani

Can mashed tapioca be a replacement for mashed potato?  This is the thought behind me trying this fusion dish. 
Tapioca Fusion

Here mashed tapioca seasoned with mustard and grated coconut replaces mashed potato. The sauce, then obviously had to come from a place of relevance to this cuisine. The Indonesian green chilly sambal is the inspiration for the sauce. The base of this sauce is steamed chilies. Not to mention that it was improvised to fit the larger perspective of the dish. The beef on the plate is basically minced beef steak in soya sauce and garlic.   
Let’s call it the Tapioca Fusion.!!!

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