Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain famously said, “Meals make the society.” In that vein, it’s hard to imagine visiting a state like Kerala and not munching on tapioca chips dusted with chilli powder or savouring some spicy kappa meen (tapioca and fish) curry. These dishes are assumed to be classic recipes, handed down through generations. But would you believe that tapioca came to Kerala less than 200 years ago? It’s true!
Tapioca is the fourth most important staple in the world, after rice, wheat and corn. And if you count only the tropics and subtropics, it is THE most important staple crop, supporting half a billion people in continental Africa alone. But tapioca isn’t native to Africa either. Like so many essential ingredients of modern cooking, including chillies and potatoes, tapioca is a product of the Columbian Exchange. The Columbian Exchange refers to the huge upheaval in agriculture that took place after the discovery of the Americas by Europeans in the 15th century. Suddenly, new plants and animals from North and South America made their way to Europe. At the same time, sugar, spices and rice made their way to the Americas from Asia.
Tapioca (or manihot esculenta as it is scientifically known) is native to Brazil but spread throughout South America and was taken around by the world by consecutive waves of Europeans. Tapioca, or cassava, was brought to West Africa by the Portuguese. Its high caloric value ensured that slaves could be kept alive as they were transported all over their colonies. Tapioca travelled to India with the Spanish and the Portuguese. The Portuguese trade network, especially, was like a string of pearls hung around the neck of the world. In India, their major port was in Goa. It is widely believed that the humble tapioca first landed there. Today, India is one of the largest producers of tapioca in the world. And in India, the states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu account for most of the country’s production.
But how did tapioca become so popular in Kerala?
To answer that, we must go back to the Kerala of the mid-1800s. The story goes that after a particularly nasty famine struck the erstwhile kingdom of Travancore, the king, Ayilyam Thirunal Rama Varma, looked for ways to ensure it never happened again. His younger brother, Vishakham Thirunal Rama Varma, was a botanist of sorts and he recognised the merits of this new tuber that had recently come in from the West. Tapioca is a hardy crop that grows easily in poor soil and needs little maintenance and less water. Essentially, it is the ultimate anti-famine crop. It’s also rich in carbohydrates, second only to sugar! But tapioca can be bitter and poisonous if not cooked and cleaned properly. According to one story, Visakham Thirunal Rama Varma had to eat tapioca in public to prove to his subjects that it was safe!
But how did a crop introduced in the 1800s become a staple today? The answer, sadly, lies in another famine. During WW2, famine struck Kerala again. Rice imports from Burma stopped and people were starving. And once again, Kappa came to the rescue! It was easily available and it could be mashed, fried, boiled, steamed or cooked in a dozen different ways. It was also quite tasteless and so could absorb flavours from whatever was cooked with it. So it quietly slipped into Kerala cuisine and settled down comfortably. And today, there is no looking back for Tapioca.