Cassava is a tropical root vegetable cultivated in Latin America and Africa. There are a number of uses for the root, which is often treated like other root vegetables, such as potatoes, in an assortment of dishes. It is also treated to make tapioca, a starch that is used in the cuisine of a number of nations. Dried cassava is often available in specialty stores, with fresh cassava root being much more rare, since it spoils easily.
The root comes from Manihot esculenta, also known as manioc or yucca in addition to cassava. The perennial shrub was first domesticated in Central America, where it has been grown for centuries, and cultivation spread to Africa with the discovery of the New World. In addition to the starchy tubers, the leaves of the plant are also edible.
Despite the fact that it often plays an important role in people's diets, cassava root is actually not that nutritious. The leaves of the plant have far more protein and nutritional value than the root does, in fact. This vegetable can actually be highly toxic, since it contains cyanide, and it needs to be carefully handled and treated before it can be consumed. It does have the advantage of growing well in poor soil, and being filling when little else is available.
There are two types of cassava. So-called “bitter cassava” has a high level of cyanide, and it must be grated and soaked or left out in the sun to allow the cyanide to disperse before it can be eaten. Once treated, the root can be ground into flour, kept whole in flakes for various dishes, or processed to extract tapioca. “Sweet” cassava has lower levels of cyanide, and it can be peeled and used like a conventional root vegetable.
Dried cassava and cassava flour are used in a wide assortment of dishes, including soups and stews. The starchy vegetable often acts as a thickener and stretcher, making a dish seem more filling than it really is. People who rely heavily on it as a source of food may experience nutritional deficiencies, and they are at higher risk of neurological illness as a result of the toxins in the root. In addition to human nutrition, cassava root is also used to supplement animal diets in many countries, and the leaves can actually be a great source of roughage for herbivorous animals.