Monday, April 5, 2010

Food from Poison

 Recently I’ve been testing a new product: Expandex. This is a “modified” tapioca flour I picked up at Bob’s Red Mill while visiting in March. Tapioca flour, as you GFer’s know, is a necessary additive to bread flours, providing loft and chew. The buzz on Expandex is it adds structure, removing some of the need for Xanthan gum, as it provides even greater loft.

My first test started poorly but ended well. I used the Expandex sparingly, but still I achieved an over-viscous result – a dough puddle rather than a firm loaf. Then it hit me that viscosity changes with temperature, so I stuck my puddle in the refrigerator. 2 days later I pulled it out, reshaped it, and baked it. The oven spring was wonderful and the post-baking shrinkage minimal. Yay, Expandex!

There’s lots more I have to try with this product, and I’ll try to keep up the postings.

Of course, as I worked with Expandex I investigated. The company’s website won’t say what is meant by “modified”, and that led me on an intriguing train of thought.

Tapioca is the same as yuca, which is the same as manioc. All are names for the carbohydrate staple in tropical regions, the swollen root of a plant.

There’s two kinds of yuca/manioc – sweet, which you’ve probably eaten if you’ve had an authentic Puerto Rican or Cuban meal, and poison, which most Americans have never encountered.

Amazon River. Iquitos Peru

In the Peruvian Amazon, which I visited frequently in the ‘90’s, poison manioc is the most frequently consumed food item. The techniques that render this substance safe for humans have been practiced for thousands of years.

The manioc creates toxins as a way of defending its botanical territory. These are concentrated in the roots. People dig up the roots, wash off the dirt, then painstakingly shred them with a roughened board. The shredded root is washed, (saved washwater is used to stun fish, but that’s another story) then all the water is squeezed out with a woven device called “The Boa.” (Imagine a hammock loaded with mash then twisted with a lever device and you’ve got it.) Next the dry mash is pounded to flour and the flour is mixed with water and roasted on a hot sheet of metal to make large flatbreads.

When you got off the plane in Iquitos, Peru, you used to be welcomed by a group of indigenous musicians playing instruments and dancing on the runway. I can still recall the sensory impressions of those nights: the enveloping blanket of heat and humidity, the chanted music in strange tongues, and the smell of thousands of wood fires, sharpened by human sweat internally flavored from manioc.

We go to great measures for foods. I think it’s ironic that some people work so hard to detoxify nature when so much of American agriculture is pointed the other way ‘round. Will future generations be able to detoxify our gigantic manure dumps, our cesspools of antibiotic-laden landfills and salinated tomato fields?  I suppose in a way we’ll have to.

All for now. Check out my new website, and thanks for visiting.

1 comment:

Marissa Carter said...

Fantastic insight! This really got me thinking, thanks for posting it.