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Saturday, 11 June 2005
Food for Thought
Topic: Recipes and Food
Have you ever tried tapioca pudding? My mother used to prepare lots of rice puddings and tapioca puddings when I was small but I haven't eaten one for years. Recently, I read how tapioca is made. It actually comes from the tuberous root of Cassava or Manioc, a shrubby plant originating in South America and now one of the world's most important food crops. Manioc was probably first cultivated by the Maya Indians but it has a serious disadvantage - the starchy root actually contains a poisonous compound called linamarin which can produce cyanide if eaten raw. So the root has to be washed and peeled, shredded or grated and then soaked for several days to allow the plant's natural enzymes to convert the toxic linamarin to sugar and cyanide gas - the gas then dispersing harmlessly. When the shredded root is soaked in clean water and left, starch settles. The water is then poured off and the process is repeated four or five times. Finally, the starch is collected and cooked and stirred until little balls or pearls of tapioca are formed.

The South American Indians used to squeeze the manioc pulp in a special basket called a 'tipiti' to remove any toxic juice before washing and then they roasted the remains. The result was a coarse meal or flour known as 'farinha de mandioca'. Starch settling out from the extracted juice was then heated on a flat surface, causing individual starch grains to pop open and clump together into small, round granules (tapioca). The remaining juice was boiled down to destroy any poison and used as a sauce called 'tucupi'. Now all that is really quite amazing. How did anyone ever discover that a poisonous tuberous root could be shredded and pummelled and washed and cooked to make it edible?

The evolution of cooking (if that is the right term!) is extremely intriguing. Today, human beings cultivate and eat a huge variety of fruits, vegetables, grains, beans and seeds but, in the distant past, those food sources were far from abundant and difficult to find. Also, many plants, such as grains, were spindly prototypes of today's plump cultivated varieties. So, how did our hunter gatherer ancestors learn what they could eat and how to prepare it? Some mammals can eat plants which are poisonous to human beings so how many early humans died through experimenting with alternative food sources they had observed other creatures eating? For that matter, how many died from eating unprocessed manioc? Hunger must have been a very powerful driving force to make people experiment with ways of preparing something they knew could make them very ill or even kill them.

Homo Erectus and other early hominids would have hunted for meat but they would also have eaten every seed they could find. Anything bean-like or pea-like would have been stripped off the bushes, together with wild berries or nuts and the stems or roots of starchy plants. But how did early man ever think of grinding millet or other grains into flour and then mixing it with water to make a dough? Perhaps they started by grinding nuts and seeds when their teeth began to wear down! Certainly, many nuts and seeds are more nutritious when broken down by grinding as that releases more of the protein. (One good reason to chew food well). So, was it an accidental soaking of ground up seeds that forced them to try to 'dry' it over a fire?

Actually, it is easy to understand how early man thought of roasting nuts or burning off seed husks or roasting meat - it would have just needed a forest fire to flash through their hunting grounds for the concept of cooking to take hold. Although many foods, including fish and meat, can be eaten raw, they are undoubtedly less of a strain on the digestive system, and probably more tasty as well, if they are eaten cooked. One reason is that many seeds contain substances like tannins which are destroyed or greatly reduced by cooking, thereby making them more nutritious and much easier to digest and people would have been quick to notice the advantages and to learn how to harness the power of fire.

It seems that everywhere that early humans went, they found some new foodstuff to eat. I think that we owe a great deal to the resourcefulness of so called 'primitive man' who was actually very clever and extremely knowledgeable about his environment. They knew what to eat and how to prepare it and they also knew what plants and herbs could cure various ailments - something which today's scientists are still learning about from old 'folk medicine'.

Today, human beings worldwide eat and enjoy a huge variety of foodstuffs. We, in the Western World, are particularly fortunate when it comes to food. We just take a trip to the supermarket and load up our trolleys with whatever we fancy or can afford. Yorkshire puddings, meat pies, rhubarb crumble, Indian curry, Chinese sweet and sour pork - you name it, it's in a cabinet somewhere. Everything is prepared for us from lamb chops to fish fingers. We can enjoy any vegetable out of season from the frozen food cabinet or buy exotic fruit flown in from all over the world. We can buy packets of 'freshly prepared' vegetables all sliced up and ready to cook, even peeled potatoes ready for boiling! So much so that some young people, (like the girl who served me once in Marks and Spencers), have no idea what peas, broad beans or runner beans look like before podding or slicing. Our great grand-parents, who had to bottle and preserve, would be utterly amazed.

Posted by Noviomagus at 16:02 BST Post Comment | View Comments (1) | Permalink

Monday, 13 June 2005 - 12:28 BST

Name: doubledog

Yes, it IS possible to buy and eat an enormous variety of foods, but just the other day, it occured to me that I keep eating the same old things over and over. Once in a while I make something new and send it over to Lydia's, but I don't eat it myself. Next day I'll ask her if it was good because I didn't even try it. Politically, I may be a liberal, but when it comes to food, I'm to the right of Ivan the Terrible.

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