Alex Atala’s choice of collecting multiple approaches, through different voices, and giving his recently released “Manihot utilissima pohl: Cassava” a complex look at the roots of Brazil refers to the very versatility of the plant that gives the work its name.
There are more than 400 pages, in which the chef brings together researchers, chroniclers, indigenists and photographers with the same objective: to discuss cassava and its tropical nature. The result is a report that awakens a nativist feeling and places this tuber in its proper level of importance in Brazil.
The work gives back to manioc, the most important Amazonian species worldwide, its dignity, and reminds us that our food rested for centuries in its cultivation and consumption, which in the past also contributed to the process of acculturation of the Portuguese in the colony and to the the very movement of incorporation of the Indians to the civilizing process in the post-Cabraline period.
Its chapters deftly unravel the layers of this plant, which is integrally useful to us in food —leaves, roots and stems—, and which, in the past, allowed the survival and spread of indigenous peoples, being today permanently incorporated into our traditions. food.
Although it is not the only work dedicated to cassava —there was, for example, the essay by the Bahian Pinto de Aguiar (1910-1991), in which he addressed historical, economic, scientific and chemical aspects of the plant, in 1982— “Mandioca” is an unprecedented and fresh compilation, which also resorts to historiography and, a step forward, to archaeological studies that help in the excavation of its origin and domestication. They are clippings that give it upholstery, actuality and uniqueness.
Traces suggest that there were millenary forms of cultivation, which overcame time and were silently perpetuated among the traditional populations of Brazil — indigenous peoples, quilombolas, riverside dwellers, caiçaras, caipiras, sertanejas.
In the book, texts are supported by maps and diagrams. The domestication of the plant in the Amazon and the networks of circulation of cassava varieties in the Alto Rio Negro region are illustrated — through institutions, men and women. These even have their explicit relevance.
They are the main responsible for the great diversity of cassava, the result of intense flows of plants, whose differences are expressed in characteristics such as productivity, color, taste and resistance.
His participation among Brazilians is so expressive that it is also illustrated in a photo essay by Pedro Martinelli, the greatest visual ethnographer in the Amazon, made with the Baniwa community, in the extreme northwest of Brazil, on the border with Colombia. The images are based on a text by Beto Ricardo, an anthropologist at the Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), which covers the daily life of the indigenous Claudia, who was busy harvesting wild manioc and transforming it into food — beijus, porridge and flour.
The woman is once again the narrative axis by anthropologist Flora Dias Cabalzar, whose research on indigenous villages in the Amazon also reveals women responsible for preparing meals, tending the fields and handling manioc — men are dedicated to hunting and fishing.
They also appear as providers of saliva in the preparation of caxiri, a white and slightly fermented cassava drink, similar in appearance to animal milk curds. Drinks derived from cassava yield another curious chapter.
The extract signed by ecologist, artisan and herbalist Laura Mantovani is dedicated to tracing the tangle of the vast nomenclature that involves cassava —cassava, cassava? Legends and myths about its origin are dealt with elsewhere.
Mantovani receives support from an inventory of names taken from the indigenous land of Paraná, from quilombola peoples from Vale do Ribeira (SP), from farmers in the rural region of Paraíba and from a dossier on the agricultural system of the Rio Negro, in Amazonas.
Although different from region to region, there is a consensus on popular names: mandioca-mansa and manioc-brava are common terms throughout the country. Both varieties belong to the same botanical species, although the latter has a higher concentration of hydrocyanic acid, which makes it poisonous.
The book awakens the reader to the threat that this biodiversity, fed by generations of farmers, suffers when actions such as that of Embrapa, which, based on studies of cassava and cassava varieties, promote genetic selections that obey the logic of productivity. , resistance and the market. This practice harms ancestral systems and impoverishes a country’s society and biological capital.
About traditional practices, Neide Rigo, a great connoisseur of cassava in Brazil, makes a rich contribution by reporting its by-products, observed on trips through Brazil.
She also shares popular knowledge when walking through the types of flour, differentiated by minimal nuances, which, according to her, should be respected and valued. “Hot” flour, for example, is crispy and fresh; the “cold” one has withered grains, which absorb moisture and do not break.
Atala’s own voice appears little — and is sometimes difficult to identify. On one occasion, he strolls through the farofa, in preparations that affirm our Brazilian identity. The farofa, which presupposes the combination of flour and fat, in the chef’s opinion, should be exported to the world, as it is a hallmark of our culture, easy to prepare, and which can be reproduced anywhere.
Atala’s personal experience and repertoire enrich the text. His voice comes out with more force and clarity in the chapter in which he brings recipes from the DOM and guests, and in which he discusses innovation based on tradition — a principle that always accompanies him. From there, Atala shares with the reader some of the extensive and detailed processes through which the creation of a recipe for his restaurant goes through.
A symbolic case, from the menu entitled Pre-Discovery, is the cachaça candy, wrapped in very fine sweet flour. It is translucent, showing an ant inside, which reveals the scent of lemongrass in the mouth, in a precise photograph by Sérgio Coimbra, which helps to elevate gastronomy to art.
After presenting the most emblematic DOM recipes as a historical record, an appendix brings together Atala’s chefs and friends with their cassava recipes.
Mara Salles’ work is printed on the barreado (a classic dish from Morretes, Paraná), with flour sprinkled from Santa Catarina, as well as recipes by Helena Rizzo (cassava flour biscuit), Claude Troisgros (cassava mil-foils) and Rodrigo Oliveira (the tapioca dice).
Atala does not fail to mention one of his masters, Paulo Martins (and his family), who fought for Brazilian cuisine and ingredients from Pará, and the heritage of a tucupi that is now distributed in the country.
The book is an ode to manioc and gives it back the honesty already mentioned by intellectuals such as Câmara Cascudo (1898-1986), essential in the construction of the retelling of the history of food in Brazil, now continued.
I am currently a news writer for News Bulletin247 where I mostly cover sports news. I have always been interested in writing and it is something I am very passionate about. In my spare time, I enjoy reading and spending time with my family and friends.