This post is dedicated to Jimithy Hauswirth, in gratitude for his enthusiasm about this blog, and in the hope that he will brew up a manioc beer that will be waiting for us when we get home.
Mandioka (or manioc, cassava, or one of several other names) very well may be the world’s most widely eaten food that Americans have never heard of. I recollect seeing manioc every once in a while in American supermarkets, but I never saw it prepared—or even heard about it. It certainly wasn’t in the Berkeley Bowl top 100. I consider this a cultural loss for America.
In Cape Verde, the manioc plant is grown for its tubers. The leaves are edible and nutritious, though not terribly tasty, and they are usually tossed. Manioc tubers have a tough barky peel and are poisonous if not prepared properly. When cooked they have a mouthfeel like gummy potatoes. Their flavor is mild and they are very filling. Ringing endorsement? Well, no, but I love this stuff! Cape Verdeans are very fond of raw manioc (they don’t eat the poisonous core, so don’t panic) and as a result they sometimes undercook it by my taste.
By all accounts I’ve heard, manioc has been in Cape Verde for many years, but in the 1980s African Mosaic Virus appeared on the island of Santiago and all but wiped out the crop, as the local varieties turned out to be highly susceptible to the disease. Plants affected by the virus don’t produce tubers, making them useless as a food source. The virus is transmitted through infected stakis (stalks), which are used for propagation. Export of stakis from Santiago was prohibited, and the virus was contained. Through the 1990s, the National Institute of Agricultural Investigation and Development field-tested imported varities and identifed resistant strains that would produce well here. And manioc culture was salvaged.
I feverishly hope to find manioc in the pot whenever I’m offered Cape Verdean food. If it’s there, I abandon any semblance of grace, fish out the stringy hunks, form mountains of it on my plate, and overeat. One time I accidentally ended up with a potato instead, and I kind of felt like the meal was a wash. I decided to learn from this personal failure, and I’m more careful about my scouting efforts now.
If mandioka is a cultural victory for Cape Verde, beer is an area for growth. There is a Cape Verdean beer brand, Strela, which has a couple of good varieties. I give Strela an enthusiastic thumbs up. But I spent the last several years before Peace Corps enjoying Six Point on tap and choosing between Caskazilla, Smuttynose IPA, and Prima Pils in the aisles of BuyRite. (Those links are in case anyone wants to send a care package… wink wink.)
So try to imagine how the wheels started turning when I read that a manioc beer was launching in southern Africa. I looked into this concept and learned of a traditional manioc (or corn) beverage that uses saliva to promote fermentation. To make it you chew up cooked manioc (or corn), spit it out, cook it some more, wait, and then fla “serveja” (say “beer”). Awesome! Gross!
Manioc beer offered me a project to sink my teeth into… literally. It offered a change of pace in the beer department. It offered an exotic homemade refreshment. It offered an entertaining DIY project. Once I saw that Dogfish Head was in on this chew-your-beer thing, I pretty much started thinking—foolishly, of course—that I would be making manioc IPA. With no special equipment except for my pearly whites! Enterprising Peace Corps Volunteer that I am, I set out to try my hand at making manioc beer.
Step 1—I bought a ridiculous amount of manioc (4 kg), peeled it, cored it, chopped it up, and boiled it.
Step 2—I chewed up the cooked manioc and spit it out. I felt awe at how tiring this was! But I convinced Adam it was fun and he agreed to help.
Step 3—I covered the pulp in water and cooked it again. Then I covered the pot, set it in a quiet place, and waited.
The manioc beer should have been ready in about five days, but I ran into trouble. Not surprisingly, the turbo ants that live in our house quickly colonized the tub of brewy goodness.
So I repeated Steps 1 through 3 (but this time with slightly less manioc) and positioned the tub of beer/ant chow in a moat. Ha!
Step 4—Taste Test! After four days, I opened the pot to check on things and caught a waft of buttered popcorn odor. Unexpected and somewhat puzzling, but definitely encouraging. (Who can argue with buttered popcorn?!) A day or two later, my beer was ready. In anticipation of my triumph, I spent the day envisioning myself in our hammock, peacefully sipping my tasty brew, listening to the wind in the papaya and banana trees. That afternoon I got home, kicked off my shoes, put on my hammock outfit, and opened the pan… disgusting! Something had gone wrong with my buttered popcorn ambrosia. I took a sip. The beer tasted virtually flavorless, yet somehow powerfully repulsive. I gagged. I tried a bit more, just to be sure. No. No chance.
This was an epic fail. The Peace Corps and its volunteers will tell you, in official and unofficial press, that a major part of being a Peace Corps Volunteer is facing setbacks and trying again. I believe this is true, and it’s a painful but valuable part of this experience. I’ve lived this message in large and small ways since submitting my application, and I apply it unhesitatingly to my manioc beer adventure. The aftertaste of raunchy tuber puree fades away, but fresh manioc arrives in the market daily.