Cassava or Manioc is called Tapioca in India. Tapioca is quite popular as pearls or “Sabudhana/ Sago” as it is known in most of North India. There, Sabudhana is cooked mostly as Khichdi or as “Kheer/ Payasam” a sweet dish similar to a pudding. Today’s recipe of Kappa Ularthiyathu or Pan Fried Tapioca is from Kerala in South India.
Tapioca is grown and eaten only in certain parts of India. Kerala is one of them, and this starchy root is very popular here. It goes by a variety of names in Malayalam like Kappa, Poolakizhangu, Marachini, Kollikizhangu, depending on which part of Kerala you’re in. Tapioca is cooked in a variety of ways in Kerala. My personal favourite is sliced thin tapioca deep fried in coconut oil to make crunchy salted chips.
Tapioca first came to Kerala in the late 1800s during the reign of Travancore king, Ayilyam Thirunal Rama Varma. There was a bad famine during his reign. The king’s younger brother who also succeeded him as king, introduced Tapioca as an alternative food staple. Tapioca became popular after the Second World War when Burma fell. Rice imports from Burma stopped causing a shortage of rice. So Tapioca slowly became an acceptable carbohydrate/ starch substitute for rice in Kerala. Though rice is now available in plenty, Tapioca continues to be popular.
My memories of Tapioca go back to my school days in East Africa. Tapioca is better known there as Cassava. Vendors outside my school used to sell boiled cassava (deep fried too) or Mogo. This was sold in small bits of newspaper, topped with a sprinkling of salt and red chilli powder. A squeeze of fresh lime juice was optional.
A couple of weeks back we were driving back home from a short trip out of town. Typically, people put up makeshift stalls on the roadside and sell fresh seasonal produce. Along a stretch of cultivated farmland, we came across freshly harvested Tapioca for sale. It goes without saying that we bought some. Freshly harvested Tapioca is the best, even though it does keep for some days.
This time I made Kappa Ularthiyathu, Kerala style. The word “Ularthiyathu” refers to a Kerala style cooking technique that’s somewhere between stir-frying and pan-roasting. When making a vegetable Ularthiyathu, the vegetable is usually steam cooked or boiled till soft but not mushy. It is then seasoned and pan roasted in a little oil over low to medium heat till dry and beginning to crisp.
Here, the Tapioca is first peeled, diced and cooked it in salted boiling water. This is drained and pan-fried in a coconut oil with a minimum of spices. You can add some freshly scraped coconut crushed with green chillies at the end to make it a “Thoran”. A typical Kerala preparation of this dish would include garlic and sautéed onions. I have left them out and cooked this the way we do at home.