It is described by many names. Cassava, tapioca or just manioc or ‘maniocca’ as popularly known in Sri Lanka, this humble yam has hardly been acknowledged as the gastronomy of the privileged. A yam of many shapes and sizes, nevertheless it has always had a place in every home in Sri Lanka.
Manioc propagates without difficulty and thrives in dry conditions, even survives extreme droughts and prospers in wet conditions. The third largest source of carbohydrates in human food, this tropical root continues to leave its mark in the world of gastronomy.
In Sri Lanka, manioc is the next best thing to a staple plate of rice and curry and with manioc around, no one needs go hungry. Yet, who can resist the soft and fluffy boiled manioc consumed with grated coconut and lunu miris, a spicy chilli paste of onions. It is in fact a preferred breakfast dish amongst many Sri Lankans. Boiled manioc can be enjoyed with a variety of accompaniments such as a spicy meat dish and grated coconut.
The simplest preparation of boiled manioc involves the yams being peeled, washed and boiled in an open pot for about 20 minutes, with salt and turmeric to enhance the flavour and add a beautiful yellow hue to the dishes.
Manioc curry with coconut milk makes a thick creamy dish loved by most Sri Lankans, just as much as the non-spicy potato curry. The rich consistency of this creation owes its savoury aroma to the spices that go into making the dish. The simple and straightforward manioc curry is best enjoyed with steamed rice. Stir-fried manioc prepared with onions, chillie flakes, garlic, curry leaves and Maldive fish is a fine accompaniment with rice, roti and pita bread. As is the case with most Sri Lankan dishes, the preparation of manioc dishes varies somewhat from region to region, from mild to a tad spicy.
Just like boiling manioc is always done in an open pot, another rule our Sri Lankan mothers will pass on as a culinary tips is to never consume manioc with ginger, because the general belief is that manioc and ginger taken together could cause poisoning. On the other hand manioc is fast becoming a wonder treatment among cancer patients who claim to have overcome the life-threatening condition by consuming manioc daily. This self-treating process however is yet to be scientifically proven.
Apart from the everyday diet of boiled manioc with grated coconut and spicy onion salad, manioc is most popular for its crispy savoury chips in several shapes and sizes, from extra thin round chips to long thin strips and much more.
Churning out manioc chips is not as easy as boiling or making a curry out of it. In fact, making of manioc chips is an art in itself that many wayside vendors are skilled at. Take a stroll among the busy streets of Pettah to see roadside manioc vendors getting ready at their action stations. Being quite a sturdy yam, one needs the brawn to make swift strokes to peel off the brown outer layer, revealing the creamy white flesh tinged with soft pink. The tubers are then grated or cut with a swift rhythmic movement of the hand. The sliced or grated manioc is fried in a wok filled with boiling oil. Yellow chips with slightly browned edges are ladled out of the wok and then piled into partitioned sections of the vendor’s cart.
With the customary chilli powder and salt mix, the chips are sold to manioc lovers from all walks of life.