Foods Indigenous to the Western Hemisphere


Manihot esculenta

By Jeremy Trombley

Also known as cassava, yuca, or tapioca, manioc is one of the most important staple foods in the world, though most people in the United States and Europe are unfamiliar with it. It is, however, cultivated throughout the tropical world and consumed in many non-western nations. Its versatility and the ease with which the plant is cultivated make it an important food crop. In fact, in terms of volume consumed world wide, it is second only to the sweet potato (Davidson).

The Plant

The manioc plant grows up to 12 feet tall and is considered a woody shrub. It produces large tubers that may grow from 1 to 2 feet long and 2 to 6 inches in diameter. It grows well in lowland tropics, and produces tubers quickly even in relatively infertile soils. It is also highly drought resistant, which makes it an excellent famine food (Karasch) (Davidson).

Manioc comes in two different varieties – sweet and bitter. The sweet variety has a shorter growing season and the tuber can be consumed without processing, but it will spoil rapidly if left unharvested. The bitter variety contains high quantities of the toxin prussic acid, and must be heavily processed before consuming. It is this variety that is most commonly cultivated, because it will not spoil if left unharvested for a long period of time (Karasch) (Davidson).

Origins and History

Manioc is native to tropical South America where it was grown, processed and used to make breads and porridges by many different groups. It spread in pre-colombian times to the caribbean and other tropical parts of the Americas, and was encountered by Columbus on his first voyage to the New World. He brought a supply with him on his journey back to Europe to provision his crew, but Europeans were unimpressed by its bland flavor (Johnson).

Portuguese traders brought manioc to Africa in the 16th century, and it was quickly adopted in the tropical regions. Now it is a common food in most parts of Africa, and is used in a variety of dishes (Johnson) (Karasch). It is also cultivated widely in Southeast Asia, Indonesia and the Pacific Islands. In these regions, manioc is perhaps the most significant contribution of the Americas to the food supply.


Davidson, Alan. The Oxford Companion to Food. 2nd ed. Oxford University Press, USA, 1999.

Johnson, Sylvia A. Tomatoes, Potatoes, Corn, and Beans: How the Foods of the Americas Changed Eating Arou. 1st ed. Atheneum, 1997.

Karasch, Mary. “Manioc.” The Cambridge World History of Food. 1st ed. Ed. Kenneth F. Kiple & Kriemhild Coneè Ornelas. Cambridge University Press, 2000. 181-186.