Historians suggest the tuber played a crucial role in the colonization of Brazil, providing a reliable food source for early explorers and settlers as they hacked their way deeper into the country’s dense jungles. Manioc also played a part in Brazil’s more than 200-year-long slave trade, as an important food source on the ships that ferried millions of Africans to Brazil.
From its birthplace in central Brazil, the manioc has spread throughout the tropics and is now widely consumed in South and Central America, as well as Africa and Asia. Nigeria has overtaken Brazil as the world’s largest manioc producer, followed by Thailand, where it’s often turned into tapioca and served up in sweet bubble teas.
While some 600 million people rely on the root for sustenance, that number could skyrocket in the coming years as global warming pushes temperatures up, Motta predicted. Remarkably drought resistant, manioc could conceivably stave off starvation for millions should other staple crops fail, he said.
In addition, the plant’s stalks and leaves have a high protein and mineral content that make them ideal food for livestock.
‘‘The manioc is without a doubt Brazil’s most important patrimony, foodwise,’’ said Motta. ‘‘But only now are we finally realizing what an important crop it is, and how great its potential for the future is.’’
As part of her bid to seduce other top chefs to cook with the tuber, Corcao sought out a smaller, more refined variety.
‘‘Baby vegetables are still all the rage, and I myself work with baby carrots, baby peas,’’ she said, as waiters buzzed around her, preparing the dining room for the night’s crop of well-heeled diners. ‘‘And it struck me: Why not baby manioc?’’
On a visit to the farm that supplies the manioc she uses at O Navegador, Corcao found just what she was looking for — in the rubbish pile. Having ripped a shrub from the black earth, farmer Otavio Miyata plucked off the hefty roots, Corcao recalled, and jettisoned their underdeveloped siblings along with the stalks and leaves.
‘‘She was like, ‘That’s it! That’s baby manioc,'’’ said 35-year-old Miyata, a third-generation farmer on a small plot of land some 50 miles (80 kilometers) outside Rio. ‘‘For me, that was just trash.’’
Now, the baby maniocs fetch Miyata ten times the price per pound of their bulkier brethren.
‘‘Manioc was always just poor people’s food,’’ said Miyata, as he pan-fried some of the egg-sized baby tubers in butter over the gentlest of flames. ‘‘Now, they’re becoming almost a luxury.’’