Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The other tapioca

In the U.S., tapioca means one thing (I may or may not be editorializing here, but bear with me even if you don't happen to share my experience): gloppy, gelatinous pudding of questionable flavor that is given to unsuspecting children and captive audiences like hospital patients. Ok, fine, maybe you like tapioca pudding, we can have a difference of opinion, but riddle me this, Batman: what are those gelatinous tapioca balls made of? If you said yuca root (or cassava, or manioc, all variations will be accepted), you win a brand new Batmobile, or at least some fairy wings, which seemed to be in style at Rio's gay pride parade that we happened upon this past weekend during a long-postponed visit to the beach. If not, well, welcome to the club. I find it odd that something made out of yuca, which is hardly common in the states, stealthily wiggled its way as far as it did into the murky depths of Americana, taking its place alongside pea and ham jello.

Probably non-coincidentally, what is known in tapioca is Brazil is also made out of yuca, but it is in very different form, and (to me) much, much more agreeable.

Made from yuca flour, Brazilian tapioca is a crepe. The crepe is then folded around both sweet or savory fillings, though I much prefer the savory versions. Though originally from the Northeast of the country, it is very common to see tapioca venders on the street in Rio de Janeiro. In fact, it's one of my favorite things to eat in Rio when I'm not at home and looking for something fast, filling and tasty.

Some much so, in fact, that we've starting making them at home. Once you get the hang of it, the preparation couldn't be easier, and you can use literally anything for the filling. The crepe only has two ingredients, water and yuca flour (a.k.a tapioca starch), which you mix together and then pass through a sieve so you're left with crumbs, which you throw into a hot pan. Through yuca's magical properties, the crumbs self-bond, and you're left with a crepe sturdy enough that you can flip it in the pan with a flick of your wrist. It's actually pretty cool.

hadas gay pride rio pic name
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A note about the yuca flour: in the states your best bet is probably going to be labeled "tapioca starch"; and it is readily available at Asian grocery stores and is often a Thai brand; Goya also makes a version that is sometimes available at Latino markets. If you are by chance in Brazil, do NOT buy what is labeled as "tapioca" because, oddly enough, it is not used for Brazilian tapioca (and I still haven't figured out what people actually use it for).

Tapioca (Yuca Crepe) 

2 c. tapioca starch (polvilho doce in Brazil) 
1/2 c. water 
2 Tbsp. butter, room temperature 

Mix the tapioca starch with the water and a small pinch of salt. The tapioca flour will turn hard and unmanageable, which is your cue to break up the hard pieces with your fingers. Do NOT add more water. Once you have a bunch of crumbs, pass them all through a sieve, using your fingers or a spoon to help you push them through. 

Heat a small nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add 1/4 of the tapioca mixture to the skillet, quickly spreading it so it completely covers the bottom (I use my fingers for this but you can use the back of a spoon if you like). You should have a layer of tapioca about 1/2 inch deep. Layer whatever toppings you want on top of the tapioca (see below), leaving a 1/2 inch border. After a couple of minutes, shake the pan a bit to check if the bottom has all fused together (it shouldn't be fused to the bottom, it should slide around easily). Now either use a spatula or quickly flick your wrist to turn the crepe over so the toppings are face down in the pan. Spread the plain bottom of the crepe (that is now facing up in the pan) with 1/2 tablespoon of butter. After a minute or two, shake the pan once again to make sure that nothing is sticking to the bottom, then turn the crepe out on to a plate and fold it in half over the filling. Repeat the process with the rest of the tapioca mixture. Serve hot. Makes 4.

For the filling: Tapioca venders offer a long list of sweet and savory combinations including sweetened condensed milk with coconut, guava with cheese, chorizo and cheese, etc. I almost always go for tapioca with mozzarella, tomato and oregano, which is rather pizza-ish without annoyingly trying to be something that it's not. To make this version, you'll want a handful of grated mozzarella and a couple of tomato slices per crepe. Sprinkle the tomatoes with dried oregano, a bit of salt, and some grated parmesan if you have it on hand. Two tricks that venders use to prevent the toppings from sticking when the crepe is cooked face down is to place ingredients that are less likely to stick on top of stickier ingredients (like meat on top of cheese so the cheese has less contact with the pan), and to sprinkle the top of the filling with a bit of the tapioca crumb mixture to help prevent the filling from sticking. So the tomato and mozzarella crepe would go cheese first, then tomato, then oregano and parmesan.

Los crepes de tapioca, los que se venden en la calle en Rio de Janeiro y hacía el norte de Brasil, son un poco dificiles de hacer la primera vez pero con un poco de práctica salen sin problema. Se puede rellenarlos con lo que quieras, sea dulce o salado.

Tapioca (Crepe de Yuca)

2 tazas de almidón de yuca (polvilho doce en Brasil, el almidón sin grumos) 
1/2 taza de agua
2 cucharadas de mantequilla, temperatura ambiente

En un bol, mezcla el almidón con el agua y una pizquita de sal. El almidon se volverá muy duro; con los dedos quiebra los pedazos duros. NO agregues más agua. Cuando tengas puras migas, pasalas por un colador a otro bol, utilizando una cuchara o los dedos para ayudarlas a pasar.

Calienta un sarten pequeño de teflon sobre fuego medio. Echa 1/4 de la mezcla de yuca al sarten, rapidamente esparciendola para que cubra todo el fondo del sarten (yo uso los dedos pero tu puedes usar la parte convexa de una cuchara si quieres). Deberías tener una capa de yuca de 1 cm. de grosor mas o menos. Echa los ingredientes para el relleno que quieras (ver abajo), dejando un borde de 1 cm. Después de un par de minutos, agita el sarten un poco para ver si el fondo está unido como un crepe (no debería estar pegado al fondo, debería moverse en el sarten sin problema). Ahora usa o una espatula o un movimiento rápido de la muñeca para voltear el crepe de manera que el lado con los ingredientes del relleno esté boca abajo en el sarten. Unta el fondo del crepe (que ahora está boca arriba en el sarten) con 1/2 cucharada de mantequilla. Después de un minuto o dos agita el sarten otra vez para asegurar que el crepe no esté pegado al fondo, entonces pasa el crepe a un plato y doblalo con el relleno hacía adentro. Repite el proceso con el resto de la mezcla de yuca. Sirve caliente. Rinde 4 crepes.

Para el relleno: Los vendedores de tapioca ofrecen una lista larga de combinaciones dulces y saladas incluyendo leche condensada con coco, guayaba con queso, chorizo y queso, etc. Casí siempre pido tapioca con mozzarella, tomate y oregano, que es mas o menos sabor a pizza (sin tratar de ser pizza, la cual obviamente no es). Para hacer una versión así, vas a necesitar un puñado de mozzarella y un par de tajadas de tomate por crepe. Salpica los tomates con oregano, un poquito de sal, y parmesano si por casualidad lo tienes a mano. Dos trucos que los vendedores usan para prevenir que el relleno no se pegue al fondo cuando se está cocinado boca abajo es colocar ingredientes con menos probalidad de pegar encima de ingredientes mas pegajosos (por ejemplo carne encima de queso para que el queso tenga menos contacto con el sarten), y salpicar el relleno con un poco de las mezcla de yuca para que no se pegue. Así que para el crepe de mozzarella y tomate, el queso va primero, después el tomate, y después el oregano y parmesano.

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