Ever since I tried Tapioca (a type of pancake made from tapioca flour, typically found in the north of Brazil) I have been constantly thinking about tapioca flour. In Brazil there is not just one type of tapioca flour, instead there seems to be a gazillion different types (well that isn’t quite true, but it seems that way to me) and each one is used for making a specific dish or to suit different taste buds. Recently I have been thinking more about the advantages of using tapioca flour, one being that it is GLUTEN FREE, and how fun it is to bake with. The part that I like best is that tapioca flour becomes gooey (if you have tried pão de queijo you know what I mean). So, before I dive into tons of recipes that take tapioca flour I’m going to tell you a little bit about what it is and the different flours that you can find in Brazil.
Tapioca flour, or manioc flour, is made from a woody shrub known as cassava, manioc, or yuca; a native shrub of South America. In Brazil, the cassava plant and the root that is commonly eaten is called “mandioca”, while the starch is called “tapioca”! The name tapioca is derived from the word tipi’oka which is the name for this starch in the Tupi language that was spoken by the natives when the Portuguese first arrived in the Northeast of Brazil. The Tupi word, tipi’oka, refers to the process by which the starch is made edible. The word has been adopted and is now used to refer to the flour in the northeast of the country. In the north and central west it is more commonly referred to as mandioca, and in the southeast and south as aipim.
As I learned today from my mother-in-law and husband, tapioca flour is the primary flour that is used for baking in the northern areas of Brazil. Due to an inability to grow wheat, tapioca has been adopted as the primary flour. Breads, cakes, buns, and pancakes are all made with tapioca flour. I haven’t tried tapioca bread or cake yet, but I know that I will have to.
Brazilians use two types of tapioca flour: a fine flour that is used in cakes and cookies, and a course flour that is used for frying. Obviously, this is not where the story ends. Yes, there are two main types of tapioca flour, but the tree keeps on branching out. The fine flour, referred to as “polvilho” in Brazil has two different types, a sweet and a sour. The course flour, referred to as “farinha de mandioca” also has various types! Let me start by explaining a little bit more about “polivilho”!
Polvilho – This is the fine-white tapioca flour. This is the basic tapioca flour you will find. In Brazil there are two different types, the sweet and the sour. So, what is the difference? Well basically one flour is more sour and the other is more sweet. Tasting them side-by-side you can really taste the difference. “Polvilho Doce”, the sweet tapioca flour is more commonly used for baking cakes or cookies. If you are baking anything sweet you will probably want to go with the sweet tapioca flour! “Polvilho Azedo” is fermented cassava pulp that is then made into flour. This flour is sour and is used in recipes like pão de queijo. More commonly used in savory recipes, the sour tapioca flour has a stronger flavor!
Farinha de Mandioca – This is the course manioc flour that is used for frying and is commonly used in the side dish farofa (farinha de mandioca fried with butter, onions, bacon/jerked beef, and parsley). I still have no idea how many different varieties of this flour there are in Brazil, but it seems like a lot. Some flours are very course, others toasted for a more nutty flavor, and others have large flakes. Generally it is up to the preference of those cooking or eating the dishes made with farinha de mandioca. They all do the same thing, they just have slightly different textures and flavors!
Besides the tapioca flour you find in Brazil, Brazilians are also very fond of “sagu” or what is actually known in the USA as tapioca: the tapioca pearls. A delicious dessert “sagu” is usually made with grape juice, but you can find almost any flavor.
If you do not live in Brazil it is likely that you will not have access to the endless variety of tapioca flours that you can find here. Instead, you will be able to find the basic tapioca flour, this is probably the “polvilho doce” that we find in Brazil, but can really be used for any type of baking (pão de queijo made with polvilho doce is still a bite of heaven). Finding the “farinha de mandioca” will be much more of a challenge. I have seen it in some supermarkets in the international section, but this was only in the Boston area where there is a large Brazilian population. (Take a look at my links for ordering Brazilian Food online, there are some great places to buy farinha de mandioca!)