How WWII Brought Tapioca To The Forefront In Kerala

It was a romance that would change the culinary landscape of the state, and it all started with a little root vegetable known as tapioca. But how did this humble ingredient, often thought of as a poor man's food, come to be so beloved in Kerala? The answer can be traced back to two distinct events in the state’s rich history: the famine of Travancore and the tumultuous days of World War 2.

The starchy tuber made its way to Kerala during the reign of King Ayilyam Thirunal Rama Varma in the late 19th century, between the years 1860 and 1880. The king approved the cultivation of the crop following a suggestion from his younger brother, Vishakham Thirunal Rama Varma. Vishakham was a budding botanist who was well aware of the properties of the plant, which has a nutritional makeup that is similar to grains such as rice while being significantly more inexpensive and hardier, making it an ideal candidate to help satiate the hunger of the masses during the famine that plagued the land at the time. The king imported the root from Brazil and carried out rigorous tests on the safety of the plant, after which it was immediately approved for commercial cultivation. The King also promoted a simple dish made by boiling small pieces of peeled tapioca with salt, served with a side of green chili chutney. Chunks of the root were also dried and dehydrated in a manner similar to rice. Tapioca is still eaten this way all over Kerala today.

During World War II, the import of rice from Burma (present-day Myanmar) to the Indian state of Kerala was stopped because Japan had occupied the region. This resulted in food scarcity and posed a great challenge for the people of the region. Travancore royalty would take matters into their own hands yet again. Chithira Thirunal, Maharaja of Travancore, and his Governor, Sir CP Ramaswamy Iyer, would aggressively promote the cultivation and consumption of tapioca as an alternative to rice, averting yet another famine by doing so. Tapioca, which is drought-resistant and easily cultivable, proved to be a reliable source of food during this difficult period. Kerala, with its abundant rainfall and fertile land, would therefore prove especially favorable for the tuber. The crop thrived and soon became a staple in the state, providing a reliable source of food for the local population. But it wasn't just the practicality of tapioca that endeared it to the people of Kerala; the root vegetable quickly became a beloved ingredient in their cuisine.

Tapioca is also popularly dried and stored for later use. The process begins by peeling and cutting the tapioca into small pieces. These pieces are then spread out in the sun to dry for several days until they become hard and brittle. This dried tapioca can be stored for several months and is later used to make dishes such as Kappa Meen Curry, Kappa Biryani, and Chendan Kappa with chutney. The dried tapioca can also be ground into flour, which can be used as a thickener in soups and stews or to make traditional Indian snacks such as puttu. This traditional method of drying and storing tapioca ensures that it can be used throughout the year, even when fresh roots are not available.

This new-found love for the tuber couldn't have come at a better time; the dawn of industrialization enabled the denizens of the state to process the vegetable in a variety of ways in order to make a number of delicacies that are relished by several communities on a daily basis today. Some popular examples of such dishes include:

Chendan Kappa and Chammanthi

A popular and simple tapioca dish that is often consumed for breakfast is Chendan Kappa with chutney. To prepare it, the tapioca is first peeled and cut into 5- to 6-inch pieces, then boiled in slightly salted water. Once it is fully cooked, the water is drained off, and the tapioca is ready to be eaten. It is usually served with a chutney made from a blend of green chilies, shallots, and salt that is processed into a paste or with a chutney made from coconut, green chilies, shallots, salt, ginger, and curd that is blended into a smooth paste consistency.

Kappa Meen Curry

Kappa meen is a popular breakfast food in many parts of Kerala. The preparation of the dish starts with the tapioca, or kappa. The tuber is peeled and diced into large chunks before being boiled in lightly salted water (dried root may also be used). In the meantime, a coarse paste is prepared in a blender using a mixture of turmeric powder, grated coconut, green chilies, shallots, and curry leaves. The tapioca is strained and mixed with the paste after it is cooked, and the resulting mixture is further cooked for a few minutes in order to rid the paste of the pungent taste that is typical of raw shallots. The kappa is served hot with a side of ginger coconut chutney and spicy fish curry, making for a filling meal that can fuel the most demanding of days.

Aval Kappa  

Aval is a popular evening snack in Kerala, made by mixing poha, jaggery, and coconut. Kappa aval is the exact same preparation made using rehydrated, dried, grated kappa instead of poha, making for a completely different dish in terms of both taste and appearance. This dish was invented out of necessity following the Second World War.

Kappa Chips 

Kappa chips can be made using fresh or dried tapioca. Fresh chips are nearly always made by slicing thin rounds of the tuber and placing them directly into hot coconut oil. Dried tapioca chips may be made by frying dried rounds or small dried parboiled squares in hot coconut oil. The latter is popularly candied with jaggery.

Kappa Biryani 

Kappa biryani is exactly what the name suggests: a biryani made with tapioca instead of rice. This dish usually features mutton or beef as a protein, cut with the bone on for added flavor. Kappa biryani is usually prepared by the state’s large Christian population for religious events such as the first holy communion or a baptism. 

Tapioca is not only loved for its taste but also for its health benefits; it is gluten-free, low in fat, and high in carbohydrates, making it a great source of energy. It is also rich in vitamin C, vitamin K, and calcium, making it a nutrient-dense food.

Tapioca remains a staple in Kerala today, enjoyed by people of all ages and backgrounds, both as a fried snack and a healthy breakfast option. It's a love story.