It’s Kappa Day! All about how tapioca evolved from famine food to everyday staple

Brought by the Portuguese, the story of Kerala's favourite staple food — tapioca — is one with many twists and turns.

ByDileep V Kumar

Published Jun 28, 2023 | 12:00 PMUpdatedJun 28, 2023 | 12:00 PM

Tapioca day kappa day

Mention kappa (tapioca) with meen (fish) curry to Malayalis and they’ll probably salivate. It is their “comfort food”, the staple they grew up on. For most tourists visiting Kerala, it’s a “must try” item in their bucket list.

But did you know that tapioca was once popularised as a famine food? That it was decided to grow this tuber on whatever land was available? That the government regulated the transportation of tapioca, even in private vehicles? That price control was needed so that it was available to all?

Kappa Day Tapioca day

Kerala style tapioca and fish curry. (iStock)

And, most interestingly, that a health professional wanted the government to promote the tapioca-fish combo among people on a “much larger scale” in the 1940s, for its benefits?

Now consumed by all, and that too in various forms and shapes, the tale of the Kerala’s favourite staple food is one with many twists and turns.

Indigenous to Brazil, it was the Portuguese who introduced cassava (tapioca is extracted from the root of this plant) to Kerala. They introduced it in the Malabar region.

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‘Poor man’s food par excellence’

But it was a king, who also happened to be a botanist, who realised the potential of the crop when his state faced severe food shortage owing to the Great Famine of 1876-78 — also known as “Southern India Famine of 1876-78 — and popularised it among the masses.

Visakhom Thirunal, who ruled erstwhile Travancore princely state from 1880 to 1885, is credited with popularising tapioca cultivation in South India. He encouraged its cultivation to overcome the scarcity of food supply.

It is said that the king himself took the pain to zero in on a plant variety that could provide food and could insure against any famine-like situation. What attracted the king most when he promoted tapioca was that “it could be grown in every backyard and kept in the ground until required”.

In 1906, V Nagam Aiya, former Dewan of erstwhile Travancore, in his work Travancore State Manual, noted that this valuable tuber introduced into Travancore “only recently” was now widely cultivated and had become “the poor man’s food par excellence”.

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Travancore tapioca for US

According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), tapioca was accepted as a substitute for rice, albeit an inferior one.

Tapioca day Kappa day

A tapioca field. (iStock)

In its report titled, Intensive Multiple-Use Forest Management in Kerala, the FAO stated: “The production of tapioca increased to fill the growing gap between the demand and supply of rice. The bumper yield of tapioca in the forest lands encouraged its cultivation in newly cleared forests.”

The cultivation had become quite widespread and the situation in 1918 was such that the Travancore government is said to have received a “standing order for 20,000 tonnes of tapioca annually for the US'”.

A report published by the US Department of Commerce quoted the then director of industries in Travancore as saying that as tapioca flour, granulated tapioca, and tapioca starch can be prepared out of the root, these could find ready foreign markets.

As we will see later, this export thrust would force the government to step in to regulate the sale of tapioca a couple of decades down the line, a food shortage loomed again.

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Cash crops: Their impact on tapioca

KV Joseph, in his book Migration and Economic Development of Kerala (1988), noted that tapioca remained exempt from taxes as it formed the poor man’s staple diet. Thus, the cultivation and consumption of tapioca became widespread among the peasantry.

But, according to him, things changed somewhat as people started cultivating cash crops like rubber, cashew, pepper, and coconut. The result was that tapioca farming saw somewhat of a decline.

“Much of the land suitable for cultivation of tapioca was being diverted for the cultivation of these cash crops. At the time, when the war (World War II) broke out, cultivation of tapioca was on the decline,” reads an excerpt from the book.

At this time, the erstwhile states of Travancore and Cochin relied mainly on rice consignments that were imported from countries like Burma and Thailand.

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Japanese invasion and tapioca

It was because of this dependence on the import of rice from foreign countries, especially Burma, that the Japanese invasion turned out to be a shocker for Kerala. As imports were cut off, food shortages loomed. The government of the time once again turned to tapioca for a bailout.

Kappa Day Tapioca day

Gazette notification on tapioca.

During this time, the America Embassy in its report Tapioca Becoming Important as Subsidiary Food in India, observed that before the World War II, no serious attention was devoted to the use of subsidiary foods whenever rice shortages developed in South India.

But following the cutting off of supplies due to the Japanese invasion of Burma, the use of tapioca as a subsidiary food gradually became popular among the people.

“Laborers in parts of Travancore-Cochin are now living on a quarter of their rice consumption, and the balance is being met mainly by tapioca and by adding to the diet small amounts of fish and gram to make up the protein deficiency,” read an excerpt from the report.

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A couple of restrictions

Even at a time tapioca cultivation was dwindling somewhat, exports continued. In fact, much of the tapioca cultivated was being exported due to the huge demand for tapioca flour and starch outside Travancore.

Tapioca day Kappa day

The Tapioca Control Order.

The conversion of much of tapioca produced to flour and starch for export affected the poor, as they could not purchase tapioca at a reasonable price.

Understanding the seriousness of the situation, the Travancore Government was “obliged to take special measures to conserve the stock until at least the situation is eased by the improvement in the rice supplies”.

Thus came the prohibition on the export of tapioca in any form except under a permit from the Excise Commissioner, on 25 October, 1942.

Then, a year later, on 2 November, 1943, a Tapioca Control Order came into effect. This regulated purchase, sale, and storage of tapioca in wholesale quantities — and even the transport of tapioca in private vehicles.

‘Produce more and more tapioca’

The regulations also triggered discussions in the Legislative Council. Like the one that happened on 11 January, 1944, at the Travancore Sri Mulam Assembly.

Tapioca day kappa day

Tapioca price control notification.

In that discussion, some members pointed out that the Tapioca Control Order and other restrictions had created a sort of panic in the minds of agriculturists.

Said member KS Sabastian, “I am of the view that no tapioca should be exported outside the state, even to Cochin. But we must allow free circulation of this commodity within this state (Travancore). Why should we insist on a license or permit?”

At the same time, another member, S Krishna Aiyar, said that “if Travancore is starving today, it is our fault. Every one of us must strive to produce more and more and encourage people to produce more and more tapioca”.

Promoting the tapioca-fish combo

It was during this discussion that the president of the council, CP Ramaswamy Aiyar, revealed that the then Director General of Medical Services, on a visit to Travancore, suggested the addition of fish to tapioca on a much larger scale.

“While he fully realised the necessity to which Travancore was reduced and the indispensability of tapioca, he was very anxious indeed that every step should be taken to secure some supplement to tapioca so that the stamina of the people might be preserved,” CP informed the Assembly.

Interestingly, this was highlighted in the final report of the Famine Inquiry Commission in 1945.

The report stated that tapioca has one very serious disadvantage as it is a very poor source of protein, poorer than other roots and tubers in general.

“In practice, the extension of tapioca cultivation often means that the poorer classes eat more of this cheap and starchy food and less and less of other foods. Hence the indiscriminate and uncontrolled spread of tapioca cultivation is not to be recommended, unless, (in) an emergency when starvation must be averted at all costs,” underscored the report.