Eating Starch? – What’s the Secret to Making a Proper Beiju?

Curiosity is lying in wait for every secret.”
~Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Why did I not think of this before? I’ll just buy tapioca and we’ll make beiju,” I concluded.

It was such a simple solution to such a simple problem: staying in a village where I couldn’t find bread but needing something for breakfast.

If only it were so simple…

I had seen people prepare beiju and it’s like baking a pancake but with only manioc flour. You sprinkle the manioc flour in a frying pan, let it fuse and there you go.

Is there an easier dish to make?

Why did I have to travel in north Brazil, where beiju is a common dish for breakfast, for three months before coming up with that idea?

What is Beiju, or Tapioquinha?

The name beiju, which is used in northeast Brazil, is new to me. In the Amazon I heard the name tapioquinha, which is the same thing: manioc bread with butter eaten for breakfast. In Mato Grosso, in west Brazil, vendors sell it as a merinda – a snack that you eat in the late afternoon – and simply call it tapioca. In Rio de Janeiro you ask for a tapioca recheada.

Whatever the name, the tapioca pancake is delicious. You can add a savory topping such as ham or cheese, or a sweet topping of coconut, chocolate or condensed milk (better: a mixture!).

Beiju is a bit of an acquired taste, though. Tapioca is a starch. It’s the by-product of manioc flour. After the manioc roots have been grated and boiled to get the poison out, the masa is squeezed through a special device called a matapi. The liquid that remains is left to evaporate and the fine powder at the bottom is tapioca. Throughout the world it is prepared and used in different ways; here in northern Brazil, beiju is served as breakfast.

The first bite of beiju doesn’t have much flavor and the texture is tough, kind of leathery. You have to chew thoroughly to taste it, but I have come to appreciate it as a good alternative for bread in the morning. These tapioca pancakes are incredibly nutritious.

I have discovered that eating beiju is a good exercise in eating slowly because when you eat fast you’ll eat too much and it will lie heavy on your stomach for hours – I learned that the hard way.

For 3 reais I buy a bag of tapioca, return to the Land Cruiser and announce my plan to Coen. He is skeptic.

“Don’t worry, it’s easy,” I say, a bit annoyed by his lack of enthusiasm.

A Black Pan and Grains of Tapioca

We get out the frying pan and heat it on the stove.

The first doubts arise.

“No-o. I don’t think we need oil or butter. Just sprinkle the tapioca in the pan.”

Coen is following orders. I see no fusing of the grains. No pancake is formed – just loose grains in a frying pan that are turning dangerously black. I can’t figure out what I may have missed when watching other women prepare this, so I really can’t think of other ways to experiment.

“Well, this isn’t going to work. Let’s ask Lucia to show us,” I suggest and thoroughly scrub the pan to remove the black layer.

The Secret to Making a Proper Beiju

“Lucia, will you tell us how to make beiju? With our pan and our tapioca?” we ask.

Who knows we bought the wrong tapioca or have the wrong pan.

Lucia, her husband Marinaldo and five kids look at us.

“Make beiju? Now?” Lucia asks.

It’s ten o’clock; they are no longer thinking of breakfast but are already preparing lunch.

“Yes, please.”

“Okay, bring me two bowls and a sieve,” Lucia instructs a daughter.

“No, no, do it with our stuff,” Coen says.

“But I need bowls and a sieve,” she argues.

Granted, we didn’t bring those.

Our frying pan is put on the stove but Lucia gives up on that one quickly.

“You need a small one,” she says.

Right.

Small. Again. Small biscuits, small coffee. Now a small frying pan for small beijus:

  • Small pan, reasonable fire.
  • Heat the pan.
  • Sieve the tapioca in the pan.
  • Toast it for less than a minute. The grains fuse beautifully into a manioc flat cake.
  • Turn it over, leave it for half a minute.
  • Done.

Lucia slides the beiju on a plate and starts the next one.

“Hurry up. Butter,” she instructs her daughters.

One of them butters the beiju with a spoon and rolls it up. Five more beijus follow.

Meanwhile husband Marinaldo has set two cups and plates on the table under the palm leaf awning of his Guesthouse Lulayna Dunas*, together with a large thermos of coffee. We can’t convince the family to share “our” beijus made by Lucia.

“No, you enjoy your breakfast.”

We do.

When we leave we feel thoroughly content to have discovered the secret of the recipe, still oblivious to the fact that it really does need a lot of practice to get that mixture right. For now, our beijus turn out so hard that they can’t be rolled at all.

However, experimenting has also taught us that a thick layer of marmalade compensates for the extra chewing.

Okay, I will admit I had seen women using sieves. I had found that a completely useless exercise. Why would you sieve tapioca, which is as soft as dust?

Lucia gets a cup of water, sprinkles a bit of it on the tapioca and starts mixing it with her hand. She is moistening the tapioca, she explains.

“Water? You need water?!”

“Of course you need water. Otherwise nothing will happen,” she answers.

Coen and I look at each other. Water!

Somehow I have always missed that part of the preparations. Now I understand the sieve. Because of the mixing with water, the grains have become much coarser than they were.

I also see my illusion shattered: this is no quick dish. While it doesn’t exactly take hours to prepare, but to mix the tapioca with exactly the right amount of water is not a matter of course. Lucia adds water almost drop by drop until she gets the texture exactly right.

Sometimes things look so simple at first glance, don’t they? This discovery of making proper beiju made me realize again how easy it is to watch from the outside and draw conclusions. And how wrong those conclusions can be if I don’t properly research, ask questions, thoroughly study what I am looking at.

Lençois Maranhenses National Park
Lencois Maranhenses National Park, Brazil (©Coen Wubbels)

Practical Information on Pousada Lulayna Dunas

  • Marinaldo grew up in this village and knows every single dune. He married Lucia and they are raising five children who all help out at the guesthouse. From a fisherman Marinaldo became a tourist guide who loves taking people on hiking and/or camping trips in the dunes. He took us for a tour to Lençois Maranhenses National Park.
  • Marinaldo owns the Guesthouse (Pousada) Lulayna Dunas. The guesthouse is situated in Santo Amaro, the western gateway to the spectacular Lençois Maranhenses National Park. This very basic guesthouse has rooms with private bathrooms and an open area in the garden shaded by a roof made of carnaúba palm leaves.
  • Pousada Lulayna Dunas
    • Email: bjosemarinaldo@hotmail.com
    • Rua Figueiredo Campos no. 93, Santo Amaro
    • Phone: (98) 8879-9438

Originally published in 2012 / Updated in 2018

Explore the Dunes of Lençois Maranhenses

The entire region of Lençois Maranhenses is spectacular, not just the dunes but also the Perguiças River. Barreirinhas is a good place to find tours or a guide to show you the very best that the region has to offer. Check what tours are on offer and see if they fit your needs.

Click on the images below to learn more.

Additional Reading about Food in Brazil


Travel Guides for Brazil

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Photos by Coen Wubbels. Follow our overland journey on Landcruisingadventure.com or on Instagram.

3 thoughts on “Eating Starch? – What’s the Secret to Making a Proper Beiju?”

  1. Nice post. I was checking constantly this weblog and I am inspired! Very helpful information specially the ultimate phase 🙂 I maintain such info a lot. I was seeking this particular info for a very long time}. Thank you and best of luck.

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  2. Being that my family is from northeast Brazil….I grew up eating beiju and of course, cuscuz. It’s def not for everyone though, my kids (born and raised in US) don’t really care for it. I moved to the US in 1980, so you’d think that beiju would be something you’d eat only when visiting Brazil but my family still made it sometimes (not as often as I’d like) for breakfast. Have you tried making cuscuz? Definitely easier than beiju. 🙂

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