Cassava, Rich in History and Carbs

Continuing the theme of potentially dangerous foods, this week, we’ll take a look at cassava, a staple of the Jamaican diet since before Columbus landed on the island in 1494. Cassava was the main source of food for the Tainos, the island’s indigenous people who ate it with a variety of fish and meats.

Cassava, also called yuca or manioc, is a carbohydrate-packed root that needs little water, fertilizer or pesticides to grow, and can be harvested anytime from 8 to 24 months after planting. There are two varieties – bitter and sweet.

Cassava
Cassava at a supermarket in NJ

Perhaps because it is so simple to cultivate and so rich in carbohydrates (it provides the third largest source of carbs after rice and corn), calcium and vitamin C, cassava feeds about half a billion people, according to Wikipedia.

But cassava also contains cyanide so preparing it isn’t for the inexperienced. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you could leave trace amounts of the toxin that could cause illnesses as severe as partial paralysis.

Cassava
Depiction of Taino woman pounding cassava, Outameni Experience, 2011

In Jamaica, we typically dig the cassava from the ground, scrape it and cut into small pieces or grate it and press it through a cloth to remove the juice, which contains the toxin.

But that juice isn’t discarded. We use it to make starch, though I haven’t seen it done recently, and the residue (the trashy part of the cassava) to make flour or formed into a flat, round bread (like Pita and about the same size), that we call bammie. After we make the bammie, we steam or fry it on a griddle.

Cassava
Bammie

I didn’t always like bammie, which like cassava, is quite bland but steamed or fried, it goes very well with fish. We always eat it with fish – fried crispy or escoveitch – I don’t remember eating it or seeing it eaten with anything else. In this respect, we’re carrying on a tradition of the Taino, our indigenous people.

According to an article I read, several years ago, we almost dropped cassava for wheat bread but an FAO project helped resucitate cassava cultivation and bammie production in Jamaica. Now bammie can be found in every supermarket on the island. There are even ‘cocktail’ bammies – smaller – about 2” in diameter, and some which look like breadsticks.

Steamed fish and vegetables
Steamed fish, vegetables and bammie from Little Ochie

But for freshly made bammie, I usually head to Scott’s Cove, a little spot just at the border of the parishes of Westmoreland and St. Elizabeth. There, vendors sell bammie, fried fish, soup, etc. I prefer to buy the steamed ones but they have a pretty short shelf life.

While I was researching this post, I found an article on a not so new use for cassava. The company that makes Red Stripe, the local beer, is looking to replace imported corn syrup, which accounts for up to 40% of the brewery’s raw material import, with locally grown cassava. This is really good news for Red Stripe and cassava.

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17 comments on “Cassava, Rich in History and Carbs

  1. Yes, it is Jan. I’ll have to ask my aunt and others if they’ve ever eaten it with anything else.
    And like you, I’m glad it hasn’t died out.

  2. I love to eat cassava cake with cheese on top. When I read this I’m a little bit of shock what I discovered that the Cassava root contains natural toxic cyanogenic glycoside. But of course, there are ways on how to prevent the toxic in cassava. It is safe for human consumption if we peel the outer part, sun drying and soaking followed by boiling in salt-vinegar water results in evaporation of this compound. Very informative, I’ll definitely give these 5 stars.
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  3. I’ll have to try it with cheese one of these days. Should be interesting combination of flavors, Alexis.
    Thanks for letting me know this also how you prepare it.

  4. I was surprised about the numbers as well, Leigh. I’m sure it’s because it’s so easy to cultivate.
    Sometimes the fish is pretty spicy – lots of onions and Scotch bonnet peppers. Depends on taste.

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