Cassava is a long tuberous starchy root about two inches around and eight inches long. The root has a brown fibrous skin and snowy white interior flesh. Because it bruises easily, it’s often sold covered in a protective wax coating. Other names for cassava are yuca, manioc, mandioca, yucca root, casabe, and tapioca.
Cassava is native to Brazil and the tropical areas of the Americas. It’s widely grown all over Latin America and the Caribbean. It was and still is an essential root vegetable in these diets. Since before Columbus’s arrival, cassava has been a staple food of the Taino, Carib, and Arawak population, especially in the form of cassava bread. Because it was so crucial to the culture, the natives revered it. A 1554 Spanish historical account describes a ceremony in which a native priest blessed cassava bread and then divided it among the tribal people present. The recipients then preserved the bread to protect their families from danger throughout the following year. Cassava is still eaten throughout all the islands today, and you’ll find it piled high at produce markets.
Cassava is incredibly versatile; it can be boiled, baked, steamed, grilled, fried, mashed, or added to stews. Frequently, it is served with meat sprinkled with salt, pepper, and lime juice. Many recipes call for it to be grated. When cooked, it turns yellow, slightly translucent, a little sweet, and chewy. The root can also be made into a ground meal or flour by washing, peeling, and grating it and then pressing out the juice and drying the meal. The meal can be bought already prepared and frozen. On the French-influenced islands, cassava meal is known as farine, a shortened form of farine de manioc.
Cassava can also be made into several other items. Tapioca is cassava starch used in puddings and as a thickening agent. Other preparations include dough for empanadas and tamales, chips, and fritters. Cassareep, an essential ingredient in pepperpot, is a concoction of boiled down cassava juice combined with other spices. Dominicans make a savory yuca turnover called cativías. In Jamaica, bam bam is the collective term used for food made from cassava such as bread, pancakes, and muffins. Bammy, or bammie, is thick bread made from cassava flour. It’s usually eaten with fried fish or saltfish and ackee.
When buying cassava roots look for firm roots, with no soft spots. Also, if possible, buy whole roots that have not had their ends removed.
Grated bitter yuca is used to make casabe, which is a traditional crisp, unleavened, flatbread popular in the Dominican Republic. In the United States, casabe crisp as a cracker is sold in specialty markets because bitter cassava is not available, and it takes time and skill—making it a true Caribbean artisan bread. The bread is sold in plastic bags or wrapped in paper and tied with a string. In the French-speaking islands, the bread is called pain de kassav, and, in the Spanish-speaking islands, it is called pan de casabe.
The indigenous people developed a method of extracting poisonous Prussic acid from the bitter cassava to make the bread. It involves peeling, washing, grating, and pressing using a matapie (hanging sack). The pressing removes the poisonous liquid. Once separated from the juice, the pulp is dried in the sun and then made into bread or wrapped in banana leaves for storage. The process was laborious and whole villages would take part in the preparations. The poisonous liquid was then used to spike their hunting spears and arrows.
There are two varieties of cassava—sweet and bitter. Both contain Prussic acid (hydrocyanic acid), which can cause cyanide poisoning. Cooking or pressing the root thoroughly removes the poison. Cassava can never be eaten raw. Bitter, or wild, cassava contains enough acid so that it can be fatally poisonous if eaten raw or undercooked. To escape the Conquistadors, the oppressed natives were known to commit suicide by eating raw cassava.
Don’t be intimidated. You won’t come into contact with bitter cassava in U.S. stores. Sweet cassava is sold in American markets fresh or frozen. Bitter cassava is processed into safe edible flours and starches, which in turn are made into breads, pastries, and cakes.