Preparing Casabe
 
  Watch a Garífuna woman as she packs yucca into a woven basket to extract its poisonous juices. Credit: Drew Irwin, InCorpore Cultural Association©.  
Wendy Griffin
Staff Writer, Honduras This Week

Yucca: A Poisonous Root
Two Indian groups in Honduras use bitter yucca. The Pech make a bread from it called sasal in Spanish and cha'a in Pech. The Tawahkas used to grow bitter yucca to make sasal, but the plant has died out among them. To make sasal, the yucca is cooked, ground with a rock or a meat grinder, and then wrapped in banana leaves. Because it bakes over an open fire for a long time, most of the yucca's poisonous liquid (cyanide) is cooked off. What little remains gives the sasal a bitter taste after a few days. However, the cyanide acts as a preservative. While bread will mold in a day in the rain forest, sasal lasts more than 10 days.

The Harvest
The Garífunas use a completely different process to extract this poison. First, the women gather the yucca from their fields. They usually carry the roots back home in a basket over their heads. This image of women carrying yucca is very traditional. The Arawak Indians of the Caribbean believed in a god of yucca poisoning. Its icon was a person carrying a fanine basket over their head. An example can be seen in the Yale Museum.

The Grating Process
Returning to their village, the Garífuna women use machetes to remove the yucca's brown skin. Then, they bend over large grating boards that are covered with small, white quartz stones. These quartz stones were found in archaeological sites along South America's Orinoco River. This tells experts that Garífuna ancestors have employed this process for over 3,000 years.

The grated yucca falls into a mahogany bowl or tray called a boulu in Garífuna. The women sing a special song as they grate the yucca. Garífuna women then pack the grated yucca into a long tube made of woven bayal called a ruguma. One end is hung from a tree branch. A stick is put through the bottom of the tube. Children sit on the lower stick to pull the tube tight and squeeze out all the poisonous juice.

This juice is boiled until it is very concentrated. The concentrate is called dumari. It is a spice used to flavor Garífuna soups without coconut, explains Garífuna Enrique Gutierrez of Trujillo. When the juice is poured out, a thin layer of starch is left in the bowl. This starch is highly prized. It is feed to babies to help them sleep at night and given to elderly people with stomach ailments.

Baking the Bread
After the juice is squeezed out, the women take the yucca out of the ruguma and let it dry over night. Next, they sift it through a large basket called a híbise. The pieces of yucca that do not pass through the sifter are cooked on the grill. This toasted yucca is then mixed with water and grated with sweet potato. In 24 hours, you may try hiu, a mildly fermented drink made of yucca.

The yucca that passes through the sifter is put on a clay or metal griddle called a budari to bake. A special mahogany spatula is used to turn the bread over. The cooks cut off the rough edges to make the bread round. These scraps are used to make a dessert called farinha in Spanish and aru in Garífuna. Next, the women fan the fire with their small broom (beisaba). They dust the top of the cassava bread with a refined yucca flour. The thin cassava bread is then taken off the fire. Cassava bread made with sweet manioc lasts about a month. The bitter variety can last up to a year.

Other Uses of Yucca
The Garífunas also make a thicker bread of manioc, which is called marrote in Spanish and marumaruti in Garífuna. Both cassava bread and the spongier marrote are dipped into soups to soak up the coconut-flavored liquid.

The Garífunas are descendants of the Carib and Arawak Indians who invented these foods. They are also ancestors of Africans who suffered from sickle-cell anemia. Some anthropologists believe the chemicals in cassava bread helped to protect the Garífunas from this disorder. Unlike the root, the leaves of the manioc are not poisonous. In fact, it is possible to boil them in soups or cut and fry them with eggs. This can be a cheap treatment for iron deficiency anemia, which is a common problem among Pech, Miskitos, and Ladinos (non-indigenous peoples).

Related link:
Unusual root crops produce seldom tried Honduran dishes
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Credit: Wendy Griffin. Bitter yucca: a plant of many uses, Honduras this Week, 8/2/99. All rights reserved. Griffin is the co-author of Dioes, héroes y hombres en el universo mítico pech, a book on Payan mythology and folklore. She is currently a resident of the Garífuna community of Triunfo de la Cruz, Honduras.