Casabe – A culinary time machine
Food is fascinating. It gives us rich historical insight and cultural understanding into a country. The raises (roots) of Cuban cuisine reflects the complex history of the island. I’ve decided to investigate some traditional foods that give us a very direct link with Cuban history.
Casabe is a food that hasn’t changed in centuries. It is a flat bread made from yuca (cassava) flour and formed a staple of the Taíno indian diet in pre-colonial Cuba. It’s still made and eaten mostly in the Oriente (the eastern provinces of Cuba, and those worst affected by hurricane Sandy).
I thought it would be interesting to take a trip back in time by making Casabe. The recipe is short and deceptively simple – peel, grate and drain the yuca. Add salt. Form it into patties then press these into discs and cook in a skillet. So you might think it would be quick to prepare. Wrong! In Cuba it’s labour intensive because I do most of the preparation by hand. Not dis-similar from the way Taíno women prepared it in the 15th Century.
My first attempt at making Casabe was on a Sunday – a good day for time-consuming recipes. There are practically back to back movies on the TV (with no ad breaks) and I set up camp in front of the box while I peeled, grated and chopped my way through the movie offering. This particular Sunday I watched ‘Water for Elephants’ while I peeled and grated the yuca. If you’re going to try making Casabe you’ll probably be using a food processor, which will make this recipe very simple. I dream of having my food processor in Cuba, but unfortunately it’s in Ireland. (If someone wants to make my dreams reality by offering to bring my food processor in their luggage – do get in touch!).
After peeling the yuca and grating it finely you get a mass called Jao. I’ve no idea what
it’s called in English, it took some digging around to find out what it’s called in Spanish! The Jao then needs to be squeezed and drained of any residual liquid. This is important for two reasons. Firstly, raw yuca contains cyanide. Don’t be too alarmed, as long as you squeeze it you remove the cyanide and won’t be poisoned! Secondly, to make a cracker like bread you need make sure that the flour is dry. I achieved this by putting the grated yuca in a piece of muslin and allowing it to drain into a bowl in my hot kitchen. After 2 hours I had a very dry mass.
I then moulded the flour into balls and smoothed them flat into a hot, dry skillet, cooking them for about 3 mins on each side. I hoped that following the recipe to the letter from Cuban cookbook, Cocina con Sabor, would produce the real deal. Or maybe not…
Having never tasted Casabe before, I took myself off to my neighbour Teresa for a taste test. Teresa has a passionate interest in food and loves when I get her to taste and feedback on recipes. Her generosity and local knowledge is invaluable to me as finding ingredients is a well-honed Cuban skill that I’m still acquiring.
Having tasted the Casabe, Teresa was slow to offer an opinion. That in itself was unusual. Cubans are ‘not slow at coming forward’ as my Granny would say. When I pressed her she admitted she had never actually tried Casabe and therefore didn’t know what it should taste like. But she did think that it shouldn’t be as thick as I had made it.
This highlighted an important point for me in terms of regionality of food. While
cookbooks published both inside and outside of Cuba generally have a variety of dishes from all regions, in practice Cubans tend to cook the food they grew up with. So for a born and bred Havana girl like Teresa, Casabe was not in her repertoire. And as none of my immediate neighbours were from the Oriente either I was out of luck that Sunday for an expert opinion. I did doubt the somewhat bland, chewy texture myself so decided to keep practising. If at once you don’t succeed, try, try again.
And so my quest to cook Casabe continued… I enlisted the help of an ‘expert’ or at least a helpful friend from Holguín (which is in the Oriente) for my next attempt. I’ll share the results and recipe for Casabe (take two) in my next blog post…