Let’s Eat Cassava!
By Awake! correspondent in Nigeria
CUTLASS in hand, Janyere hacks his way through the overgrown cassava plot. A straw hat shades him from the blistering equatorial sun. Selecting a plant some ten feet [3m] tall, he grabs the stem with both hands and gently pulls. Out of the ground pop the roots and tubers. He lops them off with his cutlass and puts them in a flat tray with other tubers he has just uprooted. Ngozi, his wife, picks up the pan, places it on her head, and together they set off for home.
This simple harvesting procedure is familiar to millions throughout the tropics who regularly enjoy cassava.a In Africa alone about 200 million people rely on cassava for more than half of their daily calorie intake. And its popularity is growing. Some experts say that by the year 2000, the number of people dependent on cassava may double the number of those who relied on it during the mid-1980’s.
Have you eaten cassava? If you live in a temperate area of the earth, you may say no. But do not be so sure! Cassava starch is an important ingredient in sauces, gravies, baby foods, mustards, tapioca products, thickening agents, confectionery, and bread. Even the meat you eat or the milk you drink may come from animals who have been fed powdered cassava as part of their diet.
In addition to its contribution to the food industry, cassava is used in making adhesives, pastes, and paints.
Growing It Is Easy
But for most Africans, such as Janyere and Ngozi, cassava is grown to be eaten. Though low in protein, its bulky tubers are rich in carbohydrates. Pound for pound, cassava packs more than two and a half times as many calories as either maize or yam, Africa’s next two most important staple foods. Its young shoots and leaves are good to eat—high in vitamins, minerals, and proteins.
One big factor contributing to the importance of cassava is that it is so easy to grow. No extensive land preparation is required, other than removing shrubs and vines and making sure that there is some sunlight. When the soil is moist, the farmer plants stem cuttings from which the cassava will grow. It doesn’t require a lot of weeding, and it needs little or no fertilizer, fungicide, or insecticide. It also can be harvested at any time of the year.
Cassava is amazingly hardy. It grows well in good soil and in poor. It thrives from sea level up to altitudes of 6,500 feet [2,000 m]. It flourishes in areas of heavy rainfall, but it is also fruitful in climates where there is no rain for nine months of the year. Even if a fire should burn it to the ground, cassava sprouts afresh from its base!
Processing It Is Hard Work
So from the time it is planted until the harvest, cassava is relatively labor-free. Once it is out of the ground, however, the real work begins. In fact, the work involved from harvest to dinner table may equal or surpass all preharvest activities.
This work must begin quickly. Had he wanted to, Janyere could have stored the cassava tubers for up to two years by simply leaving them unattended in the ground. But once they are uprooted, the tubers must be processed within 48 hours or they will begin to rot.
Ngozi wants to make gari, a favorite of Nigerians. First she peels the cassava with a knife; then she washes it. Ngozi and Janyere now take the peeled cassava to their friend Alex who has a grinder. The grinder mashes the tubers into pulp. The pulp is then put in a porous sack, and the liquid is squeezed out in Alex’s press.
But the work is not over yet! Next the cassava pulp must be dried for several days. Janyere then sifts it with a raffia sifter. After that, Ngozi fries it, turning it over with a wooden plate so that it does not burn. The cassava, having reached this stage of processing, is now called gari.
Though Ngozi has chosen just one of many ways to process her cassava, most cassava in Africa is processed by women at farm or village level. Shortcuts are not advisable, since cassava contains small quantities of cyanide, highly poisonous to humans and animals. Thorough processing reduces the cyanide content to a safe level.
Now, at last, it is time to eat! Gari, mixed with coconut milk, makes a delicious pudding. It can also be made into biscuits. But Ngozi and Janyere decide instead to eat eba, which is made by simply stirring the gari into hot water.
Throughout Africa cassava dishes are as varied as the names given them. In Côte d’Ivoire it is served up with meat and vegetables as attieke. In Ghana, cassava combined with fish or egg sauce makes a one-dish meal called garifoto. In Tanzania, when you ask for ugali, you will be served cassava (in the form of a thick paste) with soup. In Cameroon, people go for kumkum. And in Sierra Leone, especially on Saturdays, cassava lovers insist on their foofoo!
Whatever you call it, cassava is a big part of African life. So big, in fact, that many people feel that if they have not eaten cassava, even though they have had something else, they have not really eaten at all!
a Also called manioc, tapioca, and yuca.
[Pictures on page 26]
Peeling and washing cassava