Cassava Bread- A Food History Rant

I really wanted to title this “Cassava Bread is Not for Hipsters” but I don’t want to limit this to hipsters- it’s not all their fault.

Today I came across this recipe for Cassava Flour Tortillas, made with New and Improved Cassava Flour. New and Improved Cassava Flour is $18 for 2 lb. New and Improved Cassava Flour “is the very highest quality cassava flour available. Other cassava flours are hand peeled and sun dried. That sounds romantic, but unfortunately hand peeling misses small pieces of peel, resulting in grittiness or a “sand-like”crunch in the finished product.  If that’s not bad enough, sun drying presents its own issues. Because drying cassava in the sun takes so long, the cassava flour ferments and takes on a sour, musty smell and taste.  Otto’s Cassava Flour is thoroughly peeled and flash dried into a beautifully clean smelling and tasting flour you can count on again and again.”

You can count on it to make fake European baked goods that are supposed to be made with grain flours, maybe. Take a look at the recipes. What about all the traditional ways to eat cassava?

cassava 2014

Before Otto convinces you that he can improve on lowly and obviously inferior traditional foods, let’s learn more about cassava.

Did you know that cassava is the staple food for a huge swath of tropical and subtropical countries? Cassava was the main starch and staple food for the entire Amazon until the Europeans came, killed most of the native peoples and started trying to grow wheat, their native grain. They killed so many of the native people they had to import African slaves. Many of the African slaves escaped into the vast jungle and adopted native Indian customs, including the foods like cassava. Traders took cassava and introduced it to Africa, and then southeast Asia. It would be impossible for me to communicate the importance of cassava as a staple food without writing a very long essay. There are some better ones here and here. Cassava is important.

Cassava bread, called casabe, is also important. Cassava bread is made from ground fresh cassava and is the daily bread of millions of people in the Americas. Get that? Tortillas are made from nixtamalized corn and are the daily bread of the peoples of Mexico and Central America, before and after the Europeans arrived in the 15th and 16th centuries. The Europeans wanted wheat, which was difficult to grow and therefore a status symbol. So native cooks started making tortillas with wheat flour instead of corn. So that “Cassava flour tortilla” recipe above is making a copy of a copy of a copy. It is re-inventing the wheel (or in this case, the flat bread) with a big side helping of cultural ignorance.

Now on to “gritty, sand-like crunch” and “cassava flour ferments and takes on a sour, musty smell and taste.” You’d better hope a Brazilian or Indonesian doesn’t read that, because that stuff is fermented on purpose. To imply otherwise is a lie. You don’t think people know how to prepare their traditional foods to make them taste good? There are countless ways to prepare cassava all over the world: simply boiledgrainy and dry like farofa, made into flatbread, made into dough for fritters, tamales, and empanadas, processed into starch and made into sago pearls for boba tea and tapioca for pudding, ground and dried for fufu, shredded and used in sweet desserts like cassava cake and singkong, and the starch makes incredible cheese rolls. And that’s just traditional cassava recipes! You can make just about anything with fresh cassava roots, which cost about $1 a pound. You can buy peeled frozen cassava in the freezer section at Walmart. You can buy tapioca starch at Asian grocery stores for like $3 a pound, and dried ground cassava of all kinds at any large Caribbean grocery store. If you live here in Florida you can grow it yourself.

Seriously people, if you really want a completely gluten-free flat bread, what about traditional corn tortillas? You can buy a pound of those for like $3. And who the heck pays that much for flour? If you’re doing the paleo thing, go find some fresh cassava roots and try some traditional recipes with cassava first. I promise you’ll love them.

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