It may well be the oldest and tastiest savory sauce surviving in this part of the world, but Guyana is the only country where the rich, dark, intensely flavored indigenous motive has ‘to integrate so seamlessly into our Christmas food, awareness, and culture.
My few precious bottles hidden in the very back of my kitchen cupboard, bearing the basic printed labels of a well-known producer of the “Riverside Pomeroon,” boldly proclaim “Cassava Cassareep.” Last year, when relatives and friends were about to visit and ask, as always, what I wanted at home, I did not hesitate to ask for our most beloved condiment of that highly respected artisanal production area.
Although I used some for my version of our national dish that Christmas, I carefully hid the rest of the view, given the uncertainties of future Guyanese visitors and scarce replenishment. This closing holiday, with the ongoing atrocities of the fast-rolling Covid-19 virus and the closing of borders, I am proud and proud to have saved for the unexpected and the unprecedented.
And yet, as Christmas 2020 drew near, I surveyed with the terror of strange “caramel” ingredients in the Pomeroon version and the chemical preservative sodium benzoate in a poor imitation of a local factory, this week I remembered the days when I could just pick up an unmarked glass bottle from the mighty sauce of the Stabroek Market retrospective and trust it to be made from pure pure Manihot esculenta accented with the best sparkling peppers and choose spices.
“Cassarip” is how the famous 19th century German botanist Richard Schomburgk transferred an early recorded description of the smoky, condensed and thick black liquid left over from the slow boiling of bitter cassava extracted by the women of the Warrau tribe in “Cumaka,” (Kumaka) village, now District One, Barima-Waini.
In Mr Schomburgk’s original three-volume set of “Travels in British Guiana” between 1840-1844, he used the Latin name of the hardy bush, writing: “After the women… .with enough grating of Manihot, it was powerfully stuffed into a ductile cylindrical tube eight to nine feet long (Arupa) plated out of a species of Calathea. The apparatus, which during the filling is significantly shortened and widened, was then overwhelmed by its upper loop to one of the beams of the house: on the other hand long staff passed through the lower loop to more than half its length, its shorter end being trapped under a strong beak that had previously been wedged to the ground. “
He continued, “Then two or three women set themselves on the longer end and forced it down with all their might, so that the cylinder that produced and shortened, because of the weight, gradually got longer and longer. All the aqueous and toxic contents of tubers, which the mandatory stuffing had not yet separated, were now fully expressed, collected in a large pot, thickened by prolonged boiling and evaporation and seasoned with strong proportions of Capsicum. All the toxic compounds are volatile during evaporation and therefore the concentrated juice is used as a sauce for meat. If an animal of any description should only take part in a small amount of the fresh juice, violent convulsions are established shortly thereafter, this increase in ferocity is increasing, at the same time as the whole body swells really, with both symptoms finally subsiding in death. ”
What would eventually become a highly regarded, hearty Christmas dish crafted by Guyanese everywhere united in enduring culinary passion, is named by Mr Schomburgk who refers to his revered age and popularity breaking barriers even then.
“The Dutch colonists ‘pepper pot’ celebrated for the last hundred years relies on its main ingredient on this sauce, to which the leftover meat is thrown after every meal: fresh Cassarip (the name of this thick sauce) is now and again pouring over it. The greater the age of such a pot, the greater the store upon it: the one who belongs to a Dutch family must therefore have been a real gem, the lady of the house had known how to keep it unspoiled and of course (the pot) also unclean for thirty years. ”
Referring to “cassava bread,” he said, “After the women had completely squeezed the juice, the mealy mass was rubbed by others through a kind of sifter and streamed on a large iron plate heated by fire and guns. underneath it, and bake it into a cake. The grilles for this purpose are manufactured in England and sold in the Colony to the coastal tribes. ”Mr Schomburgk’s invaluable accounts were translated from German and edited by a respected British administrator, medical practitioner and writer, Dr Walter Roth for whom our Main Street Anthropology Museum is named. It was published in 1922 by the Daily Chronicle Office, also in Main Street. Dr Roth was made an Indian Protector in the Pomeroon area of British Guiana in 1906. He was placed in charge of the Demerara, Rupununi and Northwest areas in 1915.
But the various cassava sauces, waffles and farces have been around in the native Amazon and across South America for thousands of years. Tucupi pixuna or tucupi negro, many other cassareep titles such as classic millennial sauce include kumaji, ají negro and kanyzi pudidy.
Back in 1999, biologists at Washington University in St. Louis, in the United States, identified the geographical origin of cassava in southwestern Brazil to about 8 000 years ago, with the first archaeological evidence some 7 500 years ago from the Porce valley in northwestern Colombia.
They concluded that a wide distribution, probably of one wild Manihot species still present in the diminishing Amazonian basin, has spread to three main distribution areas: southern Brazil and Paraguay; Venezuela, Colombia and northern Brazil; and Central America, concentrated in Nicaragua with distribution extending south to Costa Rica and north to Honduras.
Cassava remains a staple subsistence crop that feeds an estimated 600 million people in developing countries including the Americas, and much of Africa where the tubers were taken by Portuguese merchants from Brazil in the 16th century.
At one time, native women, by marriage, would be given a stock of cassava varieties by the female line ranging from their mother to their mother-in-law. Although men are responsible for the initial clearing of the forest and the preparation of the farm, women’s work is still propagation, cultivation and end products. One study highlighted that human selection of many different types for a range of purposes has been a key process in maintaining diversity.
With hundreds of varieties known, a 1994 study in Aishalton in southwestern Guyana documented the use of at least 37 lines of cashew, two of which were sweet and could be used directly for cooking tubers, with the 35 bitter strains remaining are preferred alcoholic beverage “parakari,” bread or marine. Of the four for “parakari,” three were seen to ferment slowly. Comparison in northwestern Amazonia found an average of 16-33 types per informant, but a second study in Guyana recorded the growth of only 76 varieties.
Whatever cassava may be in our cassareep this Christmas, given the most experienced year we have had, with the tremendous loss of many including irreplaceable native elders, I am grateful that I am still able to do our special antique, fragrant dish with cloves, cinnamon, mace and bay leaves – and cassareep. However, I know that it will never last 30 days much less 30 years in our hungry home.
ID is grateful that Dr Walter Roth stared “in wonder and reverence for fear” at the giant Victoria Regia lilies in the Queensland Botanic Gardens, because he had put the Schomburgks name in his memory and later led to the translation.