Historical Food Fortnightly #13 Ethnic Foodways: Torta de Casabe
The Challenge: “Foodways and cuisine are at the heart of every ethnic group around the world and throughout time. Choose one ethnic group, research their traditional dishes or food, and prepare one as it traditionally made.”
The Recipe: “Torta de Casabe” from El Nuevo Manual del Cocinero Cubano…
The Date/Year and Region: This is a dish from Pre-Columbian times and most common in the Caribbean. The recipe is from a 19th century book.
How Did You Make It: By following the traditional process.
Time to Complete: Not sure, a couple of hours perhaps.
Total Cost: About $3.
How Successful Was It?: Well, I made casabe, but I didn’t find it palatable to my modern taste.
How Accurate Is It?: Pretty accurate.
I struggle with this challenge because I wanted to do something Middle Eastern but my knowledge of modern Middle Eastern cooking, let alone historical, is pretty much non existent. My husband recommended I do something Cuban but I felt it would be cheating since I am Cuban. Additionally, I had never seen or heard of any historical Cuban cookbooks and I assumed I’d never find one. Just for kicks, I googled “19th century Cuban cookbook” and what do you know, the first entry was about one that has been digitized in the last few years. I looked through the book hoping to find something that caught my eye and was not too much like we Cubans eat now but was quickly losing hope when I found a recipe called “Torta de Casabe.” That was what I needed. I felt that it was ethnic and because it was of a (mostly) different ethnic group than I consider myself to be, it wasn’t cheating even though it was Cuban.
Yucca (yuca in Spanish), is sometimes known as casaba (or cassava in English), which lends the name to the flat bread casabe. Casabe is a Pre-Columbian unleavened flat bread of sorts made with yucca, and it is made by grinding the yucca, squeezing it dry, and then forming round, thin cakes that are cooked on a hot surface and allowed to dry in the sun to make it completely dry. This was the primary bread consumed by the indigenous people of the Caribbean, which included Tainos, Caribs, and Arawaks, prior to European contact. In Cuba, the consumption of casabe was already in decline in the 19th century, and virtually non existent by the middle of the 20th century. The exception to this are some areas in the Eastern provinces, which have always been more indigenous, if you will, than the rest of the island. Just out of curiosity, I asked my grandmother if she had ever had casabe and she had not. I certainly never had, and had only read about it in books. Casabe is still widely consumed in other places in the Caribbean, with some of them still using it as a staple.
I went into this project pretty much no idea how it would turn out. I had never seen a recipe for casabe, I had never seen casabe, I had never even met anyone who had eaten casabe, but I was ready. The recipe was also pretty vague so I had to look at other sources to get a better idea of what to do. The recipe in the book is as follows (minus tildes, accents, etc):
Rayese yuca y pongase en seguida en agua; esprimase bien para que suelte la parte acusosa, la porcion que quede es lo que forma el casabe, que tostandole bien queda echa la torta que llamamos asi y que comemos frita con manteca.1
There is one word there that I had never seen before, “acusosa,” and I believe it is actually an error and the writer meant to use “acuosa,” which means juice or something like it for this purpose.
My best English translation:
Grate the yucca and immediately rinse it; wring well so that it releases the juices, the part that remains is what makes casabe, which when you toast it well makes the cake with call thus and eat fried in lard.
As you can see, it was very vague. After some more research, I got to it. The most difficult thing was to grate the yucca. It has to be done on the finest grating plate and let me tell you, it’s a workout! I enlisted the help of my husband for some of the grating. Since part of the challenge was to make the dish as it was traditionally made, I felt I needed to get as close as possible in preparation methods. I don’t have the tools traditionally used, of course, but I think I got as close as I could in a modern kitchen. To toast the casabe, I used a 10-inch cast iron skillet and it worked really well.
Casabe is traditionally made with a type of yucca called “yuca brava,” which is actually poisonous. The poison is removed with rinsing and squeezing the pulp dry. Needless to say, I did not use this type of yucca because I didn’t have any available, and I can’t imagine any modern US store would actually take the risk of having a poisonous foreign root vegetable in the produce aisles. Just as a quick aside, when peeling the yucca, there is more to it than just taking off the brown stuff. There is a later of flesh that needs to go with it, see picture in the gallery at the end of the post. It’s actually really hard to eat and not very pleasant. Also, when buying yucca, make sure you buy yucca and not malanga (taro), as they look quite similar to the untrained eye.
Here is the recipe I came up with in the end:
4 large yucca roots
Cut each root into 3 pieces lengthwise to aid the peeling. Peel, making sure to get not only the brown part but also the white, fleshy layer that is attached to the brown peel. Using a fine grater, grate the yucca onto a large piece of butter muslin or cheesecloth folded a couple of times.
When you have grated all the pieces of yucca, pick up the cloth and, holding it closed, place into to a bowl with water. Swish the yucca around to make sure the water penetrates the mass. Squeeze and change the water a few times.
Close the cloth and secure it, then squeeze and wring until most of the water has been released. Spread the yucca on a cookie sheet or granite counter and break up into small pieces.
Heat the oven to the lowest temperature it has available.
Place a cast iron skillet over medium heat. Spread a thin layer of the grated yucca on the skillet. You must work quickly as the starch starts combining rapidly. Toast until the bottom is starting to look slightly golden. Carefully, turn over, and cook until the second side starts turning golden. Remove from the skillet onto a cooling rack. Repeat with the remaining yucca.
Once all the cakes have been toasted, place them in the preheated oven to dry. Prop the oven door open, and leave the cakes in there for approximately 30 minutes. The point is not to cook the casabe but to dry it fully.
Remove from the oven. They are ready to eat.
I did not actually fry them in lard, mostly because I had other plans for it, but I wonder if that would make them easier to eat. They are very much like hard tack, or ship’s biscuits, in that they are not necessarily meant to be eaten as they are. Rather, casabe is meant to be softened with something else, like lard (as in the recipe I used), soups, etc. Also, like hard tack, because they have virtually no moisture, they last a long time. I tried mine with soup a couple of days after I made them, and while the taste is fine, I just couldn’t get behind the texture. That said, it was definitely a learning experience into part of my culture that I rarely think about. It’s not that aboriginal culture has not been preserved in Cuban culture, it is that it is so ingrained in modern culture that we often don’t even give it a second thought.
As a side note, the clothing starch known as “almidon” is a byproduct of casabe-making. The starch left behind in the rinse is processed into the starch for the clothing. My great-grandmother used this starch routinely but I assume she just threw away the solids because we never ate casabe.
1. J.P. Legran, El Nuevo Manual del Cocinero Cubano y Español, (La Havana: Imprenta La Intrepida, 1857), 63.