Yesterday I had for lunch an African dish with fish and cassava [manioc] in a delicious sauce. This reminded me of the oft negative descriptions of the crop as being something less that wonderful; as written by David Livingston :
The country through which we passed possessed the same general character of flatness and forest that we noticed before. The soil is dark, with a tinge of red—in some places it might be called red—and appeared very fertile. Every valley contained villages of twenty or thirty huts, with gardens of manioc, which here is looked upon as the staff of life.
Very little labor is required for its cultivation. The earth is drawn up into oblong beds, about three feet broad and one in height, and in these are planted pieces of the manioc stalk, at four feet apart. A crop of beans or ground-nuts is sown between them, and when these are reaped the land around the manioc is cleared of weeds. In from ten to eighteen months after planting, according to the quality of the soil, the roots are fit for food. There is no necessity for reaping soon, as the roots do not become bitter and dry until after three years.
When a woman takes up the roots, she thrusts a piece or two of the upper stalks into the hole she has made, draws back the soil, and a new crop is thereby begun. The plant grows to a height of six feet, and every part of it is useful: the leaves may be cooked as a vegetable. The roots are from three to four inches in diameter, and from twelve to eighteen inches long.
There are two varieties of the manioc or cassava—one sweet and wholesome, the other bitter and containing poison, but much more speedy in its growth than the former. This last property causes its perpetuation. When we reached the village of Kapende, on the banks of the rivulet Lonaje, we were presented with so much of the poisonous kind that we were obliged to leave it.
To get rid of the poison, the people place it four days in a pool of water. It then becomes partially decomposed, and is taken out, stripped of its skin, and exposed to the sun. When dried, it is easily pounded into a fine white meal, closely resembling starch, which has either a little of the peculiar taste arising from decomposition, or no more flavor than starch. When intended to be used as food, this meal is stirred into boiling water: they put in as much as can be moistened, one man holding the vessel and the other stirring the porridge with all his might. This is the common mess of the country.
Though hungry, we could just manage to swallow it with the aid of a little honey, which I shared with my men as long as it lasted. It is very unsavory (Scottice: wersh); and no matter how much one may eat, two hours afterward he is as hungry as ever. When less meal is employed, the mess is exactly like a basin of starch in the hands of a laundress; and if the starch were made from diseased potatoes, some idea might be formed of the Balonda porridge, which hunger alone forced us to eat. Santuru forbade his nobles to eat it, as it caused coughing and expectoration.
Source – Livingston – Missionary travels and researches in south africa
Cassava here in Burundi is commonly eaten as a snack in times of work or leisure, often being sold on the street – cleaned and immersed in a bucket or pan of water.
The cassava talked about by Livingston is the bitter variety that requires more processing; having never tasted the bitter type, I cannot comment on his quite negative comments regarding the crop. However, seldom is he negative about local foods and perhaps his writing took place during one of his debilitating illnesses.
As a Peace Corps volunteer in Zaïre (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), I subsisted on cassava fufu and cassava leaves. The leaves were tastier than the fufu. Fufu made from fresh cassava flour was fairly bland but definitely tastier than that made from older flour. The taste probably depends on the fermentation technique used to remove the cyanogenic glucosides from the poisonous cassava so maybe Livingston just didn’t like the flavor he found in the cassava as prepared in the area he passed through. My husband was in a different part of Zaïre and the custom there was to mix maize meal (cornmeal) with cassava when making fufu.
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Perhaps Livingstone was not sick at the time of his negative experience with cassava but was completely lucid and erudite in his review. Do you feel it would be racist and condescending to characterize a staple of African cuisine disgusting? Just about everything in Africa is sub par and I have no doubt that Livingstone’s description is objective and accurate.
Fascinating post Diana. However, I don’t think I could eat this type of food. But then again one eats the type of food which is available in whatever country we live in. The roots look a little like the vegetables they have in England, that of Parsnips or carrots and I do like those. Thanks for sharing your experiences in Africa.
yes, parsnips is close by way of taste. As you say, we eat what is there [more or less]!