Guyana is famous for a particular indigenous stew with a powerful sauce, bursting with my favourite hot peppers, bittersweet, spicy and intriguing.
By Indranie Deolall
It may very well be the oldest and tastiest surviving savoury sauce in this part of the world, but Guyana is the only country where the rich, dark, intensely flavoured indigenous concoction is so seamlessly integrated into our cuisine, consciousness, and Christmas culture.
My precious few bottles hidden at the very back of my kitchen cupboard, bear basic printed labels of a well-known producer from the “riverfront Pomeroon,” boldly proclaiming “Cassava Cassareep.” Last year, when relatives and friends were about to visit and enquired, as always, what I wanted from home, I did not hesitate in begging for our most beloved condiment from that long-esteemed artisanal production interior area.
While I did use some for my version of our national dish that Christmas, I carefully hoarded the remainder out of sight, given the uncertainty of future Guyanese visitors and rare replenishment. This lockdown holiday, with the ongoing horrors of a fast mutating COVID-19 virus and the closure of borders, I am relieved and glad that I did save for the unexpected and the unprecedented.
Caramel and Cassarip
Yet, as Christmas 2020 approached, I surveyed with alarm the strange ingredients of “carmel” (caramel) in the Pomeroon version and the chemical preservative sodium benzoate in a poor imitation from a local factory this week, I remembered the days when I could just pick up an unmarked glass bottle of the potent sauce from the back stelling of Stabroek Market and trust it to be made from just pure Manihot esculenta accented with the finest fiery peppers and select spices.
“Cassarip” is how the famous 19th-century German botanist Richard Schomburgk relayed an early recorded description of the smoky, condensed and thickened black liquid left from the slow, careful boiling of extracted bitter cassava juice by the women of the Warrau tribe in the village of “Cumaka,” (Kumaka), now in Region One, Barima-Waini.
In Schomburgk’s original three-volume set of “Travels in British Guiana” from 1840-1844, he used the Latin name of the hardy shrub, writing: “After the women…had grated a sufficient quantity of Manihot, it was forcibly stuffed into an eight to nine foot long cylindrical resilient tube (Arupa ) plaited out of a species of Calathea. The apparatus, which during the filling becomes considerably shortened and widened, was then slung by its upper loop onto one of the house beams: on the other hand a long staff was passed through the lower loop up to more than half its length, its shorter end being caught under a strong peg that had been wedged into the ground previously.”
He continued: “Two or three women thereupon placed themselves at the longer end and forced it down with all their might, so that the yielding and shortened cylinder, owing to the pressure, gradually became longer and longer. All the watery and poisonous contents of the tubers, which the forcible stuffing had not separated as yet, were now completely expressed, collected in a large pot, thickened by long boiling and evaporation and seasoned with a strong proportion of Capsicum. All the poisonous constituents are volatilised during the evaporation and the juice thus thickened used as sauce for meat. If an animal of any description should partake of only a small quantity of the fresh juice, violent convulsions are set up shortly afterwards, these increase in virulence more and more, at the same time that the whole body becomes considerably swollen, both symptoms finally ending in death.”
What would eventually become our esteemed, hearty Christmas dish craved by Guyanese everywhere united in an enduring culinary passion, is identified by Schomburgk who alludes to its venerable age and barrier-breaking popularity even then.
“The ‘pepper-pot’ of the Dutch colonists celebrated for the past hundred years depends for its chief ingredient upon this sauce, into which the meat leftover is thrown after each meal: fresh Cassarip (the name of this thickened sauce) is now and again poured over it. The greater the age of such a pot, the greater the store set on it: the one belonging to a Dutch family must have been therefore a real gem, which the housewife had known how to keep unspoiled and of course (the pot) also uncleaned for thirty years.”
Thousand of years
Alluding to cassava “bread,” he said, “After the women had squeezed out the juice completely, the mealy mass was rubbed by others through a sort of sifter and strewn on to a large iron plate heated by a fire kindled underneath, and baked to a cake. The griddles for this purpose are manufactured in England and sold in the Colony to the coastal tribes.” Schomburgk’s invaluable accounts were translated from German and edited by the respected British administrator, medical practitioner and writer, Dr Walter Roth for whom our Main Street Museum of Anthropology is named. It was published in 1922 by the “Daily Chronicle” office, also then in Main Street. Dr Roth was made Protector of Indians in the Pomeroon district of British Guiana in 1906. He was put in charge of the Demerara River, Rupununi and Northwest districts in 1915.
But the various cassava sauces, wafers and farine have been around in the indigenous Amazon and across South America for thousands of years. Called tucupi pixuna or tucupi negro, cassareep’s many other titles as a classic sauce include kumaji, ají negro and kanyzi pudidy.
Origin of Cassava
Back in 1999, biologists at Washington University in St Louis, in the United States were able to pinpoint the geographical origin of cassava in south-west of Brazil to about 8,000 years ago, with the first archaeological evidence some 7,500 years ago from the Porce valley in north-west Colombia.
They concluded that broad distribution, probably from a single wild Manihot species still present in the diminishing Amazonian basin, spread into three main areas: south Brazil and Paraguay; Venezuela, Colombia and north Brazil; and Central America, centred in Nicaragua extending south to Costa Rica and north to Honduras.
Cassava remains a staple subsistence crop feeding an estimated 600 million people in developing countries including in the Americas, and much of Africa where the tuber was taken by Portuguese traders from Brazil in the 16th century.
Work of Women
At one time, indigenous women, on marriage, would be presented 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 clearance of the forest and farm preparation, the propagation, cultivation and end products remain the work of women. One study pointed out that human selection of many different varieties for a range of purposes has been a key process in maintaining diversity.
With hundreds of varieties known, a study in Aishalton in south-west Guyana in 1994 documented the use of at least 37 lines of cassava, two of which were sweet and could be used directly for cooking tubers, with the remaining 35 bitter strains favoured for an alcoholic drink “parakari,” bread or farine. Of the four for “parakari,” three were observed to ferment slowly. A comparison in north-west Amazonia found an average of 16–33 types per informant, whereas a second study in Guyana recorded the cultivation of 76 varieties alone.
Whichever cassava may be in our cassareep this Christmas, given the most testing year we have had, with the tremendous loss of many, including irreplaceable indigenous elders, I am just grateful that I can still make our special seasoned ancient dish, fragrant with cloves, cinnamon, mace and bay leaves – and cassareep. However, I know it will never last 30 days much less 30 years in our hungry household.
*ID is thankful that Dr Walter Roth gazed “in wonder and awe” at the giant Victoria Regia lilies in the Queensland Botanic Gardens, for it fixed the Schomburgks’ name in his memory and later led to the translation.