It is commonly believed that cassava, also known as yuca or manioc, was brought to the Americas by Africans in the transatlantic slave trade. While this is not entirely untrue, without delving deeper into the history of this transaction, we are denying ourselves the complicated truth and power that binds us, as people of the African diaspora, to our food.
In fact, there are many misconceptions about the white, starchy, root vegetable found in so many tropical cuisines. I'd like to clarify a few of them for you. First - cassava is not, as a friend of mine once claimed, "a trash food." I won't get into the politics of this sentiment, but I will share that this root vegetable is rich in Potassium and Folate, and high in Vitamin C and Dietary fiber. As part of a meal complete with protein and green vegetables it is a wonderfully delicious substitute for potatoes.
Second - there are two types of cassava, one that is sweet (Manhiot dulcis) and one that is bitter and historically reported to be poisonous (manhioc esculentar). However, bitter cassava, which is larger in size than it's sweet cousin, is edible, but requires boiling to soften, squeezing to remove its liquid, and then further cooking to remove the toxin cyanide. This cassava is usually found in the form of a powder, like the farinha de mandioca in Brazil.
Third, Cassava, contrary to popular belief, did not originate in Africa. It first arrived on the west coast of Africa along with maize and peanuts, likely towards the end of the 17th century. Early records recall the Portuguese bringing this tuber from South America to the Niger Delta region where it was then cultivated. This plantable 'hot crop', which grows deep inside the earth - thus protected from draughts, floods, and monsoons - was transferred across the Atlantic ocean because of its growable and nourishing qualities. The Portuguese, aware that they had drained the African population into slavery, needed to replenish the continent with life, in order to continually plunder from it again. Indeed, there are many who suggest that Sub-Saharan Africa experienced a population growth, rather than a decline, due to the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
The true origins of cassava present a bitter irony, one as difficult to digest as the vegetable in raw form. But its evolution, and the various preparations of this dish, tell the story of migration, and honor the creativity and artistry of cooking that turned nourishment into something delectable. And just as we must learn to prepare this tuber correctly in order to remove its toxins and enjoy its nutrients, we must also process the trauma that is bound to the history of the first Africans to consume this crop.