I didn’t delve much into my Taíno heritage in my ancestral storylines piece, but at over 10% Native American, I’m much more credibly aboriginal than Elizabeth Warren! 🙂 The Taínos worshiped deities known as the cemí (somewhat like the kami of the Japanese Shinto faith, they’re linked to nature and ancestors). The Great Spirit was known as Yaya, which I suspect may have been the true inspiration for God’s name in the Rastafarian religion (Jah), rather than the Biblical IHVH. Jamaican Rastas have an ethical code that requires them to live according to nature, including a dietary lifestyle that avoids processed foods known as the ital diet (for vital). This closeness to nature strikes me more as an aboriginal spiritual tradition than a Biblical one.
The main cemí that was close to the people was, however, Yokahú–the spirit (hoo) of yucca (cassava root). He’s also known as Yukiyú, as this cemí spirit is believed to sit atop the peak of the El Yunque mountain. This is the National Rainforest of the Caribbean, and was the most sacred natural site to the Taínos. Whenever a hurricane visited from the east, it was this easternmost mountain that confronted Hurikán (=”the Spirit of the Great Winds”) and defended the island, protecting it from the fierceness of this evil cemí. And so Yukiyú is understood as the protector-cemí of all the Boricuas in the Taíno mythical cycle.
The importance of this cassava tuber and vegetable is considerable for many reasons, in addition to being the embodiment of the spirit of the great Taíno cemí. The Caribbean was prone to hurricanes, which–as we saw with the post-apocalyptic reality of Hurricane María last year–can strip entire islands of greenery within a few hours. As a result of this, those who had cassava plants in their conucos (Taíno gardens) were far more able to find food and survive after a big hurricane, since the tuber (root) of the plant is the main source of nutrition. While most of the plant above the soil was destroyed in the storm, the root was likely to remain. Yuca (the Taíno name for cassava) was so central to the Taínos that their villages were known as yucayekes (cassava fields). They dried the tuber and made a bread from it known as casabe, and also fermented it and made a beer from it known as chicha.
In recent years, cassava has gained popularity in North America thanks to the dietary fad known as the Paleo diet, which seeks to imitate the dietary lifestyle from the hundreds of thousands of years prior to the discovery of agriculture. Paleo dieters avoid grain, and instead make bread from roots like the cassava. The leaves of the plant are also puréed and consumed, mainly in stews and in African cuisine. I love yucca so much that I’ve learned to make these stews, and by now they’ve become staples in my kitchen.
My neighbor has been exploring the Paleo dietary lifestyle, and together we recently made cassava bread using cassava flour that is available online. The most widely recommended brand is Otto’s Naturals Cassava Flour, but I purchased Anthony’s Organic Cassava Flour, and enjoyed the results.
In the past, I’ve made cassava bread the hard way, by grating cassava, salting it, sometimes adding spices (like a hot chili that grows in the Caribbean known as ají), and then putting the patty on the skillet with a bit of oil. Cassava blends great with garlic, so I frequently made garlic bread with it.
The cassava bread we made resembles more of a roti from East Indian cuisine than a tortilla from Mexican cuisine, in that it was thicker and would fill with bubbles of air when cooking. It had the beautiful aroma of warm yucca. I’ve discovered that the secret to good cassava naan is to use very hot water when mixing the dough, and to make sure the skillet is very hot before placing the bread in it. The recipe I followed is from Cotter Crunch. Here are pictures of it.
Trivia: the English word barbeque actually originates in a word from the Taíno language, barbacoa. It was they who gave us the cherished tradition of the BBQ. The type of flat oven that the Taínos used when cooking was known as a burén. Any skillet, or even a wok, can be used as a burén today.
Like most bread or crackers, cassava naan pairs beautifully with cheese. Below are tacos that I made with the cassava bread, using refried beans and vegan meat both seasoned with chipotle sauce.