Casabe — a crispy flat bread made from cassava (yuca) flour – was at the centre of the Taíno diet. When the Spanish first arrived on the island, they soon found that casabe had advantages over their traditional European bread, in that it does not go stale or mouldy. For this reason, it is said that the conquest of the Americas was fueled by casabe, taken by the conquistadores from Hispaniola as they continued their push into Mexico and other parts of the continent.
You can find the casabe recipe here.
Over 500 years later, casabe is still a popular food in Dominican households. As with conventional bread, it can be eaten at different times of the day, in a variety of ways. Most commonly for breakfast, consisting of a coffee and a piece of casabe, it is also used to accompany soups and stews such as asopaos and sancochos. Other ways of consuming casabe include soaking it in water and serving it with fried eggs or avocado. It can also be baked and served with a sprinkle of salt and a drizzle of olive oil. For a light supper, accompany it with a mug of hot chocolate. It can also be used as a buffet food with dips, in the same way as tortilla chips, crackers or pitta bread. There may be more traditional ways of eating casabe that may have escaped my notice, if so please let me know. It is certain that there are endless new ways that could be devised for this versatile food, and suggestions for this would also be welcomed.
To make casabe, the yuca has to be peeled, washed, ground up, compressed, sieved and then finally shaped into large circular moulds and baked on a hotplate. To make a large, commercial quantity is not an easy task using the traditional method, which is more appropriate for producing the amount needed to feed a household. Up till a couple of decades ago, casabe production was a dying tradition in the Dominican Republic. The ultimate cottage industry, it was restricted to several very small producers mainly in the northwest of the country, and distribution and sales beyond the local area were close to nonexistent. Casabe was revitalised by enterprising producers like Nicolas Almonte of Casabe Guaraganó, who in the 1970s adapted this labour-intensive craft to a larger scale process where much of the production is done by machinery. This allows for increased volumes of production. Now other producers have followed suit and casabe is being produced on a much larger scale and being distributed to colmados and supermarkets around the country, as well as to overseas markets, especially the United States.
An additional benefit of the increased production is that is employs a significant amount of people – especially women – in rural areas, and acts as an incentive to keep people from migrating to the cities or overseas. Monción has a population of 14,000 and it is estimated that 4,000 or so owe their living directly or indirectly to the casabe industry. Although the Monción area is home to many small and medium-scale producers, they are working together as a casabe producers association in order to promote the product.
The challenge for these producers is to increase the popularity of casabe, which is still seen as a “humble” food. They stress its versatility and health benefits as selling points. It is fat-free and rich in fibre, for example, and although not formally certified, yuca is always grown organically. Despite being preservative-free, casabe has a shelf life of up to eight months, as the Spaniards were so grateful to find. The producers also want to develop the image of casabe and turn it into a gourmet product for the domestic and international market. There are already some good ideas in action – many producers are making several varieties including garlic-flavoured casabe, or as a dessert – casabe filled with guava or pineapple jam, and different sized casabe such as ‘buffet’ to serve with dips.
*Nicolas Almonte’s definition of gourmet casabe is “un casabe hecho con amor” — casabe made with love.
“Casabe lady” photo courtesy of Pedrito Guzmán. Used with permission.