The Spanish word casabe comes from one of the languages of the indigenous people who inhabited Cuba before the Spanish settlers. The word is as old as the foodstuff it refers to: a flatbread similar to a Mexican tortilla that is made from grated cassava then dried and toasted in a ceramic dish. Casabe used to be stockpiled to last from one cassava harvest to the next.
Anthropologists and historians agree that the cassava bread made in Cuba today is a legacy of the Taino culture that prevailed in Cuba from before the arrival of the Spanish until the beginning of the sixteenth century.
To make cassava bread, the Taino people used several different stone tools, including peelers and graters.
It wasn’t just a staple for pre-Spanish indigenous people but it was also adopted as a staple by the first Spanish colonial settlers, so much so that the phrase ¡a falta de pan, casabe! - “if there’s no bread, cassava bread instead!” - became a familiar saying in Cuban Spanish vernacular, still used today, to talk about making do with what you have in times of scarcity.
Gradually the Spanish settlers began to import wheat from Spain and Mexico but cassava bread remained a staple in the countryside, eaten by remaining indigenous people, peasant farmers and slaves. Cuba has retained a taste for it to this day, more so in the traditionally more agricultural east and in mountainous regions than in the more urbanized west of the country.
Basic Recipe Ingredient 1lb (450g) cassava, peeled and washed
Method: Finely grate the cassava. Using a clean cotton cloth, press the cassava to remove as much liquid as possible. Spread out on a baking tray and refrigerate for one hour (the fridge acts as a dehumidifier) Meanwhile pre-heat the oven to 120ºC (250ºF). Warm a non-stick frying pan on a medium heat. Spread a little grated cassava to make a thin layer making sure to cover the whole base of the frying pan. Make sure to smooth out any lumps before adding the cassava to the pan. Cook for about 45 seconds, flip and cook for a further 45 seconds or until each side is a lightly golden colour. Once cooked, place on a baking tray and place in the oven for 5-10 minutes or until they are a richer golden colour. The idea is to get achieve very fine flatbreads that are crisp and easy to handle. You can add parmesan cheese or garlic to give the cassava bread extra flavour, especially if it is to be eaten on its own, but cassava bread is traditionally a side ish.