Cassava: A Contested Good

Brandi Simpson Miller

The widescale adoption of cassava in Ghana today has its roots in the nineteenth-century transition away from the slave trade to the “legitimate” trade in the palm oil that lubricated British industry. Cassava was introduced to the Gold Coast in the seventeenth century and flourished in the arid climate and infertile soils of the Osu environs of the Danish Fort, Christiansborg. Soon after, local experimenters tried to adapt the introduced varieties of cassava they found near Christiansborg into types that had a lower poison content (as recognized by taste), while maintaining attractive features, such as hardiness.[i]

Cassava or tapioca plant. Coloured etching by J. Pass, c. 1809. Courtesy of the Wellcome Library.

Intermittent food shortages in the southeast throughout the mid-eighteenth century gave experimenters the imperative to continue their development of cassava as a hunger food. Cassava gardeners were gratified to find that plants grown from cuttings rather than seeds halved the time it took to produce tubers of harvestable size. Cooks discovered that clones grown from a stem cutting produced tubers less fibrous and thus more suitable for making ampesi (boiled starch) and fufu (boiled and pounded starch dumplings).[ii]

 

By the 1780s farmers around Accra had produced cassava cultivars that were distinct from original, introduced stock from the New World. Their cassava was less poisonous, and Accra consumers considered these new types to be edible. These types were not completely free of cyanogenic glucosides, but cooks who peeled the tubers made the remaining starch safe because the toxicity of the hybrid cultivar resided in that outermost layer of the fibrous husk they removed.[iii]

The transition from the slave trade to the “legitimate” trade in palm oil resulted in conflicts that increased the consumption of cassava. The cessation of the slave trade resulted in an Asante invasion of the coastal Fante beginning in 1806-7 to monopolize any remaining trade with Europeans. This invasion was directly responsible for a series of famines beginning with the 1809 famine, as people were unable to properly attend to cultivation for the persistent fear of attack. The 1816 famine alone was responsible for the deaths of many thousands of Fante.[iv] Fante farmers turned to cassava to buttress themselves against famines by planting the crop in soils that were dry, nutrient-poor, or otherwise unsuitable for maize (which did not tolerate saline spray) or plantains (which required shelter from wind, and moisture).[v] Cassava, which stored well underground, could be grown in poor soil and retrieved under these arduous circumstances to stave off hunger.

Afro-Brazilians who resettled in West Africa following a series of slave revolts in Bahia between 1831 and 1835 contributed to the development of new cassava dishes.[vi] The dish now known as gari fortor—most likely derived from the Brazilian-Portuguese farofa or grated, roasted maniocmixes flavourings like onions, tomatoes, and eggs into the shredded cassava before frying and has become a residual marker of the Brazilian contribution to today’s Ghanaian cuisine.[vii]

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division, The New York Public Library. “Accra, Gold Coast.” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed July 9, 2021. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47df-a1a7-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

However much cassava came to be consumed on the coast by the Fante it was never to attain the positive associations that the eating of yam or maize embodied in daily life or in ritual. After the 1803 Danish ban on trans-Atlantic slave trafficking, Danish traders relocated toward the Legon Hills and along the Akuapem Ridge near Accra and used slave labour on plantations of indigo, cotton, or sugar cane.[viii] Cassava was chosen as a staple on slave provisioning plots and on core plantation grounds for the sustenance of the workers.[ix] As Europeans in the early nineteenth century began to ban the slave trade, merchants in Accra adjusted to the downturn in the maize trade by using their slaves to produce cassava for the coastal towns.[x] These choices resolutely identified cassava as the chief sustenance for enslaved people and reinforced its association with misfortune. Despite the low esteem in which cassava was held, cassava gari had become a staple food by the end of the nineteenth century. Gari is an excellent example of how the global migration of humans contributed to the ideas, tools, and techniques that make a cuisine.[xi]

 

[i]  J. D. La Fleur, Fusion Foodways of Africa’s Gold Coast in the Atlantic Era (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 163.

[ii]  E. V. Doku, Cassava in Ghana (Accra: Ghana Universities Press, 1969), 4-12.

[iii]  La Fleur, Fusion Foodways, 165.

[iv] Brodie Cruickshank, Eighteen Years on the Gold Coast of Africa (London: Hurst and Blackett, 1853), 118.

[v] La Fleur, Fusion Foodways, 168.”

[vi] Paul E. Lovejoy, “Background to Rebellion: The Origins of Muslim Slaves in Bahia,” Slavery & Abolition 15, no. 2 (1 August 1994): 151–80; Lisa A. Lindsay, “‘To Return to the Bosom of Their Fatherland’: Brazilian Immigrants in Nineteenth-century Lagos,” Slavery & Abolition 15, no. 1 (April 1994): 22–50.

[vii] Fran Osseo-Asare and Barbara Baëta, The Ghana Cookbook (New York: Hippocrene Books, 2015), 152.

[viii] C. D. Adams, “Activities of Danish Botanists in Guinea 1783-1850,” Transactions of the Historical Society of Ghana 3, no. 1 (1957): 30–46.

[ix]  Ray A. Kea, “Plantations and Labour in the South-East Gold Coast from the Late Eighteenth to the Mid Nineteenth Century,” in From Slave Trade to Legitimate Commerce: The Commercial Transition in Nineteenth-Century West Africa, ed. Robin Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 137; Henrik Jeppesen, Danske plantageanlæg på Guldkystem, 1788-1850 (Place of publication and publisher not identified, 1966), 57–59.

[x] Kea, “Plantations and Labour,” 125.

[xi] Rachel Laudan, Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015), 2–3.

 

About

Brandi Simpson Miller is the Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Wesleyan College Macon, Georgia. Beginning in the autumn term she will also serve as the Assistant Director of the Wesleyan College Center for Social and Racial Equity. Here research interests include the study of West African foodways from the seventeenth century to the present. Her current publications include a book chapter entitled ‘Food and Nationalism in an Independent Ghana,’ published by Bloomsbury in The Rise of National Foods in 2019. Her thesis, entitled ‘The Social History of Food and Cooking in Nineteenth- and Twentieth- Century Ghana,’ is being published as a monograph with Palgrave MacMillan. You can follow her on Twitter: @bsimpsonmiller1.

The Journey of the Hairy Fruit

By Semine Long-Callesen and Nancy Valladares 

“Rambutan, William Farquhar Collection of Natural History Drawings,” early 19th century, Malacca, watercolour on paper. Courtesy of the National Museum of Singapore, National Heritage Board.

In winter of 2020, we travelled to Honduras to visit Nancy’s family. Driving across the country from south to north and along the west coast, we passed an endless landscape of banana and coffee plantations. One day, approaching Santa Rosa de Copan, we made a pit stop at a small stall where carts were spilling over with little round red fruits. Nancy jumped out of the car and returned with rambután. Curiously, the deep-red almost black fruits with the distinct long hairs were so similar to the rambutan that Semine knew from Malaysia. Indeed, in Malay, rambutan literally means hairy fruit. How did this fruit and its Malay name migrate across the tropical belt and become ubiquitously sold and eaten in Honduras?

Rambutan, water-colour. Image courtesy of Semine Long-Callesen.

One of the earlier recordings of the rambutan is the William Farquhar Collection of Natural History. The encyclopedic watercolors of Malaya’s flora and fauna were painted by unknown Chinese artists under the patronage of William Farquhar during his posting as Commandant and Resident of Malacca (1803-1818) and Resident of Singapore (1819-1823). The collection of drawings offers insight into fruits endemic and foreign to the Malay world at the time and includes several depictions of red and yellow rambutans, stating that the fruit is of Indo-Malay origin. 

About a century later, the rambutan appeared in William Popenoe’s Manual of Tropical and Subtropical Fruits. An American agricultural explorer, Popenoe crossed the tropics in the 1920s to document and identify profitable crops that could be transplanted to Central and North America. When not travelling, he managed botanical stations, not least Lancetilla Botanical Experimental Station in Honduras, which carried out experiments that had huge impacts on the ecological systems of Honduras and its trajectory towards becoming a banana republic” under the shadow of the US. 

William Popenoe, Manual of Tropical and Subtropical Fruits (New York: MacMillan Company, 1920), 330. Image courtesy of Archive.org

Nancy tells that the rambutan most likely first was planted in Honduras in a horticultural station like the one on the humid north coast in Lancetilla where a family member worked as a gardener. Like other botanical gardens that were entangled with imperial searches for revenue, Lancetilla germinated exotic fruits from around the world to see if they could yield profit. 

William Popenoe, Manual of Tropical and Subtropical Fruits (New York: MacMillan Company, 1920), Plate XVII. Image courtesy of Archive.org.

Over time, Popenoe’s tropical botanical gardens became manufactured sites of biodiversity that did not mirror the exterior landscapes of large-scale industries with monocrops such as bananas and coffee. The botanical gardens were fantasies of a disappearing paradise that served colonial, industrial demands for resources and pursuits of revenue. Paradoxically, colonized nature was an “untouched” and “unspoiled” terra incognita that was being shaped by imported species; tropical nature was imagined as an abundant garden of Eden, its soil suitable for extraction while at the same time being unhygienic, degenerated, and dangerous. 

Botanical gardens contributed to rendering the colonized territory readable and visible to industries and governments[i], for instance, by dividing the world into distinct biomes: by means of taxonomic illustrations and notes like that of Farquhar and Popenoe, fruits were evaluated in terms of profit and climate fit. With botanical travellers and plantations, the tropics became a uniform landscape. 

William Popenoe, Manual of Tropical and Subtropical Fruits (New York: MacMillan Company, 1920), 318. Image courtesy of Archive.org

Our discovery of the rambutan’s journey made us curious about the overlapping flavors in Honduras and Malaysia, geographies that were nodes in the same imperial networks. Using the surprising culinary similarities, we created Garden Blues with Agnes Cameron, a virtual garden where each flower holds a recipe that reflects this tropical transversality. Farquhar and Popenoe’s botanical explorations resulted in streamlined tropical biomes, which also manifested themselves in a shared sensorium of flavors. Garden Blues demonstrates that food culture depends on a territory much greater than national boundaries and that nothing is inherently Malayan or Honduran. The economy of imperial circulation created an in- and outflow of species which continues to unsettle the idea of local nature. 

 

[i] James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).

 

 


About

Semine Long-Callesen holds a BA in Art History with Distinction from the University of Cambridge and a Master in Architecture Studies in the History, Theory, and Criticism of Art and Architecture from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her research examines colonial museums and archives in Denmark, Malaysia, and Singapore, and artistic practices that respond to such institutions. She is a former Fialkow Fellow and Paul Sun researcher at MIT, and is currently a NEH Graduate Fellow at the Currier Museum of Art, and a researcher at the architecture practice APRDELESP. 

Nancy Dayanne Valladares (b. 1991) is an interdisciplinary artist from Tegucigalpa, Honduras currently based in Boston. Her work traces the colonial legacies and agricultural histories of Central America through the lens of human and non-human migration. Her practice intersects various fields and practices—drawing from economic botany, archaeology and archives to re-configure historical narratives through biofiction. She is currently a fellow at Harvard University’s Film Studies Center. She received a BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a Science Masters from the program in Art, Culture and Technology at MIT. Her work has been exhibited at The Art Institute of Chicago, Sullivan Galleries, SUGS Gallery X, ExFest Film Festival, The Research House for Asian Art, Columbia College, and Roman Susan Gallery in Chicago.

Chinese American Herbal Medicine: A History of Importation and Improvisation

By Tamara Venit Shelton

“Chinese herbalists imported everything from China.” This is what I consistently heard from herbalists I interviewed when writing Herbs and Roots: A History of Chinese Doctors in the American Medical Marketplace. As far as anyone knew, when the first generation of Chinese herbalists began to immigrate to the United States in the 1850s, they imported all their medicinal ingredients from China through the port of San Francisco. By 1878, there were eighteen wholesale companies in San Francisco that serviced Chinese herb shops across the United States. In later years, herbalists could find what they needed through wholesalers in Portland, Seattle, St. Louis, and Chicago.[i]

Fig 1: Frontispiece of The Science of Oriental Medicine, 1902. Los Angeles Herbalists Tom Leung and Li Wing advertised their remedies to English-speaking patients through long and short-form print advertisements. Public Domain.

Historians of China are aware of the importance of improvisation and substitution in traditional Chinese medicine, and yet the prevalent assumption that all Chinese medicines were imported to the United States made some sense. After all, according to thousands of years of Chinese herbal lore, therapeutic efficacy relied on a highly specific process of procuring medicinal plants, animals, and minerals. The collection or cultivation of traditional medicinal ingredients in China happened only in well-defined areas, under certain seasonal, climatic, and astrological conditions.

Yet as I dug into archives, historical newspapers, memoirs, and oral histories, it became apparent that historically, practitioners of traditional Chinese herbalism in America sourced most, but not all of their supplies in China. There is ample evidence – both anecdotal and archaeological – that the Chinese in America grew and foraged for local sources of medicinal ingredients. These findings speak to the ways in which diasporic Chinese medicine responded to new conditions as well as to the resourcefulness and adaptability of its practitioners.

Fig 2: A.P. Russell, a West Virginia merchant, shows off a 1700 pound shipment of ginseng destined for China in 1928. Wild ginseng, foraged in Appalachia, was a major American export to China from the late eighteenth century until its overharvesting led to near extinction in the mid-twentieth century. Public Domain.

Looking back to the end of the nineteenth century, we see examples of Chinese and non-Chinese farmers growing medicinal herbs and roots for Chinese herb businesses. In 1898, a newspaper in Washington D.C. reported that Lee Poit, recently transplanted from California, had given up trying to compete in the crowded field of laundry and retail and was instead growing “many queer vegetables and herbs” on four acres of land that he rented near Terra Cotta Station, on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Line.[ii] Across the country, J. B. McCloskey, an American farmer who studied commercial ginseng production in Korea, opened his own farm on two acres in Oxnard and became the major supplier for Los Angeles-area Chinese physicians in 1904.[iii]

Zoological-based medicines also seem to have been locally sourced. The Chinese collected all manner of reptiles and amphibians – snakes, lizards, frogs, and toads – to supplement dried, imported varieties in America. Sometimes, doctors substituted local species that seemed similar to what would have been available in China. In Boise, Idaho, C.K. Ah Fong famously used rattlesnake (a North American reptile) in traditional Chinese tinctures to treat arthritis, and amidst other Chinese health-related artifacts from Lovelock, Nevada, archaeologist Sarah Heffner has found bobcat bones that may have been used in place of expensive, imported tiger bones.[iv]

Fig 3: Canton Harbor and Factories with Foreign Flags, 1805. European and American traders exchanged medicinal goods through this port city. Public Domain.

Substitution was just one form of improvisational thinking among Chinese herbalists in the United States. Studies of hand-written prescriptions from Chinese American apothecaries reflect a tendency to include an unusually long list of ingredients. This divergence may have been an artifact of herbalists’ swift business in mail-orders for patients unable to meet face-to-face. Patients wrote letters describing their ailment or filled out a pre-printed “symptom sheet,” and the doctor sent back a package of medicine along with a detailed instruction sheet. With an extra-long list of ingredients, Chinese American herbalists could cover a lot of bases when confronted with ambiguous descriptions of symptoms.[v]

Fig 4: Cover image of Herbs and Roots: A History of Chinese Doctors in the American Medical Marketplace. Yale University Press.

 

Chinese doctors in the United States were not so bound by tradition that they resisted adapting their formularies to their new environment. We should remember them as the innovative immigrant entrepreneurs that they were. As herbalist Li Wing Fawn explained to the Los Angeles Times in 1897: “We shall not confine ourselves exclusively to the importations from the Orient, but shall seek out also the very many valuable medicinal herbs growing in our own country [the United States].”[vi]

 

 

 

[i] Haiming Liu, “Chinese Herbalists in the United States,” in Sucheng Chan, ed. Chinese American Transnationalism: the Flow of People, Resources, and Ideas between China and America during the Exclusion Era (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2005), 138.

[ii] “Lee Has a Chinese Farm,” New York Times, 31 October 1898, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: New York Times.

[iii] “Local Ginseng Culture Promises Rich Returns,” Oxnard Courier, 27 May 1904; “Queer Chinese Medicines, Los Angeles Times, 11 August 1907, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times.

[iv] Sarah Heffner, “Exploring Health-Care Practices of Chinese Railroad Workers in North America,” Historical Archaeology 49 (2015): 141.

[v] Susie Lan Cassel et al, The Chinese in America: a History from Gold Mountain to the New Millennium (Lanham MD: AltaMira Press, 2002), 178.

[vi] Li Wing Fawn and B.C. Platt, “A Step in Advance,” Los Angeles Times, 26 May 1896, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times.

 

About

Tamara Venit Shelton is a professor of history at Claremont McKenna College and author of the award-winning book, Herbs and Roots: A History of Chinese Doctors in the American Medical Marketplace

One of Many Ways for Macanese Aluar

By Mukta Das

Aluar de Anita Lei Tao

1 cate de farinha

½ cates de assucar pedra

6 taels de farinha pulu

3 cates de amendoas

5 cates de pinhao

½ cates de manteiga

3 cocos (metade para santem)[i]

– Albertina Borges, M d C., Receitas culinárias macaenses, 10 March 1936 – 6 October 1937, MO/AH/CCS/05, p. 44. Macau Historical Archives, 44.

Aluar is a Macanese Christmas candy which bears a striking resemblance to South Indian coconut sweet aluva, itself linked to middle eastern halva and to Portuguese alfelos. Aluar’s imprecise origins reveals something of the circulation of culinary knowledge within the Portuguese colonial empire, which claimed this southern Chinese coastal city from 1557.

The recipe above is complete, and there are no accompanying cooking instructions. It is one of many handwritten recipes contained in a notebook in the Receitas culinárias macaenses collection in the Macao Historical Archives. The collection comprises 13 recipe notebooks written between 1932 and 1943 by two women, Candida Carvalho and her daughter Albertina Borges, who wrote in Portuguese, Macanese, English and transliterated Cantonese. The only source of its kind in the archives, these faded, age-browned texts reflect the linguistic diversity demanded from those living in colonial Macau. The original notebooks were deposited by Candida’s granddaughter and Albertina’s niece, Cíntia Conceição Serrano.

Written sources for Macanese food history are rare; recipes were passed on orally among women, but “were never really detailed … and measurements were often incomplete”[ii] – with observers suggesting that recipes were jealously guarded and reluctantly shared.

Judging a recipe as incomplete is problematic. Janet Floyd and Laura Forster argue that handwritten sources had an ambiguous role in the transmission of knowledge. Recipe writing for women was a community enterprise on to which was “inscribe[d] individual lives and situations.”[iii]

Candida’s and Albertina’s notebooks mirror these ideas. Anita Lei Tao’s recipe for aluar (above), transcribed by Albertina, is one of several attributed to other women, including Marinquinha Lung whose recipe uses cooked potato and comes with cooking instructions. Recipes for ‘cake de Felicia Marquez’ and ‘pudim de ovos e laranja (Sara Remedios),’ for bebincas, soportels,diabos, curries, wedding cakes, Christmas cakes, Easter candies, fish and pork pastries, sambals, marmalades and fig syrups are repeated several times, attributed to a dozen women and with similar creative variations.

Macanese senhora in her traditional attire, the dó, early twentieth century. From Ana Maria Amaro, “Sons and Daughters of the Soil: The First Decade of Luso Chinese Diplomacy,” Review of Culture, No. 20 (2nd series), 1994, Cultural Institute of Macao; and Lisbon Geographic Society. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

This culinary corpus was and remains powerful and agentive because it was generously shared and added to, but also restricted to those who embodied a certain set of somatic skills. The Portuguese maintained their presence in their port colonies by the cheapest and most sparsely populated means possible. Subjects—sailors, soldiers, priests, traders, producers and processors—drawn from local populations, with little or no help from the state, made their own way by trading on their level of Portuguese-ness, through blood, Catholicism, custom, by adopting Portuguese names but also by demonstrating knowledge of how to cook. Racially diverse women who could cook creatively from a flexible oeuvre gave this corpus its power, where Portuguese cooking techniques and tastes originating from Lisbon met an array of local ingredients and flavourings such as coconut and rice flour. Those who could cook well drew power from it, becoming powerful female compradors and food entrepreneurs.[iv] Prescriptive ingredient lists or cooking instructions were neither useful nor necessary.

 

A diorama of a Macanese dining room and Catholic family feast in the Macao Museum. Photo credit: M. Das

 

Given the 11-year context of Candida and Albertina’s recipe writing, during which Macau was implicated in China’s civil war from 1927, the Sino-Japanese war from 1937 and the Asia-Pacific War from 1941, the imperative of compiling this corpus is clear. Still, Candida and Albertina’s 13 notebooks were written for such women who knew how to cook well, and whose creativity in the kitchen signalled their Portuguese-ness.

Cintia’s own cookbook based on these notebooks, Traditional Macanese Recipes From My Auntie Albertina (2013), is one of only a handful of published Macanese cookbooks. Modern cookbook publishing standards demand that Cíntia accompany lists of ingredients with cooking instructions. “The way we learn how to cook has changed” Cíntia concedes before dismissing her own instructional text by adding “food is more appetizing when it is cooked with… creativity. Believe this!… [Y]ou need some creativity.”[v]

 

 

[i] 1 catty (500g or 600g) of flour, ½ catty of rock sugar, 227g of glutinous rice flour, 3 catties (1.5kg or 1.8kg) of almonds, 5 catties (2.5kg or 3kg) of pine nuts, ½ catty (250g or 300g) of butter and 3 coconuts.

[ii] Alexander Mamak, ‘In Search of a Macanese Cookbook,’ in Sidney C. H. Cheung and C. B. Tan (eds), Food and Foodways in Asia: Resource, Tradition and Cooking (New York: Routledge, 2009),  159–70, 161.

[iii] Janet Floyd and L. Forster, The Recipe Reader: Narratives, Contexts, Traditions (Hants, and VT: Ashgate, 2003), 7.

[iv] Janet P. Boileau, A Culinary History of the Portuguese Eurasians: The Origins of Luso-Asian Cuisine in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries(University of Adelaide, 2010).

[v] Cíntia Conceição Serrano, Traditional Macanese Recipes from My Auntie Albertina (Macau: International Institute of Macau, 2013), 13.

 


About

Dr. Mukta Das received her doctorate in 2018 researching the social and historical dynamics of South Asian food and belonging in the Pearl River Delta region of China. She is interested in cooking and identify and co-presents a biweekly audio newsletter, XO Soused, with two Michelin-starred chef Andrew Wong on Chinese culinary cultures.