Cassava – the root that binds all Guyanese

By Donald Sinclair & Michelle Seepaul

The cassava holds a special place in the hearts and, of course, in the kitchens of all Guyanese. It is truly a root that courses through the gastronomies of all Guyana’s peoples, appearing as a staple here, a snack there or a main meal in another place. Like the spice curry, the cassava has now become national property and the source for a tasty variety of culinary preparations. In clear acknowledgement of the status of the cassava visitors to one Nature Resort – Arrowpoint Resort – are offered demonstrations in the making of cassava bread, followed by tasting.

Cassava is a shrubby, tropical, perennial plant that is not well known in the temperate zone. For most people, cassava is most commonly associated with tapioca. The plant grows tall, sometimes reaching 15 feet, with leaves varying in shape and size. The edible parts are the tuberous root and leaves. The tuber (root) is somewhat dark brown in colour and grows up to 2 feet long. Cassava thrives better in poor soils than any other major food plant. As a result, fertilization is rarely necessary. However, yields can be increased by planting cuttings on well drained soil with adequate organic matter. Cassava is a heat-loving plant that requires a minimum temperature of 80 degrees F to grow. Since many cultivars are drought resistant, cassava can survive even during the dry season when the soil moisture is low, but humidity is high.

There are two kinds of cassava, i.e., the Yuca Duluce and Yuca Brava, which is known by Creoles as bitter (poisonous) and sweet cassava. They both can be made into bread, however, mostly the bitter cassava is utilized. After the cassava root has been peeled and grated, it is placed in a squeezer, known as a matapi, whereby its poisonous juice is removed and dried. The extracted juice, after boiling, is known as cassareep. The residuum when dried is pounded up in a mortar, passed through a sifter and placed on a circular clay grid to make thin cakes known as cassava bread. As is well known in Guyana cassava bread that is toasted and buttered with cooking butter or margarine is a mouth-watering folk dish.


Cassava is the staple food of all Amerindians who live in the interior of Guyana. Almost five hundred years ago, Europeans took Cassava Peelingcuttings of the cassava plant away from its original home in Africa. Today, cassava is the fourth most important staple (main starchy) food in the world. Family plays an important part in the cultivation and processing of cassava in Amerindian communities. Thus, cassava helps to keep families closer together. Mothers plant and tend the new farms. Women gather together the varieties of cassava which they want to plant in their farms and work alongside their families in clearing and planting the new farm. Children help their parents in all stages of the work – cutting, burning, clearing, planting, weeding, reaping, transporting cassava tubers from the farm to the home and in processing the tubers into food and drink. Women also come together to scrape and grate the cassava tubers especially before important celebrations like Christmas. Children participate in all activities and that is how our cassava knowledge is passed on from generation to generation.


Cassava requires about nine months to reach harvest size. It is pulled out as often as needed. The sticks of the freshly pulled cassava maybe planted in the same place to start a second crop. The cassava gardens of the Amerindians are within the periphery of the village or a short canoe ride from the village. The daily activities of the production of cassava include cultivation and harvesting followed by the separation of the three basic elements, fibre, starch and juice. Having concluded the reaping, the cassava is loaded into woven baskets called “dupao” each holding around 150 pounds of roots and the group returns to the cassava houses to begin the separation process. Each stage of the separation process is a bodily activity of substance transformation through grating, squeezing, sieving and baking. The scraping process signifies the first contact with the physical interior. The fibre, juice and starch are now ready for the conversion into many diverse by-products forming part of Amerindian culture. The fibre is the main component of the cassava bread, farine and beverages. A small vessel beneath the matapi will collect the juice and starch. The juice is boiled off to create a thick syrup called “cassareep” which is used as a rich sweet flavoured sauce for all consumption process.

Snack time

Especially, but not exclusively, in urban areas cassava balls are immensely popular snacks. Few school canteens, lunch rooms, roadside vendors would dare to disappoint eager patrons by not including cassava balls in their menu of snacks. Food sales organised to raise funds typically carry generous servings of cassava balls and these are usually among the first items to be sold out. Cassava puffs are seldom far from its ‘cousin’ the cassava balls and are a lighter, but no less tasty, derivative of the same root. Then comes the cassava pone, or cassava cake as some prefer to term it. Made from grated cassava this tasty sweet is baked in a pan, cut into squares and served or sold. At cocktails an even lighter ‘cutter’ is served – cassava sticks. These are the cassava alternative to cheese straws and are another demonstration of the versatility of the cassava root. For a heavier meal there is the famous Guyanese pepper-pot, made from cassareep which is derived from the cassava.

Stronger stuff

The cassava also serves as the base for some powerful brews. The Amerindians of Guyana and Suriname make a strong drink called piwari, commonly used at occasions of festivity and celebration. Cassava wine is a folk drink that is made and served in some rural areas of Guyana.

In Guyana the cassava is indeed a national culinary treasure, precious to Guyanese of all races and appealing to the palates of every visitor.