Hans Staden on Cassava

Another piece from my ongoing research into buccaneer cuisine. This is from the account of the German landsknecht Hans Staden who served the Portuguese crown in Brazil in the 1550s. He spent a considerable time as a captive of the Tupinamba and made his observations during this time the centrepiece of his account which was printed in German in 1557. Staden’s account is most well known for his lurid (and possibly fictitious) descriptions of cannibalism, but his observations on life among the Native Americans are quite valuable. Here is what he says about processing and preparing cassava flour which he refers to as Mandioka.

Various Native Americans cooking and fighting, engraving by Theodore de Bry to accompany Staden’s account courtesy of wikimedia commons

Firstly they grate them on a stone to very small crumbs. Then they press out the juice with a thing made from palm branch skins called tippiti that way it becomes dry. Then they rub it through a sieve and bake thin cakes of that flour.

The thing in which they dry and bake their flour is baked from clay and shaped like a large bowl. They also take the roots fresh and lay them in water, let them rot in it, then take them out and lay them over the fire into the smoke. Let them dry. They call the dry roots Keinrima, they last long and when they wish to use them, they pound them in a mortar of wood that way it becomes as white as white flour. Of this they make the cakes called Byyw.

They also take well rotted Mandioka before they dry it and mix it with dried and with fresh and dry the flour of that. That lasts a year and is good to eat and they call that flour Vythan

They also make flour of fish and meat, they do it thus, they roast the meat or fish above the fire in the smoke and let it become all dry. Then they pluck it apart and still dry it once again over the fire in vessels which they burned for that purpose called Yneppaun. Then they pound it small in a wooden mortar and searce it through a sieve, that lasts very long. For they have no custom of salting fish or meat. Such flour they then eat with the root flour and it tastes quite good.

This is not a very detailed description – the roughly contemporary account of Jean de Lery is much more informative – but for many German readers it was the first and only exposure they had to Native American customs. It is also interesting in two regards: Firstly, it repeats the observation by several European writers that Native Americans do not use salt in their cooking. The second is the way in which it describes three modes of treating cassava in parallel, without any evident hierarchy between them. Most European observers considered the laborious method of turning cassava root into dry flat cakes by grating, pressing, drying and baking it the primary approach and refer to the others in passing if at all. I suspect this reflects their perspective more than the reality of Native American cuisine. Not only were they culturally primed to look for bread as the main food, the dried cassava flour fitted their notions of how to use an ingredient and was portable enough for sip’s supplies. It was clearly the form in which most European soldiers and sailors encountered cassava, but I doubt the same was true for the Tupinamba, the Cuni, or the Kalinago.

The reference to a flour made of dried fish or meat is also interesting and is similarly repeated in a number of sources. It makes sense since meat is difficult to preserve in a tropical climate. I find it hard to imagine what the experience of an unsalted, but highly spiced cassava porridge mixed with intensely umami meat powder would have been like, but the contrast to European habits could hardly be starker.

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