The Incredible Cassava Root & Other Bammy Stories
“The pot of oil a-bubble, time to fry the bammy.” Jomo Morris
Jamaicans adore bammy, particularly the fried version served crispy as a side dish for steamed or escoveithed fish. Bammy also can be steamed or baked, but the cakes lose that delicate crust and soft, dense interior that make it such a delight to eat. In the early 1940’s, bammy was the bread staple of choice for many Jamaicans.
The heavier, denser bammy bread lost pride of place in the Jamaican household with the popularity of soft, lighter sandwich breads made from imported wheat flour. Bammy was now seen as a “poor man” food, and left the bright lights of the city for the relative obscurity of life in the Jamaican countryside. But to understand bammy, and its role in Jamaican history and food lore, one needs to go back at least ten thousand years and into the jungles of South America in search of a tribe called the Arawak.
Bammy is made from the tubers of the cassava plant, a woody shrub native to South America. The cassava plant is extremely hardy and grows well in Jamaica, especially in the parishes of St. Elizabeth and Manchester. In Jamaica, the secret of turning this starchy tuber into cassava flour was taught to African slaves by the islands’ original inhabitants – the Arawak Indians.
Cassava was essential to Arawak existence, and it featured prominently in their
worship and belief system. The Arawak believed in Yucahu, the god of cassava and the sea – who created life, grew cassava, and saved the people from its poison juices. As the Arawak attempted to escape persecution from a more war-like tribe called the Carib, Arawak and cassava spread from South America into the Caribbean, The Carib forced the Arawak to flee from island to island in primitive dugout canoes as their settlements were overrun and the inhabitants cannibalized.
Cassava comes in two varieties, sweet and bitter. Similar in texture to the sweet potato, the sweet variety is peeled and boiled or fried and eaten as a starch. The bitter variety, which is toxic if not cooked, is used to make bammy. Traditionally, the cassava is grated and placed in a bag that is porous. The bag is placed in a press, where heavy weights force out as much liquid as possible. The grated residue is then beaten in a mortar to a fine paste and allowed to dry. The dried paste is then sieved until the texture is similar to flour, and shaped into cakes with a ring mold. Bammy traditionally comes in two sizes, the traditional 6-inch round cake and a smaller cake no larger than a buttermilk biscuit. Because of their tiny size and thinness, the mini-bammies are great fried. Jamaicans love to soak bammy cakes in milk for a few minutes, before cutting into wedges for frying.
Only remnants remain of the once-thriving indigenous people who brought Jamaica the cassava plant and bammy. The more docile Arawak preferred to hunt, fish, and farm rather than go to war. Their bid to escape annihilation by the Carib, eventually brought them into contact with an even more ruthless foe. The Spanish conquistadores drawn to the New World in search of gold enslaved the already servile Arawak. They were no match for the rapacious Spaniards, who killed many of the native inhabitants outright. Those unlucky enough to survive died a slow death from despair, torture, smallpox and starvation.
Much of the cultural symbolism behind the farming and preparing of cassava has died with the peaceful Arawak. The native inhabitants made way for successive waves of European plantation owners, African slaves, and Chinese and Indian indentured servants. Eating pressed cassava cake may have been disdained by the elite, but we never forgot bammy or how to make it. Bammy and the spirit of Yucahu have evolved into a cottage industry that supplies the population with pale, cream-colored discs waiting to be fried, baked or steamed.
Eltons’ Recipe for Healthy Baked Bammy
1 6-inch bammy
1 cup milk
½ tsp salt
1 tsp soft butter
I had a long discussion with one of my Jamaican counterparts about the best way to cook bammy. My friend Elton is a staunch supporter of baked bammy. His mom liked to bake bammy in the oven, and that’s the way he grew up eating it. Plus, he says, “It’s healthier for you.”
Preheat oven to 350°F. Soak bammy in milk with salt for ten minutes, making sure that it is completely submerged. Remove from the milk and pat dry. Place bammy in a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
Bake for 5 minutes. Baste with butter and flip bammy onto other side. Repeat the process. Bammy is done when brown and crispy, a quick 10-minute process.