Cassava in Seychellois culture | 31 August 2019
On the occasion of the African Medicinal Day, Tony Mathiot, on behalf of the National Heritage Research and Protection Section explores the uses of cassava in our history.
Clutching a large piece of cassava, his hand moves up and down in a firm and fast scrubbing motion.Ridges of muscles bulged across his left arm as he maintains the grating pressure and the piece of cassava gradually gets smaller. He tosses the stub in a bucket already half full with stubs. Heaving a sigh he reaches out for the last remaining pieces of ‘manioc’.
The grater is actually a large rectangular piece of oil tin can with perforated holes nailed on a piece of wooden piece of wood. The grating side is the reverse side where holes have raised cutting edges. Old man Polixene sits on a bench with the grater placed in a large bamboo basket laid with green banana leaves which is now almost full of grated cassava. He straightens his body up and taps the grater against the side of the basket to remove morsels of grated cassava.
We are in an outhouse not far from his timber and limestone home at Val d’Andorre. It is actually an old open air shelter covered with coconut leaves. The western sky is becoming crimson with the setting sun. A mild South-West Monsoon breeze ruffles part of the cassava plantation up on the terrace.
The grated cassava will now be wrapped up in a large piece of coarse fisel bag and placed under the presser to squeeze out all the fluid. The presser is a large slightly oval stone weighing about 50 kilos. The wrapped-up grated cassava will be placed on a thick plank and the stone will be placed on top of it where it will remain until tomorrow morning. By then, the grated cassava will be in the form of coarse powder.
The powder is used to make ‘galet, koud pwen, magari, penpen’ and cakes, old Polixene tells me as he heaves the stone, his wrinkled face contorted with the strenuous effort. Satisfied that the stone is well placed, he sits back on the bench, clear liquid starts leaking from the squeezed bundle.
‘Galet, koud pwen, magari, penpen, ladob mayok’
‘Galet’ is a larger version of ‘Koudpwen’. The actual product which we call ‘galet’ is actually ‘koudpwen’. He continues as he rolls himself a cigarette with home grown tobacco. Cassava stubs are used to make ‘magari’, which is a type of porridge. The stubs are cooked in coconut milk and sugar until they turned into a smooth viscous creamy mass. At times it was also cooked with salt and black pepper. This delectable ‘by product’ dish of ‘galet-making’ is made so as not to waste the scores of cassava stubs that are left after the grating. It’s different from the popular ‘ladob mayok’ that is made by boiling pieces of cassava in coconut milk with sugar and a few drops of vanilla essence.
Cassava powder is also very effective for skin disorders. He informs me “a poultice of grated root mixed with castor oil or coconut oil can be used for the relief of pain”.
Old Polixene’s herbal knowledge reminds me of those days when our ancestors found cures for their ailments in nature’s pharmacy. Indeed, long before corticosteroid creams and ointments arrived on our shores, cassava powder was a trustworthy dermatological treatment for some skin disorders such as rash. Leaves were used to treat hypertension, headache and pain in general. Poultice of the leaves with coconut oil or olive oil is tied on a piece of cloth to the forehead to relive the pain. Inhabitants spread knowledge of the analgesic virtues of cassava leaves across the districts of Mahe. It eventually became a common application in most Seychellois households.
“It was also used to stiffen fabrics such as khaki trousers,” He reminds me. Indeed, cassava powder was commonly used as a laundry starch especially for attire. You must have heard of the expression ‘kannson byen kanze’ from our ‘trwazyenm az’!
So our common cassava is a nutriment, it is medicinal and ….poisonous – something few of us is unaware of because we don’t consume it raw. Raw cassava contains cyanogenic glucosides which can release cyanide in the body when consumed. Cassava grown during the drought season is especially high in these toxins.
Cassava among items brought by settlers to Ste Anne
Our humble cassava (manihot esculenta) was among the first items of food that the first 28 settlers brought with them when they arrived here on August 27, 1770, aboard ‘Thelemaque’ from Ile de France (Mauritius). They came with many kilos of cassava tubers for consumption and many cuttings for cultivation.
In 1772, Pierre Hangard (1732-1812), a former soldier of the Compagnie des Indes took over the settlement on Ste Anne and increased the cultivation of food. Besides feeding the entire population, he managed to supply passing vessels with enough victuals for the duration of their following journey until the next port. He grew rice, yam, taro, sweet potato, maize and cassava.
In 1773, when the French explorer Jean François de Galaup, Compte de la Perouse (1741-1788) visited Ste Anne, he was amazed at the amount of food crops that Hangard cultivated. « Il a de plus un champ de manioc de la plus grande beauté » he wrote. With the increasing arrivals of slaves to Seychelles, the cultivation of food crops increased, cassava being high in calories became together with sweet potato, a staplefood for the slave population. Every estate on Mahe, Praslin and La Digue allocated a portion of land for the cultivation of cassava, which was invariably consumed boiled. Breadfruit did not exist in Seychelles at that time. It was introduced in the early 1820s from Mauritius.
Cassava which is native to South America was introduced to Africa by Portuguese traders in the 16th century. In 1740, the governor-general of Mauritius, Bertrand-Francois Mahé de la Bourbonnais (1699-1753) introduced cassava to Mauritius from Indonesia.
One can legitimately assume that our traditional ‘galet manyok’ originated in Mauritius during the 1870s. In fact, it was in 1868 that Hilarion Rault, whose father had arrived from Breton in 1807 to settle in Mauritius, discovered another way to appreciate cassava other than just boiled. In 1870, he launched the ‘Biscuits manioc’ on the local market. Soon after, immigrants from Mauritius brought the recipe for ‘galet mayok’ to Seychelles – which means that by the late 1890s galet-making had become a popular activity on many estates where cassava was cultivated.
Since almost 250 years ago, when cassava was brought to Seychelles in a bid to guarantee food security, this tuberous root has become a common feature of our ‘gro manze’. From restaurants in 5-star luxury hotel establishments to roadside take-away, cassava has earned its pride of place on the local menu. Boiled cassava is a very much sought-after substitute for rice or potatoes.
Cassava cultivation used to be present in every district. Every home with a backyard garden grew a few cassava trees. Currently with new development of housing projects, with busy lifestyle, the backyard garden has been neglected. In 1984, when the government was implementing various agricultural reforms, Sadeco (Seychelles Agricultural Development Company) established a cassava pilot project at Grand Anse, Mahe. Funded by ACCT (Agence de Coopération Culturelle et Technique) and Opec (Organiaation of Petroleum Exporting Countries), the objective of the project was the commercial production of cassava for national consumption.
The Seychelles appetite for ‘galet’ is never jaded
The Seychelles appetite for ‘galet’ is never jaded. Fortunately, although it is a laborious and time-consuming activity, our farmers remain loyal to our tradition. One particular farm, H.H Farm (Hendricks Herminie) at Val d’Andorre produces an average of 1,600 ‘galet’ a month. They are sold at various retail outlets around Mahé. It is bought for local consumption and also by those travelling abroad to give to relatives or friends.
Cassava has also inspired innovative creations. In August of 2018, Seychellois female entrepreneur, Claudette Albert won first prize with her cassava shortbread biscuit in the Fembiobiz competition that took place in South Africa.
“The fire has to be lit at the break of dawn,” old Polixene says, as he pushes the last piece of firewood into the furnace.