Nestled just outside of the Garifuna cultural capital of the coastal town of Dangriga in Belize, is a very rustic, humble home where ladies are hard at work producing cassava bread. No one would ever guess that this nondescript, open-air shed covered only by a rooftop made from wood logs and palm tree leaves is where cassava bread is produced and distributed to all of Belize.
A visit to Sabal’s Cassava Food Products Farm is a special treat, indeed. As the only commercial farm in Belize that produces cassava bread, a Garifuna staple, the family owns land throughout the country where they grow, harvest, process, produce and distribute a variety of cassava-based products.
What exactly is cassava? Cassava is a tropical root plant (similar to taro or yam in looks) also known as yuca and manioc. Although native to South America, it has made its way to Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean for cultivation due to its low cost and high yield. Cassava is a naturally gluten-free carbohydrate that is rich in vitamin C, fiber, and potassium. The root helps balance gut flora and can ease inflammation. It has a low glycemic index, and when made into a flour, it is one of the best alternatives to grains and wheat.
The Sabal family has been making cassava bread in Belize for over 25 years. There are up to three generations working on the farm. They grow the cassava plant on their farmland to control the growing conditions for a high-quality, organically grown product. The process from start to finish is pretty labor intensive, and the Sabal farm does everything old school – no heavy, automated machinery is involved in the bread-making process. Once the cassava tubers have been brought in from the field, they are peeled and washed by hand and thrown into a grating machine that was built by hand by the father of our tour guide at the farm. Once the root is grated, it is left overnight to dry and slightly ferment. The next morning it is sieved to produce a fine powdery flour to make the bread. The flour is poured onto a huge comal (a smooth, flat griddle) and is cooked into very thin tortilla-like pieces for packaging and distributing throughout the country. Sabal’s offers a variety of flavors to include plain, ginger and spicy. They also extract the starch from the root tubers and use it to make tapioca.
Cassava is a very versatile plant that can be made into anything from bread to french fries to soups and desserts. As a healthy alternative to grains for those who suffer from celiac disease, have a gluten intolerance or are afflicted with diabetes, and with its ability to promote gut and digestive health, you really can’t go wrong with this abundant crop from our neighbors in South America. Next time you are in the mood for something different and healthy, take a trip to your nearest international grocery store, look for the fresh root, flour, or bread of the cassava plant and let your imagination take you on a new culinary adventure your palette and body will be grateful for.