Foods Indigenous to the Western Hemisphere


(Manihot esculenta Crantz)

By Hugh Murphy

The cassava is a jungle plant, native to the tropical regions of the West Indies and Central and South America.  It is a starchy, root crop that is often referred to as ‘yuca’ or with the more general name, ‘arrowroot.’  Today’s two main varieties of cassava, bitter and sweet, were originally bred by American Indians from the tropical Americas.  The names ‘cassava’ and ‘yuca’ also came from these indigenous people (Davidson, 142).


Cassava tubers resemble large cigars and come in a range of sizes. Most, however, grow to approximately ten inches long and two inches wide.  They grow in bunches of five to ten, similar to potato clusters, and have a solid white flesh (Davidson, 142).

The cassava’s ability to grow in relatively poor soil and in a wide range of climates has made it a popular crop in impoverished countries throughout the world (Cock, 755). While it is not a complete food, cassava is an important source of inexpensive calories for the people of these countries.  Behind rice, corn and sugarcane, cassava is the fourth largest source of calories produced in tropical Central and South America (Cock, 755).  It is second only to the sweet potato in volume consumed (Davidson, 142). It is widely known for its use in producing tapioca and for its use as a thickening agent in a variety of other foods.


While tapioca is the most common for of cassava found in North America, the indigenous peoples of the West Indies and the tropical Americas had a wide range of uses for the plant.  Dried cassava meal was baked into flat cakes or eaten as porridge.  Tubers and leaves were boiled and served whole.  And, cassava juice was boiled and spiced to make ‘cassareep’ syrup, or fermented to make cassava beer (Davidson, 142). 


Cassava roots are prepared through a process of washing, peeling, soaking, pressing, drying and grinding or flaking.  Soaking and pressing is necessary to remove toxins present in cassava flesh (Cock, 757). The resulting flakes or flour can be made into tapioca, mixed into soups and puddings, or used as a lighter replacement for cornstarch and wheat flour (Davidson, 36).  While it contains virtually no vitamins or protein, it is easily digestible and works well with a variety of recipes (Britannica).


There is direct archaeological evidence suggesting the cultivation of cassava over 2500 years ago, and indirect evidence suggesting cassava production at 4000 years ago (Cock, 755).  The first cassava farmers were most likely the Maya living in the Yucatan peninsula (Britannica 2). Cassava farms were widespread through the tropical Americas when European conquistadors first arrived.  But as European diseases ran rampant through the indigenous population cassava production slowed drastically until many of the cassava fields gave way to dense forest (Cock, 755). 

Today, cassava is grown all over the world.  The regions with the highest levels of production and consumption still tend to be areas of major poverty—Central and South America, the West Indies, Africa and Indonesia (Cock, 757).   



"Arrowroot." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2008. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 12 Jun. 2008 <>.

"Cassava." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2008. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 19 June 2008  <>.

Cock, James H. “Cassava: A Basic Energy Source in the Tropics.”

Science, New Series, Vol. 218, No. 4574 (19 Nov. 1982), pp. 755-762

Published by: American Association for the Advancement of Science

Davidson, Alan. The Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.