The Casabe Wars

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Tasteless yet yummy
Tasteless yet yummy

Casabe is to eastern Venezuelans what arepas are to the country at large. An everyday bread made from yucca flour, it accompains just about anything. Soup? (Mondongo, fish, chipi chipi) … some casabe on the side. Fried sardines? Put them on casabe. Tuna Salad? Casabe. Salpicón de Mariscos? Casabe. A cheese platter with Brie and Edam? You better have casabe or we are not having it. Oh, you say you have a sweet tooth, don’t worry, there’s a type of casabe dessert for you too.

Now, I hate that brittle “galleta casabe.” No dear, my casabe is that thick jawbreaking hard stuff you get in Cúpira, or on the road to Cumaná, the type you sometimes have to sprinkle some water on because your jaw is sore from all the chewing.

Unfortunately, casabe never made it internationally like arepas did, as I have recently discovered. You can get Harina Pan in more than 20 countries. But casabe? That’s a bit more complicated, a tougher sell.

I have stashed the cakes in my suitcase more than once. I have held on to them in customs, hoping bureaucrats will understand that it is processed and will hold no threat to their wildlife and/or yucca plantations. We send it periodically to my sister who lives in Asia.

My little sister got into some hot water with mom because she ate the last pieces of casabe in the house. She learned her lesson, and while she visited me, she asked me before taking it. I allowed it only because I knew that I was going to get some new cakes soon.

When I visit my family abroad, the list of things I’d like goes something like this: Savoy chocolates, Torontos, Atamel, and please don’t forget the casabe. When we go back to Venezuela, my Nana always remembers to buy it a few days before, so it will greet us.

Food travels with the immigrant. I remember my parent’s friends telling a story of a girl traveling to the U.S.A.. Her father had packed for her tiny chicken eggs in a Camprolac milk can; she cried as the customs officer broke each and every one. The comedian George Harris has a stand-up comedy show of Venezuelans going through immigration, … it ends with the passenger lady giving the officer some cheese in a plastic bag as a gift.

But why is it so important? Why are arepas, casabe, dulce de lechoza, queso de año, Torontos, Savoy, empanadas, tequeños, queso telita, and mango pecho ‘e paloma so important? Why do people go to extreme lengths to keep those textures, aromas and flavors in their immigrant home.

Because food is more than a basic source of nutrients; it’s also a key component of our culture, central to our sense of identity. And being an immigrant means having to reconstruct your identity. It’s a give and take, resistance and change.

I guess maybe, in a way, we cling to our food to soften the path toward our new selves, to make the journey bearable. It is a safe haven in the mourning process that is emigrating, a keepsake of the past, of whom we used to be.

I am down to my last casabe cake. I will now eat it only for something important, like for tasting a good white cheese. I will proceed to hide the casabe from my husband.

He’s from Caracas. He just doesn’t understand.

1 COMMENT

  1. I wonder how many Venezuelans have been living in exile since 1999. I read that 250,000 left Venezuela to live in the US since the revolution has begun, but how many left Venezuela to live in other parts of the world? Does anyone know where can I find accurate figures? I mean, the total number of Venezuelan expats around the world and their population by country? Would they like to return to Venezuela to rebuild the country after Chavismo is gone? Wikipedia says that the populational increase per year in Venezuela from 2001 to 2011 was the smallest since 1920! It’s a true diaspora.

    • It would be interesting to find out. I do remember reading somewhere (my memory escapes me now) that if you live more than 10 years abroad chances are that you already made roots and will not come back (maybe just visit)

      Beyond just the numbers, it is the quality of people that left that is more important. I would be willing to bet that most of them were in the cience and technology areas. That resource drain takes years to recuperate.

    • The number of Venezuelan’s who have chosen to leave Venezuela is an interesting question. If you choose to leave, is that exile? Sometimes yes, sometimes no.

      World Bank data does reflect that the increase in population in Venezuela is the smallest it’s been in the last 50 years. The caveats are:
      a.) it’s still growth.
      b.) growth in Venezuela exceeded that of Peru, Brazil, Argentina, and Chile.
      c.) at 1.5% in 2012, the rate is double what it is in the US (.7%).

      That’s hardly a diaspora.

    • Because our independent history has been so politically turbulent there have always been Venezuelans who have had to live as exiles to conserve their health.

      Remember my father telling me how one night , as a child , he saw from a high andean mountain top an endless caravan of car lights slowly move on the road from Cucuta to San Cristobal bringing back the many exiles of general Eustoquio Gomez ( General Gomez very cruel brother) the day after he left his post as governor of Tachira . Back then people became exiles because of their politics not from choice and they only remained exiles until the next change in regime allowed them to come back.

      Then after democracy consolidated arround the 60’s the political exile ended as an historical institution . Now these last 15 years the stream of people leaving the country because they cant live under the regime has become a torrent and it includes a much younger set of people than was the case before , moreover people who arent particularly political . To judge from electoral figures their number must lie between half a million and a full million . Numbers which were totally unheard of before .

      There was among those exiles of yore a strong sense of their national identity which they endevoured to keep alive regardles of their new circumstances . they never saw themselves as permanent inmigrants to another country only as visitors who where there for a while until things got better back home . Not sure thats the situation now !!

  2. I understand your cravings. Every time I go to Venezuela I bring with me at least 5 canillas. I know, it sounds crazy but I haven’t found anything like it in the US and obviously I am not close to Miami.
    It is not only the flavor, I think my body releases endorphins every time I eat Venezuelan food. I feel better and a smile gets into my face.
    Marc, during last elections someone I think from El Nacional did an estimate about the Venezuelan population around the world and it as close to $1MM.

  3. Dear Audrey… Tears are rolling down my cheeks as I read your Casabe Saudade post. I am from Caracas, and even though I don’t understand the love for Casabe that you profess, like your husband, I understand all the rest. I am still finding it hard to grow roots in these U S of A. Even though I’ve been part of this country in many ways since I was a toddler. But… My Venezuelanesss seems not to want to give way to any geographical space in my sou and or in my heartl other than my view of my adored Ávila, and the flavors and smells of my country’s favorite foods. It will come in time. I hope. For the sake of my patient Irish husband.
    I brought with me 2 kgs de Sta Barbara grated and frozen in tupperwares, mermelada de guayaba, harina PAN de cachapas, café IMI, but when the last shred of my adored mix of sta Bárbara 50% 50 % con blanco duro, grated cheese is gone, I will call Sr. Zerpa 754-234 4855 who the “Westonzuela”expats tell me he does a series of very good white cheeses, and delivers around south florida, done of course with gringo milk. But… It will do, until my next visit.

      • oh yes I tried the cheese of one guy telita…and i forgot to bring with me to stupid SOCAL…Mexican white cheese sucks….But i easily find the mix for cachapas

    • Lavici,

      I understand you.It takes many years to adapt to a new culture( they say about 7 years)….When I went to Venezuela I had a hard time at first .I remember when I studied Spanish at the La Venezolana/ American, I was with many European women who hated it there and would cry and complain everyday.I particularly remember one Danish woman who said she couldn’t cook anything because she didn’t understand the food.I would find her in the afternoons sobbing in the CADA of Las Mercedes.

      At some point I decided to only hang with Venezuelans for a few years, because I felt that in order to become a part of my new home, I had to know it well, and stop judging and comparing.This technique worked for me…Eventually I was able to go back to having some friends from Europe and the US…..because at some point I felt completely at home in Venezuela.Now I even prefer Venezuelan food.

      Some people never adapt though….and that is sad….

  4. I hear that tamarindo and onoto (to make hallacas) is in high demand. Although tamarindo is found in other countries as well.

    Audrey – great post. You hit it in the nail. It is the way immigrants from all over the world roll: “we cling to our food to soften the path toward our new selves, to make the journey bearable”

  5. Here you go:

    Wash and peel the yuca (cassava).
    Using a grater, grate the yuca using the finest section.
    Using cheesecloth or a clean cotton towel, squeeze the grated cassava to remove as much moisture as possible and discard the liquid.
    Add salt to the yuca mixture and stir it in well. Break up any lumps.
    Divide grated yuca into equal parts and set aside. Depending on how big you want your casabe to be, I suggest 4 to 10 equal divisions.
    Heat a frying pan. (A cast iron skillet works well). Do Not add any oil.
    When the pan is hot, place a quantity of grated yuca in the middle of the pan.
    Spread it out with a spatula, or back of a spoon, into a thin circular cake.
    Cook until bottom is golden, then flip and cook the other side until golden.
    You may serve casabe warm or allow it to cool for storage. Cooled casabe is hard like a cracker.

  6. Although we Valencians don’t consume as much casabe as those in the East, we do eat it a lot. The Valencioid culture had a blend of both the maize and the cassava traditions as Caribs settled down along the Tacarigua lake. It would be interesting to measure the prevalence of casabe in traditional Venezuelan families across the country, where you have the divide and so on.

  7. OH how true. I never did come to love casabe….but…so much more. One year, Community Coffee here in New Orleans actually had a Venezuelan roast- but only in decaf…no matter.. the aroma was so seductive, I was instantly taken back across the Gulf of Mexico. Everyone thought I had lost my mind. Except for my brother and sister. When I finally got to meet up with my father in Costa Rica (he still lives in Venezuela) a few years ago, at the top of my list was Belmont ciggarettes- even though I had quit smoking years ago, then Savoy chocolates, Torontos, coffee…etc. I just wanted to smell one really good, fresh ciggarette, not smoke it- but everyone else still smoked, so they enjoyed them…Actually, I don’t even remember if they had them. I still miss the smell of them. And, it wasn’t just the native food, but so much transplanted food. The Italian, German, Arabic, and Chinese, – none of which had been americanized yet. It took me a long time to realize that “Pasticho” is really “Lasagne Bolognese” and that “Lasagna” is entirely an American creation.

  8. The conversation went something like this:

    Me: “Hi, I’m calling to get the TARIC code for Cassava crackers.”
    UK Gov. chap: “Sure. What are the ingredients?”
    Me: “Cassava.”
    UK Gov. chap: “What else?”
    Me: “Nothing else.”
    UK Gov. chap: “How do you mean, nothing else? Is it a cracker?”
    Me: “Yes, made out of Cassava.”
    UK Gov. chap: “What is Cassava?”
    Me: “It’s a tuber.”
    UK Gov. chap: “A what?”
    Me: “A tuber, like a potato. Perhaps you’ve heard of it as Manioc.”
    UK Gov. chap: “Ah, ok. What other ingredient then?”
    Me: “No other.”
    UK Gov. chap: “But it is a cracker, correct?”
    Me: “Yes.”
    UK Gov. chap: “A cracker without wheat, or other type of flour?”
    Me: “Yes.”
    UK Gov. chap: “Let me have your number, I have to make a few enquiries and will call you back with the correct code for there’s nothing of the sort in the system…”

    Eventually got the code, and started importing Cassava Crackers into the UK. Explaining to people the wonderful benefits of this particular cracker in tastings was always a joy, but unfortunately it never really took the English. Shame, for it is perhaps the best snack there is.

  9. I see Juan posted a recipe. Is homemade casabe not as good as what you’d find in a market? Or is it, like a good Mexican tortilla, harder than it looks?

  10. Alek, as you know, the UK has some of the worst-tasting traditional crackers in the world, as well as some of the world’s slowest intestinal transit….

  11. I’ve made cachapas in the US. To a can of cream of corn add wheat flour until you get the right texture/consistency and cook like you would a pancake. not exactly the same, but fairly close. I used to get good cheeses from an online company based out of southern Florida. Don’t know if they’re still around or their name but you could probably search for latin food suppliers.

  12. Thank you Aubrey for a lovely piece of writing . Not mentioned is that casabe is a very healthy food , the darling of knowledgeable venezuelan nutritionists because it can be eaten with anything and its so wholesome .

    Casabe has real old aboriginal roots , in a book on the earliest spanish exploration of South American terra firme the tale is told of how the first conquistadors during their travels were dependent on finding indian grown manioc for their survival , and how there was an invisible line dividing the edible manioc root and the poisonous manioc which they unknowlingly encountered when on entering an abandoned indian village they started eating the manioc there and became very ill . the poisonous manioc has a toxic compound which has to be extracted through a complex compresing process before the root can be eaten .

    Understand that the manioc traditionally used to prepare casabe is not the sweet manioc which one eats boiled but the bitter manioc which needs preparing before it becomes palatable .

    Remember as a child my grandmother warning me not to eat the ‘vein’ of a boiled manioc root because it might be poisonous. Now when we travel to visit our children abroad we make sure to take along a bunch of local goodies which cant be found where they live but which they grew to love in their childhood and always pine for .

    • accurate reflection.
      reminds me of my Canadian-born mom (RIP) who lost her Cdn citizenship when she married a Vz, as was the custom in the British Commonwealth, and lived in Caracas for 40 years. Back in the late 60s, she’d ask me, no, practically demanded that I bring back home turnips. Yes, turnips. Heavy waxed balls of the stuff. I can’t recall any military that checked luggage in Maiquetía, asking me what were those bolas enceradas. Enfin … the turnips were cooked and mashed and served as a side dish, while I, tasting the stuff, scratched my head thinking, aasco. Evidently, the recurring tastes in one’s youth is a primeval call with a long memory.

  13. Great Post, and yes, great comments, but we missed a great opportunity here.

    I propose Caracas Chronicles takes it into its goals for this year to actually gain some insights of the ACTUALS numbers of the Venezuelan Diaspora.

    ….it could ask its talented pool of readers and collaborators to come up with some acceptable methodology and take it as a worthwhile project.

    IMO only chavista cancilleria knows and obviously will not share this as it as it is not in their interest to do so. Actually I would be inclined to say they know precisely who has left, where it has gone, what properties still holds back in YV, and what each one of us is doing now in our newly adoptive societies/nations….

    Regards,
    LuisF

  14. We were coming to the states from Caracas, and had 10 kgs of queso blanco and 3 tortas de casabe.
    On our custom declaration form I wrote “cheese and casabe crackers $10” very “under the radar”.

    While we were going through customs in Miami, some Maracuchos were in front of us in line and the agents found about 5 kgs of queso Palmizulia that was not declared.

    They proceeded to take the cheese out of the foil wraps, and then made fun of the awful smell (the cheese had sweated during transit, and smelled like sweaty feet.) All of the “musius” in line from other flights were also speaking among themselves, and the Maracuchos were telling the agents that this was a delicacy.

    After humiliating these guys for about 5 minutes, they confiscated their cheese, and sent them on their way.

    I was next in line, and was sweating bullets.

    Fortunately, The guys let us pass, without checking our cheese and casabe crackers.

    • My dad (QEPD) used to always make me travel to Montreal with a 5 Kg. block of Palmizulia stashed away in the luggage. In a desperate attempt to get out of doing this, I started declaring it each time I came, hoping against hope they’d just impound it and then I’d have a good excuse not to keep bringing the giant things. I’d even point it out to the customs agent, desperately trying to get rid of it. No such luck. Turns out these canucks are entirely relaxed about unpasteurized cheese. Try to bring fruit or a meat product into the country and they’ll flip out, though.

  15. We can buy casabe here in Alberta. My wife’s cousin lives in Calgary and he can get it, sometimes we can buy it here in Edmonton as well. There is always Arena Pan! We make cachapas, empanadas and arepas all year long!
    I just miss Caciquie Rum, when my wife travels back home to San Felix, she always brings back several bottles! Torontos, oval maltinas, Sambas, Cocosettes………! Um, I’m getting hungry!

  16. I had a friend who worked with “New Tribes” missions just after WWII, on the Erebato river, with the Maquiritare tribe. The yuca that was eaten was poisonous, so a lot of effort time and effort was spent grating the yuca then squeezing out the poisonous juice, with a sebucan.
    One year, in an effort to reduce the amount of time and effort spent preparing the yuca, he brought some “sweet” yuca (non-poisonous) to be planted in their conucos.
    The crop was a success, however, the sweet yuca could not be distinguished from the poisonous, so they had to destroy the whole crop, so there wouldn’t ever be any mistakes.

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