by Kosisochukwu Nnebe
"It may be laid down as a principle, susceptible of the clearest demonstration, that every benefit conferred on the slaves, whether in food, or clothing, or rest, must ultimately terminate in the interest of the owner.”
- Practical rules for the management and medical treatment of Negro slaves, in the sugar colonies / by a professional planter.. Date: 1803.
“This root, before it come to be eaten, suffers a strange conversion; for, being an absolute poison when ’tis gathered, by good ordering, comes to be wholesome and nourishing.”
- A True and Exact History of Barbados, 1657
“A certain Slave, conceiving herself injuriously treated, poured into her Master’s Chocolate about a Spoonful of this Juice: Immediately after he had swallowed it, he felt a violent Burning in his Throat and Stomach…”
- The Natural History Of Barbados. In Ten Books (London, 1750)
Recipe for Jamaican Topuea Sugar
A first-ever recipe1 for Jamaican topuea sugar – a fine powder with a faint, earthy taste that was used as garnish for meals and drinks in 18th century Jamaica … a rare and forgotten delicacy in Jamaican cuisine.
1A three-way transmission channelled through ancestors long-gone and recorded by witnesses to a correspondence that no one could have ever dreamed of.
Prep Time: 240 hours or 10 days
Cook Time: 0 minutes mins
Total Time: 240 hours or 10 days
Course: Garnish to be used on main dishes and entrees, as well as with beverages
I’ve never had Jamaican cassava bread, but the recipe for it and for topuea sugar (a rare delicacy that’s derived from the process of making cassava bread) found its way to me by accident2. Before that, all I knew of cassava was fufu, a staple in Nigerian cuisine. It was one
of the first recipes my mother taught me to make; a dish to be hand-molded and offered to friends and family alongside aromatic, thick and flavourful soups – a thing of pride, of home,
2I say by accident because I was never meant to find it. I say by accident because it was never intended for me, nor as recipe to be replicated.
Though cassava has been part of my family history for generations, its origins lie elsewhere, beyond the borders of Nigeria or even West Africa, separated by an ocean that has, over centuries, seen the trade of cargo of all kinds. I think often of what was taken from our shores, and less often about what found its way onto them, what took root and made itself so dominant it became ours in every other respect. Cassava is both mine and not, and the way in which it straddles this reality connects me to lands, histories and ancestors that are also both mine and not.
My friends tell me of similar childhood memories in Jamaica in which cassava plays a chief role. Instead of fufu what they recall is Jamaican bammy and pono, recipes passed down from generation to generation that lend themselves to meals that feel wholly dissimilar from what I am used to: flatbreads with a crisp exterior and tender interior, and sweet cakes made with coconut and condensed milk. Despite these differences in texture and in taste, what remains is a common and shared inheritance that I have only recently begun to acknowledge as such – a relationship and indebtedness that hides more than it divulges, and one that I am now ready to share with you, if you are ready to receive it3.
3I am asking you to read between the lines. Our existence is one of margins and interstices; making lives within the in-between spaces and pushing them wide enough for something new to come through.
The first recipes for cassava; the knowledge of how to grow the crop; the understanding even of how to make it edible – all of this comes from the first inhabitants of Jamaica, the Tainos. For them, cassava was a gift from the gods from whom they learned how to make the crop sustain rather than end life4. In my understanding then, to know cassava – to grow it and cultivate it; to consume it and share it with loved ones far and wide; to revere it and learn from it – is to partake in that spirit, to become entangled in a transmission that bridges the world of gods and humans, that speaks to the very nature of life itself.
4An alchemy that could also be reversed at will. Another gift of sorts.
The recipe I am about to share is one I that I first came across in a botanical catalogue of the flora of Jamaica (specifically its trees, shrubs and ‘other vegetable productions) written by a British botanist5 in 1794. In the catalogue, everything has its place within a larger order of things; all can be described naturally and objectively, so that an audience back home can revel in a world so different from their own, a world that becomes a foil through which to better define their own. There is such attention to detail then, as the stakes are so high: to define and know the other is to define and know the self. And so alongside these descriptions of trees and their leaves and roots, bushes and shrubs and bark and tubers, I find you6: you are another foreign specimen to examine and categorize and your appearance in this catalogue speaks to your own placement in this order of things. And there, between the physical descriptions of the cassava plant and the studied observation of your actions and modes of processing it to sustain yourself and those around you, I find it: a recipe for how to reverse that order, if one knows how to look7.
5They rendered us anonymous in their records and so I shall do the same in ours.
6 And me. And us.
7 They didn't realize that you were passing something on to me through them; they thought they were merely speaking to themselves.
Topuea sugar is unique to Jamaica. It has a grainy consistency and earthy flavour that runs counter to its name: it is anything but sweet, but the irony of its name says something, I believe, about how it came to be used. Of such mild taste, topuea sugar is an addition that reflects the power and status of the person for whom it is intended rather than an one meant to add to the flavour of the dish. This is clear in the amount of labour needed to produce the garnish, as well as how tightly the knowledge of how to produce it has been safeguarded. Having replicated these steps myself as part of translating and sharing this recipe, I know firsthand the attention, care, dedication and resourcefulness needed to prepare this
As with so many other recipes using cassava, this one comes also from the Tainos. For the Tainos, the transition from its initial to ultimate use belies a change in one’s world so drastic that whatever alchemy cassava first represented – this god-given gift – was totally reversed. And so topuea sugar became what it is now, and the knowledge of how to use it was passed on, this time to my ancestors’ kin (who are your ancestors, maybe, and my ancestors, by relation), to make sense of this new world. To my ancestors and yours, topuea sugar became something different altogether; it became a delectable and rare treat to be used as garnish in meals that they were asked to make but never invited to eat. And so topuea sugar became a delicacy a select few came to know the taste of; its aftertaste more impactful than when it first graces one’s tastebuds.
I think often of topuea sugar and its changing uses, of all those who actually tasted it and know its flavour, consistency and aftertaste. I think of this shared inheritance, of how it traveled and where it ultimately arrived – a re-mapping exercise in so many ways, of shores and journeys across time and space. I think of how this recipe is also a lesson – one that we are asked to define for ourselves.
I share this recipe with you now with the understanding that you understand what is being conveyed. That you are ready to become part of a transmission and correspondence that began centuries ago – a transmission that is ultimately about how we find ways to live and stay free. That you will make use of this knowledge with discernment and discretion.
And a reminder: all you need of the sugar is enough to fit under a thumbnail8.
8 To think that this is all is needed to set the world on fire.
What you’ll need:
- Large box grater
- Chopping board
- Sharp knife
- Mortar and pestle
- Hot weather and sun
- Peel. Start by cutting off the ends of the cassava roots. Then, using a sharp knife, make a shallow lengthwise incision along the skin of each root. Peel off the skin, making sure to remove any brown spots or fibrous parts.
- Cut. Cut the cassava roots into chunks or slices, about 2-3 inches long. Rinse the cassava thoroughly in cold water to remove any dirt or debris.
- Grate. Use a box grater to grate the cut cassava into a pulp.
- Wring. Place grated cassava into a cheesecloth or nut milk bag and squeeze out as much liquid as possible.
- Putrefy. Preserve the liquid and allow it to putrefy in the heat. Leave it uncovered such that flies may lay their eggs in the putrefied juice.
- Harvest. Wait a week before harvesting the maggots that have grown in the putrefied cassava juice. Pour out the juice and collect all the maggots, drying them slightly before proceeding to the next step.
- Leave to dry. Place maggots in a thin layer on a large baking sheet to air dry for about 2-3 days in the sun.
- Crush. Use a mortar and pestle to crush the dried maggots into a fine powder. This is your topuea sugar.
- Load. Store the powder in a safe location, for use at your discretion. When ready to use, place a small amount under your thumbnail (you may need to grow it out for this specific occasion), and sprinkle as garnish on food or drink.
Kosisochukwu Nnebe is a Nigerian-Canadian visual artist based in Tiohtià ke / Mooniyang (Montreal). Inspired by postcolonial theorists Frantz Fanon and Edouard Glissant, Nnebe’s practice is invested in unraveling the process of racialization and re-thinking the politics of Black visibility. Moving across installation and lens-based media, Nnebe creates works that shapeshift and transform to reveal a glimpse into new ways of seeing and understanding Blackness.