Here is the fourth installment of my investigation of Dominican racial identity, through the lens of their cuisine. If you haven’t already read the first three entries, click here for #1, here for #2, and here for #3!
Viveres are starchy, filling foods (such as the aforementioned plantains) that are used frequently in both Dominican and West African cooking (as well as many other countries). Viveres include roots and tubers, such as cassava, taro, yuca, potatoes and yams. These have existed as a source of nutrition for a really long time, according to food historian James Trager. In his book “The Food Chronology,” he cites that taro grew in China around 5000 BC, later in 450 AD making its way to Hawaii and finally being supplemented by the yam in China in the early 600s.
All this to say that it is no surprise that viveres have been around so long – they grow easily, usually year round, in most climates, can be harvested twice a year (or more!) and are an economic, filling food source, rich in vitamins C and A, zinc, and iron. Not only are they a stable food source, but according to a study by Nteranya Sanginga, viveres “are far less susceptible to large-scale market shocks and price speculation experienced by more widely traded staples, such as grains,” therefore making them also a stable source of income in poorer nations.
Viveres, according to my research, highlight the fluid relationship between Dominican (or even Caribbean) food and African food. Some of these root vegetables are native to South and Central America, brought back to Africa by traders going to pick up slaves. Others, like yams, were brought from Africa to the colonies and their name (ñame in Spanish) is an adaptation from the West African word nyami. By the way, this isn’t the same type of tuber that I think of – usually pale orange inside, something like a sweet potato. Dominican ñame are white on the inside, with a rough brown exterior; sweet potato, on the other hand, is known as batata, not to be confused with patata, normal potato.
While the vast array of viveres present in Dominican food don’t all derive from West Africa, I think the way they are utilized in Dominican dishes highlights the influence of the slaves on the gastronomic culture. Viveres are usually used as the main starch and are served boiled or mashed. Often you can find them in soups and stews, like in the famous Sancocho. Additionally, fufu, a West African cousin to Dominican mangu, is typically made with any viveres available. Additionally, I would argue simply the fact that these ingredients still have such a strong presence in Dominican cuisine shows just how much of an impact the cooking traditions of West African slaves had.
Below is a picture of what yautilla amarillo (Malanga in English, apparently) looks like when you get it at the market. To the right is what it looks like after it’s been boiled. The consistency was kind of like squash that wasn’t fully cooked – it was super starchy and dense, which made it difficult to eat on its own without any sauce. It was definitely not one of my favorite food moments.
Installment #6 is all about the important Dominican ingredients of the traditional bandera – rice, beans and meat!