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Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC), Suva, Fiji Islands
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Thursday, March 17, 2005
Posted 8:56 PM by Luigi
Cassava remains popular on Guam despite recent news reports
By Jojo Santo Tomas firstname.lastname@example.org
Pacific Daily News
Chito Iglopas has eaten cassava all his life. As a youngster growing up in the Visayas in the Philippines, Iglopas remembers eating the starchy root as often as he ate rice -- sometimes more.
So when the Filipino chef heard the news last week that two dozen children died eating cassava, his heart went out to the students in Bohol. But his experience and training as a professional chef told him that it was an isolated incident and he would continue to eat and prepare the dish as he normally does.
"I was really sad for the kids; I have kids, too. But when I heard that news about the cassava that killed the kids, I felt that it's not cassava. I felt that it's something else," he says. "To my knowledge, no one ever died eating cassava. It grows everywhere and it's very inexpensive."
Cassava, which grows in abundance on Guam, is known locally as mendioka or tapioca. It is the main ingredient in Chamorro dishes such as apigigi and tamales mames, and is popular among Filipinos as the base for cassava cake and maruya, fried slices of cassava topped with caramelized sugar.
On March 9, 27 children died and more than 100 others were hospitalized after eating maruya in Mabini, a town on Bohol island about 380 miles south of Manila. City officials there reacted by urging residents to uproot all of the long tubers as dozens of cassava products sat unsold on store shelves.
But earlier this week, Philippine health officials determined that it was a pesticide found in the cassava mixture that killed the children, and not the cyanide that is found naturally in the roots.
The more popular yellow cassava has about 60 parts per million of cyanide, while white cassava has about 350 parts per million. However, the cyanide is destroyed during a normal cooking process such as frying, boiling or roasting, making it a wholesome, nutritious food.
Even before hearing about the pesticide, chef Jhamnong Kraitong of the Westin Resort Guam was convinced the food was tainted. Kraitong hails from Thailand, one of the world's largest exporters of cassava, more commonly known there as tapioca.
"It is a very good food," he says. "It not poisonous. Even the young leaf, you can use it for cooking."
Chamorro chef Peter Duenas of Sam Choy's Restaurant says he was surprised and dismayed to hear about the students' deaths after eating cassava, but he agreed that it would probably wind up as an isolated incident. He uses the ingredient often in his cooking, whether it's freshly ground from roots found on his property or from ready-to-use frozen packets found at most grocery stores.
"Man, in the Philippines, you see it everywhere you go. Any store, any street vendor, they got the fresh cassava going on. I love that stuff -- it's a soothing dessert because it's sugary, chewy and it's got coconut in it," he says. "Here, you don't see it as much, but it's still popular. In fact, every culture I know of uses it in some way."
Local sales unaffected
At least two local retailers say that last week's incident hasn't affected sales.
Roberto Bumagat, who handles purchasing for the Great Mart grocery store chain on Guam, brings in frozen, grated cassava by the container from the Philippines.
Besides the raw product, his stores also carry ready-to-eat cassava cake made by local catering companies.
"We've sold out a couple of times already, so I don't think it affected our sales as far as the demand for cassava cake," he says. "I really don't think it will affect much here because that incident happened in the Philippines."
Sheila San Agustin, whose family runs the Chode store and catering company in Anigua, also sells raw cassava and ready-to-eat products such as apigigi and tamales mames.
"I did read about that incident. But I'm not really worried because my cassava is backed up by the company that sends it here," she says. "I don't think there will be any public reaction here."
In fact, she says, she can't seem to keep the cassava products on the shelves because customers are buying it as fast as she can display it.
"It's Chamorro week," she says. "Everybody wants it now."
Full of vitamins
Rachael T. Leon Guerrero, a professor of nutrition at the University of Guam, says she and some friends were discussing the possibilities after hearing about the incident in Bohol.
"Cassava is just a root crop -- not something you could really screw up on. Once you cook it, everything's pretty much taken care of," she says. "It's a very common root staple for a lot of Pacific islands and parts of Asia and it's used all over the world."
Leon Guerrero says that cassava has good amounts of vitamin C, calcium and fiber -- not as much as its tuberous counterparts taro, sweet potato and yam -- but it's still much better than the enriched white rice so popular in the local diet.
"So it's really good for the body. It's fine -- go ahead and continue to eat it if that's what you eat," she says.
www.starch.dk and sources quoted in this story
Originally published March 18, 2005
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