61. The Caribbean: Greater Antilles

Caribbean cuisine is an exemplar of fusion from disparate corners of the globe, including traditions from indigenous Amerindian peoples, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, French and British colonists, West African influences from the slave trade, and latterly from East Indian and Chinese settlers when the slave trade was abolished and cheap labour was sought elsewhere. Many of the dishes that are now most synonymous with the region arose from the ingenuity of the African slaves adapting to their new surroundings and ingredients, crafting delicious recipes out of myriad influences of the colonists as well as from their own African traditions. I have been thinking of the cruel plight of such people all week, ripped from their homes and loved ones, perhaps trying to create little pieces of familiar comfort with these meals. Imagine the wasted potential of the genius who came up with these recipes – if their lives were not stolen into servitude, humanity might have advanced lightyears in science, literature or poetry. Each Island of the Caribbean has its own particular confluence of ingredients and culinary influences, however a few themes run throughout the countries and unite them in flavour profile. The scotch bonnet pepper, for instance, is used widely to add an aromatic heat to almost every meal, and the ingredients of thyme, all spice, coconut milk, seafood, tropical fruit, rice and beans crop up as repeated favourites amongst many recipes. While I already covered Cuba (the biggest island of the Caribbean) and the Lucayan Archipelago in a separate week, this week is devoted to the result of the Greater Antilles (not including Cuba), with the Lesser Antilles coming later. The rest of the Greater Antilles holds some culinary giants of the Caribbean: Hispanola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Puerto Rico, Jamaica and the Cayman Islands. All in all this region astounded me with its varied, colourful and often healthy meals positively exploding with flavour, convincing me that I could easily adapt to a full-time diet of Caribbean food – surely time for a holiday there?

Mangú con los tres golpes

Mangu con los tres golpesMangú is from the Dominican Republic, comprising a side dish of boiled plantain bananas, mashed up with butter or oil and seasoning. It can be served with all manner of meals, whether it be breakfast, lunch, or dinner, providing a starchy, comforting and slightly sweet contrast to whatever you might be eating. Mangú likely originates from Africans who were brought to the Caribbean during the slave trade. Plantains were thought to have already been introduced to the island, and the African inhabitants used these along with root vegetables, such as cassava, to make various starchy mashes. Many such mashes are still commonly eaten in Africa, where they go by names such as fufu. Indeed, around other parts of the Caribbean, similar preparations to mangú are popular, such as fufu de plátano in Cuba, and mofongo in Puerto Rico. I served my mangú with “los tres golpes”, meaning “the three hits”. These figurative “hits” are fried white cheese, thick slices of fried Dominican salami, and fried eggs. Those are certainly all hits in my book! Or maybe the “hit” refers to the toll on your arteries? I also topped my mangú with the traditional pickled and then sautéed red onions, and added some avocado in an attempt to include some sort of greenery in the meal. 

Jamaican jerk chicken with rice and peas and salads

jerk chicken rice and peas slawThe “jerk” style of cooking has origins in the British takeover of Jamaica from the retreating Spanish colonists in 1655, which created an opportunity for African slaves to escape their incarceration into the wilds of Jamaica. Their new surroundings, and a collaboration with the indigenous Taíno people of the Jamaican mountains, prompted inventiveness with the food and resources available, and led to the creation of spicy sauces smothering cuts of meat that are then slow-cooked covered over a smoky fire until the outsides are slightly charred and deliciously caramelised. The term “jerk” could in part arise from the word “charqui”, which in turn is a Spanish interpretation of a Quechua word for dried meat (also leading to the English term “jerky”). Alternatively, “jerk” may refer to the action of poking holes into meat to enhance its marination. Jerk seasoning can be a dry rub or a wet marinade, and is incredibly variable in its composition. However, two ingredients are absolutely indispensable: allspice and Scotch bonnet peppers. Both of these are native to the Caribbean, the former imparting a sweet aromatic taste, while the latter gives a hot and sweet spiciness. The other ingredients commonly include thyme, onions or scallions, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, garlic, ginger, brown sugar, vinegar, lime juice, and even sometimes soy sauce. The cooking method of jerk meat has moved from the traditional outdoor fire, to street stalls using halved hinged metal barrels, filled with hot charcoal, with holes in the lid for smoke ventilation. Along with the jerk chicken I served a Jamaican-style coleslaw, including cabbage, scallions, capsicum, carrots, chillies and dressed with mustard and lime juice. I also made a mango salsa, making use of the popular fruit found throughout the Caribbean, combined with red onion, capsicums, coriander and lime juice. “Rice and peas” is an explosively popular Caribbean dish, particularly during Sunday lunch, and can be initially confusing until you realise that “peas” does not refer to green garden peas, but rather any kind of legume, commonly red kidney beans. The rice and beans are cooked together with allspice, onion, garlic, Scotch bonnet chilli, thyme, ginger and coconut milk until tender and delicious. I wish I could have made all of the variations of rice and beans throughout the Caribbean, such as “la bandera” (the flag) in the Dominican Republic, which consists of rice, beans and a hearty meat stew, but unfortunately I only had time to make this basic preparation. I loved the rice and peas, and can’t imagine where the motivation for the famous Bahamian song “Mamma don’t want no peas ’n’ rice and coconut oil” came from – I’m sure my Mamma and many others would adore this dish! 

Diri ak djon djon with fish escovitch

Diri ak djon djon and fish escovitch.JPG

Diri ak djon djon is a Haitian dish meaning “rice with mushrooms”, with the mushrooms in question constituting native black mushrooms, and which I substituted with dried forest mushrooms. These are boiled to release their distinctive black colour and flavour, and then often strained and discarded, while their liquid is used to cook the rice. Diri ak djon djon is often served with a meat or seafood accompaniment, for which I chose fish escovitch, a Caribbean variation on “escabeche”, a generalised Mediterranean and Latin American preparation of meat or fish that includes an acidic marinade prior to cooking. In the Caribbean, this sauce often includes lime juice, in addition to sliced vegetables and scotch bonnet peppers. This dish was an unexpected feat of genius – the deep umami savouriness of the rice perfectly pairing with the sour notes from the lime juice and the sweet delicate flesh of the fish.

Ackee and saltfish with fried breadfruit and festival

ackee and saltfish callaloo festival fried breadfruit.jpg

Ackee and saltfish is a strong contender for national dish of Jamaica, and I originally avoided making it for the simple reason that one of the only two ingredients listed in its name, ackee, is a yellow squishy tropical fruit, native to Ghana and subsequently imported to and grown prolifically in Jamaica, that I had never before seen for sale in Australia. However, eventually I managed to source it tinned from an excellent international grocery store, and so can finally try this legendary meal. Truth be told, even if I had been able to find the fresh fruit, I wouldn’t have been game to attempt to prepare it, given that parts of it are very toxic, and while I’m willing to sacrifice many things in the name of culinary exploration, my life is not one of them. The other named ingredient, saltfish (salted cod), is a traditional staple in the region, as it was given to slaves, being both nutritious and cheap, as well as being well-preserved by the salt in the hot local weather. The dish is therefore, as with many delicious meals from the region, thought to have arisen from the inventiveness of African slaves making use of available ingredients and culinary knowledge. Salted cod is used in many recipes across the Caribbean, including accras (saltfish fritters), arroz con bacalao (rice and saltfish), oil down (saltfish and breadfruit stew), and green fig and saltfish (plantains and saltfish from St. Lucia). To make ackee and saltfish, these two ingredients are stir fried together along with scotch bonnet peppers, thyme, onion, garlic, tomatoes and bell peppers until the flavours are combined into a cacophony of exotic flavours. Another representative placeholder for a huge category of varied creations is festival, a fried maize dumpling from Jamaica, delicately spiced with nutmeg. Other fried breads/dumplings from the region include johnnycakes, fry bakes, spinners and sinkers (named for their movement while deep frying), and, generically, dumplings. I was completely unprepared for how delicious these dumplings were. I made them by combining cornmeal, white flour, milk, baking powder, butter and a little sugar, then formed them into cylinders and fried them in oil. They taste exactly like an unsweetened doughnut, which I suppose they are. I could have eaten a disgusting number of them, so I’m glad in retrospect that I halved the recipe and only made a few. I also fried some breadfruit pieces, which I found frozen, and which tasted like slightly sweet potato. Finally, I cooked callaloo, the concept of which was brought over with the slave trade with inspiration from dishes such as Palaver sauce in West Africa. The dish is made with stewed leafy green vegetables, from whatever plant is locally available across the Caribbean. The preparation can vary from very simple combinations of leaves, salt, and onions, to also including coconut milk, other vegetables such as tomato, garlic, capsicum and onion, as well as local spices, meat and seafood. I compromised and combined garlic, onion, tomato and leafy greens.