67. The Caribbean: Lesser Antilles

I had originally intended to group much of the Caribbean together – it just has so many tiny-yet unique nations that it felt too difficult for me to even begin deciding how to split it up. However, my fascination and adoration with the exotic melting pot of food in this region ultimately won out, and I split it into first Cuba and The Lucayan Archipelago, second, The (rest of the) Greater Antilles and third The Lesser Antilles. The Lesser Antilles describes the group of islands on the most easterly end of the Caribbean, trailing down towards continental South America. The Lesser Antilles itself can be loosely divided into many Leeward Islands (Virgin Islands, St. Kitts and Nevis, Antigua and Barbuda, Montserrat, Dominica etc), Windward Islands (St Lucia, Barbados, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Grenadad, Trinidad and Tobago etc), and the Leeward Antilles (Aruba, Curacao, Bonaire etc). Many of the islands of the Lesser Antilles are territories of, or closely associated with, colonial powers such as the US, UK, Netherlands and France, and influences from these countries, as well as local fare and African customs via the slave trade and latterly Indian and Chinese influences from migrant workers. I’ve already waxed lyrical about my love of Caribbean food’s vibrancy, taste and variety, and the Lesser Antilles didn’t disappoint my high expectations!


Crab and callaloo

crab and callaloo.JPG“Callaloo” is popular all over the Caribbean, and is a lose term describing any sort of stewed indigenous leaf vegetable (amaranth, taro lead or xanthosome being a few examples), each with their own regional flairs and ingredients. In some parts of the Caribbean, callaloo is a thick fibrous dish more akin to collard greens,(see the The Caribbean: Greater Antilles week for a Jamaican example served with ackee and saltfish), and in other parts it constitutes a runny soup-like consistency. Trinidad and Tobago famously adores the latter sort of callaloo, and it is considered by many as its national dish, thought to be created by African slaves in the 16th century. The callaloo soup itself is made by stewing greens combined with onion, garlic, scotch bonnet peppers, coconut milk, thyme and okra, then pureeing it into a silky homogenate. The thickness and chunkiness of the soup is entirely determined by the preference of the cook, and can be made to match the desired accompaniment. For instance, callalloo can be eaten by itself, with protein (most commonly seafood or meat) immersed in it, or as a gravy-like side to flavour rice, dumplings, or any other meal. Crab and callaloo is a particularly popular pairing in Trinidad and Tobago, most commonly eaten for Sunday lunch with friends and family. This dish was an unexpected hit when I took it to Sunday lunch to share with my parents. My Mum, a hardcore lifelong fan of all things vegetable, loved the idea of combining tonnes of leafy greens into a delicious side dish that could be slopped onto anything. My Dad, an accomplished artist, particularly appreciated the colours and Picasso-esque presentation of the soup, which we quickly agreed to subtitle “deconstructed crab”.


Doubles

Doubles.jpg

Doubles are a curry chickpea sandwich, popular as a street food in Trinidad and Tobago. The sandwich “breads”, called baras, are formed from a dough of flour, yeast, water, cumin and turmeric, the latter giving them their bright yellow colour. After a period of kneading and resting, the dough is rolled flat and shallow fried, until they puff up, becoming shiny and golden. The name “bara” is an alternative name for “vada”, which is used to described all manner of delicious fried carbohydrate snacks in India. The Indian connection is strengthened by the identity of the filling of doubles: curry channa. Chana is an Indian term for chickpeas, and this filling is a variation of the typical Indian/Pakistani dish chana masala, which are spiced, stewed, chickpeas. The curry channa is made by combining whole chickpeas with sautéed onion, garlic, Scotch bonnet chillies, cumin, curry powder, allspice, nutmeg and thyme. Water or stock is added to this mixture, and it is simmered until a thick stew is formed. This is then sandwiched between a pair of freshly fried baras, and a surprisingly simple-yet-delicious meal is created. Various chutneys or sauces, such as those with a base of green mango, green chillies, garlic, onion or tomato, are often provided at the street stall so that customers can add varieties and amounts to their taste. Doubles began, legend has it, with an entrepreneur named Mamoodeen. Mamoodeen sold various chickpea-based street food, including fried chickpeas wrapped up in a cone of paper, curried chickpeas alone, and latterly curried chickpeas on a single bara. His delighted customers would frequently request a second bara in their order, to turn the preparation into a closed sandwich, hence the name “doubles”. Hence, “Deen’s Doubles” became an explosively popular brand, although there are hundreds of other vendors pedalling the concept nowadays, and the most popular street food in Trinidad and Tobago was born. I can see why: nobody does spices quite like India, but the addition of the extra Caribbean spices like allspice and distinctive Scotch bonnet chillies adds an extra flair that showcases culinary fusion at its very finest. 


Flying fish and cou-cou

flying fish and cou cou.JPGCou-cou, also known as fungi/fungee, forms at least part of the national dish on many islands of the Caribbean, including Antigua and Barbuda, The Virgin Islands and Barbados. It describes a thick mash of yellow cornmeal and okra, with origins in Caribbean-African slaves creating a cheap and filling meal with inspirations and ingredients from both continents. After cooking a large vat of cou-cou, I started to understand the utility of the “cou-cou stick”, unique to this part of the world, which is a miniature cricket-bat like utensil that I imagine would help immensely to quickly stir the cou-cos without it getting stuck to everything and lumpy. In Barbados, cou-cou is paired with flying fish to create the country’s indisputable national dish: flying fish and cou-cou, traditionally served on Fridays. The fish can be fried or steamed, and in the latter case is often served with a thick sauce of onions, garlic. tomatoes, peppers and thyme. Just the name of this dish is so evocative to me of sunny, palm-tree lined, paradisiac beaches, where your afternoon sipping on rum-based drinks and eating delicious food is punctuated by flying fish leaping from the nearby water, gliding for a seemingly supernatural amount of time before disappearing into the brilliant turquoise below. Unfortunately, although a paradise in its own ways, the east coast of Australia where I live does not contain any flying fish, and so it was impossible to source this particular species for the dish. Indeed, pollution and overfishing have lead to a decline in flying fish in the Caribbean, so this fantasy is likely scarce even in Barbados. I substituted the flying fish with sardine fillets, and a visit to Barbados will obviously be necessary for me to fully understand the differences – such a sacrifice(!).


Goat water

goat water.jpgFrom the outset I’ll say this about goat water: it could use a marketing team. First off, the name: it put me in mind of some muddy water that live goats have bathed in, or, perhaps worse, some variety of thin liquid excreted from a goat orifice. An alternative name, kiddy stew, makes me think of the witch in Hansel and Gretel making a soup out of children. Next, we have the aesthetics, and even the most of ambitious of food photographers online have struggled to dress it up as anything other than a bowl of brown lumps floating in watery brown liquid. This introduction may have come across as disparaging, but let me assure you it’s anything but. My urgency for the better marketing of this dish is because, after tasting it, I felt I’d discovered a wonderful secret hidden behind many off-putting layers. Goat water is the national dish of Montserrat, and is thought to take inspiration from Irish stew, substituting the more readily available goat meat, stewed in liquid or stock until tender. Other flexible possible ingredients include potatoes, carrots, squash, breadfruit, unripe plantains, onions, papaya, celery, all spice, garlic, thyme, rum, tomatoes, and of course the ever-present scotch bonnet pepper. It is also commonly paired with rice, bread or, as I have done, soft dumplings made with white flour, baking powder, salt and milk. These ingredients combine into a wonderfully savoury and hearty medley of warming comfort, with the slightly gamey goat meat perfectly flavouring the blander vegetables and dumplings. Goat meat itself is lower in calories, saturated fat and cholesterol than many common meats, higher in protein than beef, and rich in iron and many vitamins. Goats also need less pasture area than cows, and are a more adaptable animal to changing landscapes, perhaps making them an important meat source for future environments impacted by global warming. So, hopefully by now I’ve convinced you of the many taste, health and ecological virtues of this dish, as well as trying my hardest to make it as aesthetically appealing as possible. Now it is up to you to go forth and make/try goat water for yourself and subsequently proselytise its wonders to the world. But how can we band together to rebrand it? Jamaica has a famous goat soup called “mannish water” which has had songs written about its purported aphrodisiac qualities. However, these qualities are imparted in particular by the addition of goat offal, and the effects spurious, so perhaps that isn’t an ideal strategy. “Chevon” is sometimes used to market goat meat in the United States, so maybe we could use that to start a new name; Chevon chauldron, for a whimsical element of alliteration, perhaps?