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. I’ve already cooked meals from Cuba back in week 26, and I was honestly devastated to lump the rest of the Caribbean together (the Lucayan Archipelago minus Cuba, the Greater Antilles and the Lesser Antilles), given it’s so diverse and delicious. However, one of my main reasons for doing this is that so much of the traditional cooking relies on native ingredients, most of which are not available to me where I live. For example, some of the suggested national dishes for Barbados and Jamaica are flying fish and cou-cou, ackee and saltfish, goat curry, and dishes including breadfruit or conch, all of which have central exotic components that I couldn’t dream of obtaining. All the more reason to visit myself. Unfortunately, therefore, my cooking options were limited, and mostly involved dishes of rice, beans, chicken, saltfish and plantain bananas. I have mentioned some of the other meals throughout the descriptions to try not to leave too much out.
Mangú con los tres golpes
Mangú 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.
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.
Jerk chicken, coleslaw, mango salsa, rice and peas, grilled corn
The “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! Finally, I made grilled corn, and was delighted to find a multicoloured corn to grill. This variety has a particular significance to nerdy geneticists such as myself, as it was the crucial model system used in 1950s by Barbara McClintock, eventual Nobel Prize winner, who bred this type of corn to discover the existence of transposable elements or “jumping genes”: DNA sequences that can change position within a genome, creating or reversing mutations in the process. This process contributes to the non-uniform colouration on some of the corn kernels, but was also a crucial discovery to our knowledge of genetics (about 44% of the human genome is made up of transposable elements), as well as genetic tools with which to alter DNA within organisms. I’ve used technology based on this knowledge myself to alter DNA and make new discoveries about brain development, all thanks to the wonderful McClintock and her multicoloured corn. Sorry to digress from my mistress (cooking) and onto my wife (science) for a moment! Now let’s return…
Green fig and saltfish, festival and callaloo
Green fig and saltfish is the national dish of Saint Lucia, consisting of a mixture of “green fig”, which is actually boiled plantain bananas, along with flakes of boiled salted cod, known as bacalao in Portuguese, sautéed along with other flavourings such as thyme, onion, garlic, tomato and capsicum. The green bananas are very starchy and not very sweet, so they form a potato-like basis to many savoury meals in the Caribbean. 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 ackee and saltfish. The latter is often regarded as the national dish of Jamaica, consisting of salted cod mixed with onions, Scotch bonnet peppers, tomatoes and boiled ackee, which is a fruit introduced from Ghana related to the lychee. Unfortunately I didn’t have the opportunity to make all of these, so because I couldn’t source many ingredients where I live in Brisbane (such as ackee, which also happens to be poisonous if incorrectly prepared – no thanks!), I chose green fig and saltfish as the representative saltfish dish of the region. 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. 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, although with special status as contending national dish in Trinidad and Tobago. 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.