In this week’s article, I feel compelled to revisit a subject I first wrote about way back in 2006, as I am still feeling a bit disappointed that after all these years it still has not reached the boiling point as far as the local culinary industry is concerned. This is the subject of Caribbean cuisine.
It is easy to say what traditional foods you have grown up eating: cou-cou and flying fish, if you are Barbadian; curry goat, if you are Jamaican; callaloo, if you are Trinidadian; and oil down, if you are Grenadian, to name a few.
When you speak of “cuisine”, which is described as a style or method of cooking, especially as characteristic of a particular country, region, or establishment, it conjures up images of not just food, but top quality food. It also creates visions of expensive cutlery, crockery and china, tall chef hats and the most refined dishes. It brings to mind fine wines, exotic creations with fancy French and Italian names that you can barely pronounce and that you associate with classy restaurants catering to à la carte dining.
For most of us, cuisine hardly brings to mind the soups and stews our mothers and grandmothers fussed over for hours, or the cou-cou they turned to perfection, burning up as many calories in the process as they would replace when they ate it later.
When we think cuisine, rarely do we consider the flying fish with their spines broken and their tails tucked into the mouth cavities, or meticulously boned and rolled, floating in a spicy butter sauce. Yet, isn’t that what Caribbean cuisine is all about?
So, why shouldn’t Caribbean food be seen as classy food? Why shouldn’t we expect to order cou-cou and flying fish in fancy restaurants, or steamed pudding and pickled pork, perfectly prepared by chefs who understand their cuisine?
Have all the wonderful dishes that were seasoned into our childhood memories been relegated to the level of an American hotdog and soda?
Are we willing to accept that, as a developing people, we have never achieved any culinary knowledge that would take us beyond preparing anything but survival food?
Imagine this writer sitting as the only Caribbean-born member of a Caribbean culinary organization for four years and experiencing the expatriate members attempting, with great difficulty I might add, to develop a definition of Caribbean cuisine. Their problem was due clearly to the fact that they were not true sons of the soil.
You see, Caribbean cuisine comes from within the heart of Caribbean people; it is born within us. It is shaped by the sea around us and the ocean-flavoured air that lingers on our palates daily. It is influenced by the flavours of the soil in which our crops are grown, giving produce – though common to every region – that distinctive flavour.
Caribbean cuisine is also inherited from our parents and grandparents; the way they seasoned food, the way they cooked vegetables and the way they marinated meats. For example, the manner in which they soaked chicken, fish and pork overnight in lime and salt, before lavishly coating and stuffing them with a combination of their favourite homemade preserved herbs, commonly known as “seasoning”.
Caribbean cuisine is the flavour and impact of locally grown varieties of hot peppers, instead of black or white ground pepper. It is the use of freshly squeezed limes instead of white wines and vinegars for acidity. It is the flavour of food that blends perfectly with a cool glass of mauby, lemonade or ginger beer. It is the rustic flavour of food and beverages developed from herbs, spices and fruits, traditionally grown in the backyards of humble Caribbean dwellings.
Most of us in the Caribbean would admit that even though we appreciate and even become deeply fond of other styles of cuisine, we still have a special place in our hearts for the flavours and aromas that keep reminding us of what Caribbean cuisine really is.
Our style of cooking was created through our slave foreparents using whatever scraps of meat were available – tough or rejected bits, or whatever was not choice meat – and basic starch staples. Thus, stewing or boiling would have been the preferred method of cooking.
Large quantities of herbs and spices would have made their way into their meals, whether in an effort to preserve and tenderize the meats, or to make the dishes more palatable. Whatever the reason, strong flavouring and seasoning have become the standard for Caribbean cuisine.
These methods of cooking and flavouring are all evident in the cou-cou and flying fish, the curry goat, the callaloo and the oil down mentioned earlier.
Our job as Caribbean culinarians is to continue to embrace and seek to enhance these traditions that were handed down to us throughout the generations, while using modern equipment and new cooking techniques to elevate our culinary culture to world-class standards.
When we have achieved this, we would then be able to proudly say “Caribbean cuisine is…”
GREEN PEAS & RICE INGREDIENTS
1 cup Green Pigeon Peas
1 cup Rice
2 strips Bacon chopped fine
1 tsp Margarine
2 ozs Onions chopped
1 pod Garlic chopped
2 tsp Fresh Herbs
2 cups Water
Salt to taste
Pepper to taste
1. Place bacon in pre-heated saucepan with margarine
2. Add peas and cook for 2 minutes, stirring frequently
3. Add vegetables and herbs and continue stirring for 1 minute
4. Add rice and stir to combine completely with other ingredients
5. Add boiling water, season with salt and cook over low heat until rice is fluffy and soft.
VILLAGE STEW INGREDIENTS
2 tbsp Vegetable Oil
2 tbsp Brown Sugar
1 lb Clod Beef cubed
2 ozs Onions roughly cut
4 ozs Sweet potato diced
2 ozs Celery chopped
1 Tomato diced
2 ozs Sweet Pepper diced
1/8 tsp Scotch Bonnet Peppers
1 tsp Tomato Paste
2 tbsp Flour
2 ozs Rum
2 tsp Mixed Fresh Herbs chopped
Salt to taste
Pepper to taste
1. In a thick bottom saucepan, heat oil, add sugar and allow to caramelize without burning
2. Add cubed beef and brown on all sides over high heat
3. Add diced vegetables and scotch bonnet peppers and cook for 2 minutes
4. Flambé with rum and add tomato paste and flour
5. Cover with beef stock or water and simmer until tender
6. Add salt to taste
7. Stir in mixed chopped herbs just before serving.
(Peter Edey is a Certified Executive Chef with the American Culinary Federation, a graduate of l’École Ritz Escoffier, Paris and a Certified Caribbean Hospitality Trainer firstname.lastname@example.org)