When islanders conjure up images of their favourite home-cooked meal, I bet you anything it will involve good ole fashioned ground provisions in any form. We are a people who have fared harsh histories, yet one thing has remained a bright spot amongst the struggle: our penchant for liming and really good food.
Considering those two things often go hand-in-hand, it comes to no surprise that Caribbean cuisine is more than just a few notable dishes. Rather, our food is robust, complex and deeply steeped in historical and cultural context; much like our people.
A visit to any Caribbean weekend market is rife with the sights, sounds and smells of island life. Ground provisions, vegetables and herbs, meat and fish, lined-up ever so neatly along market stalls, manned by vendors who hawk their goods to passers-by, who, by the way, know exactly what they have come for and why.
This is the game of the locals: the “picong” (jibe talk/joking) amongst the regulars as they exchange money, updates on themselves and their families amidst the advice on what’s good to cook today versus what needs ripening still.
Once at home after market day, the go-to dishes are boil n’ fry ground provisions, whereby ground tubers (cassava, dasheen, eddoes, sweet potato, white yam) are peeled, boiled in salt water and then tossed in hot oil, garlic, onion and hot pepper.
This simple side dish is then topped with stewed tomatoes, or salted cod salad aka salt fish “buljol” , or stewed chicken or fish. The sticky, stodgy ground provisions are not only healthy, but harken back to post slavery days where many families couldn’t afford food beyond what grew in their back yards.
Essentially, these meals were meant to sustain families at little cost. Of course, as all creole dishes are so inclined, there must be flavour! Luckily, with the natural edible bounty we have not taken for granted over the years, dishes made with Eddoes, Dasheen (taro root), cassava/yucca and plantain are an absolute staple in every Caribbean home.
In case you’re wondering about the addition of plantain, well, it’s simply due to the fact that it’s considered to be a blue food along with other ground and tree provisions. Like many other Latin American countries as well, plantains are the food of the Gods it seems, and are revered as such. In recent years, culinary tourism has boosted the regional profile and plantains have been at the forefront of Caribbean fare. In Puerto Rico, the national dish of sorts is mofongo, a mashed plantain concoction that is topped with meat and other aromatics. Other yummy uses include plantain chips, baked and stuffed plantains and tostones (refried plantain rounds).
Even though plantains are widely known, there are other ingredients that aren’t as popular, but by no means less delicious. Eddoes, a small, round tube that is super starchy, is akin to a potato, but much stickier when cooked. Chef Rishi Ramoutar, a Trinidad-born Chef, has been experimenting with local fare in international dishes such as Ramen. Ramoutar has pushed the gourmet boundaries with regards to local Trinidad cuisine, by adding European and Asian influences in order to create cassava waffles and eddoes croquettes. Chef Ramoutar has also used eddoes to make noodles for the Ramen from scratch and touts the flavour as something totally unique. In Indo-Trinidadian homes, eddoes are usually curried as one would curry a potato or fried until soft and served with roti. Essentially, when it comes to a staple starch like eddoes, you can do with it as you please.
Ramoutar also created his version of Chinese-Trinidadian classic, dasheen pork, by making dasheen pork filled dumplings. Now, here is the wonderful thing about dasheen/taro: from the leaves to the root, this ground provision is entirely edible and has an even richer culinary history. A favourite amongst weight lifters and the fastest man on the planet, Jamaican-born Usain Bolt, dasheen is the superstar of the blue food world. The tuber, which is white with blue veins (hence the name “blue food”), is not exactly like a potato, but is much more fibrous and not as soft. Texture aside, when dasheen/taro root is boiled, baked, mashed or fried, it turns slightly blue/purple, and the mild flavour is heightened. The leaves, not to be forgotten, are cleaned, cut up and used to make callaloo, a staple Creole dish that can be used as gravy on top of rice or macaroni pie or had as soup (depending on your preference). The dasheen bush leaves are also used to make bhaji, an Indian treatment to mimic saag, as well as mixed with chickpea/channa flour to make a delicacy known as saheena.
Cassava/yucca is another staple that has been touted for its health benefits as much as its taste. As a complex carbohydrate, cassava is also a root tuber that has the capacity to help with the global hunger crises in very poor countries. Due to the relative ease of farming, cassava is a massively popular ingredient that continues to make quite the impression. Caribbean culinary applications include cassava dumplings, cassava fries and cassava pone. The latter is a dessert that is made with grated sweet cassava and mixed with coconut milk and grated coconut, nutmeg, cinnamon, grated pumpkin, brown sugar, butter and raisins and then baked.
We are so fortunate in the Caribbean to have this rich epicurean history at our fingertips. While many embrace the good ole fashioned homey meals, there are the innovators who are elevating these seemingly humble ingredients to further heights. Who knows one day, Caribbean cuisine may be at the top of everyone’s culinary bucket-list. In the meantime, you’ll find most of us in our kitchens safeguarding our heritage, deliciously.