Picture this: thinly sliced, crisp half-ripe mango; garlic, chadon beni/bhandaniya (culantro), salt, the juice of a lime, and a scary amount of finely chopped scorching hot pepper. Oh, and a napkin! The napkin is to wipe the drool off your face as you read this and/or dab the tears of pain and pleasure as you sink into the complex flavours of this must-have beloved Caribbean version of crudités (raw veggies dipped in a vinaigrette or dressing).
Born out of the need to nosh (snack) on something salty, peppery, sour with a hint of sweetness, with a crunchy texture, chow is a staple in Trinidad and Tobago as well as around the other Caribbean islands. While the fruit ingredient may vary, the other elements remain the same. Even though Trinidad is credited with the invention of the Caribbean version, there are other versions throughout the region.
Depending on the local fruit on each island, chow or salsa is made and enjoyed in varying ways. As kids growing up on a hot, but oft breezy island, mango, Portugal (locals say ‘puttigal’) or plum chow was the one thing even the pickiest eaters seemed to gravitate towards and eventually and fight over who got the last piece.
Even today, chow is still credited with bringing people together at social gatherings of any kind. Many families have the ‘chow maker’, a designated person to pepper up the chow to perfection, a family position much prized and heralded. The other great thing about chow is that it’s very healthy considering it’s mostly made up of fruit and other ingredients that are packed with nutrients, vitamins and the all important antioxidants.
This loyal dedication to chow has also spurned the birth of ‘mother-in-law’ a variation of chow, with added carrots, onions and more pepper, served as a condiment to cut the richness of Caribbean curries. The love of chow is so fierce that many other versions have also been created to push the epicurean boundaries even further. Eventually, ‘portugal’ (mandarin orange) and/ or orange chow made its entrance to much applaud.
The sweet and savoury notes balanced with acidity and spice and brightened with the herbaceous freshness of the herb is the perfect accompaniment to any sort of firm-fleshed fruit. Local green plums properly soaked in the briny chow liquid are another school child hit, and the thing that ex-pats around the world go into manic modes of depression over (true story).
Other types of chow include five finger (star fruit) chow, pommerac, ripe mango chow (this adds more sweetness and another texture altogether) and pineapple – a more recent obsession of chow lovers. In my house, tomato and cucumbers are sliced and treated in the same manner, aka the salad version of chow.
To quell your chow craving, here’s a super quick and simple chow recipe to get those gastronomic juices flowing. Don’t forget the napkin now…