Something’s fishy

The Caribbean is famous for its seafood. But Anu Lakhan is unimpressed. She makes her case against Neptune’s bounty ... plus much more

“Sing, Muse. Sing of Kronos’ son Poseidon, shaker of the earth, brother of Zeus, ruler of the deep.”

I can respect someone with that kind of lineage; that’s why I don’t fish. Quite possibly it is bad for the fish; certainly it is bad for me. I have no desire to face the suffering of the thing I’m about to eat — to gaze into its anguished eye (it’s hard to look a fish squarely in both eyes at the same time), or behold its agonised form. The jury’s still out on whether or not fish have feelings, but I’m fairly certain that as a primate, if for no other reason, I do.

Every now and again I ask myself: “How would Poseidon feel about me filleting one of his minions — or minnows, for that matter?” As shaker of the earth and as the guy who so had it in for Odysseus he kept him wandering for a decade, I’m inclined to recoil from his displeasure.

Besides, fishing is pointless. It yields only fish.

As a Caribbean person and as a glutton, it seems a betrayal to dislike fish. Living surrounded by ocean implies, for most people, a congenital desire to ingest its bounty. Not so. If I lived in Antarctica, I’d hardly expect to wake up in the middle of the night sighing for a glorious penguin paté. Nor have I been able to understand the pisco-snobbery of chefs, gourmands, and food writers everywhere. The minute someone knows a spatula from a spatchcock, they begin to deify fish. But I don’t. I have no intention of liking fish; not even in the smallest way. Am I a fraud? Or simply a hick?

I have never much believed in the idea of acquired tastes — there is something grasping and bourgeois about it. If you dislike a thing on first acquaintance, especially a thing that is of no great value or, quite conceivably, harmful, why would you go out of your way to encounter it further?

Science would compel us to believe in the nutritional goodness of fish, but science has always been rather a bully. Vitamins A, B, and D aside; apart from being good for your memory, skin, hair, and immune system; beyond tumour prevention, lowering the blood pressure, and reducing the risk of heart attacks; fish, I believe, is bad business.

Exhibit A: bones. Useless to offer statistics that prove you’re more likely to die in a plane crash than choke to death on a fish bone. The point (so to speak) is that someone will, and fate being what it is, it will probably be me. I’m not about to offer any encouragement.

I have a slightly better relationship with shark. Though undoubtedly a fish, it has very meat-like qualities, and a large, obvious skeleton. Like a cow. Thousands and thousands of invisible, needle-like bones stand between me and other fish. There’s a legend in Trinidad that if you eat the cascadura, an ugly armoured river fish, you will die here, no matter where you roam. Too true, I’m sure, since the fish is a veritable minefield of the tiniest, most treacherous bones. Why not just stir-fry a box of pins? I’m sure the “wheresoever you roam” bit is only thrown in not to discourage tourism.

Exhibit B: the wrongness of fish. I have always felt most cooked fish tasted like something you’re not supposed to eat. Like glue or a piece of furniture. It’s not the smell. I’ve loved things with far more robust scents. Nor is it the texture, which seems quite pleasant. But, then, so too is the texture of bubble-wrap. Unlike guavas, which always taste like they’ve gone a bit off, unless a fish is spoilt, it has no tendency to putridness. No logic leads to my aversion to fish, or the feeling that eating a fish is similar to eating a pencil case.

There are, of course, other — if not fish, at least things — in the sea. Crustaceans and molluscs, for instance. I am excessively fond of anything with a shell and no internal skeleton. Well I recall the quivering joy with which I beheld my first lobster salad: the delicate colour, the faint oceanic smell, the bright terrifying shell in which it was served, which trembled like an accordion to the touch. Oysters are like flowers: one has yet to know what it is to have too many. Shrimp, my father says, brings out the worst in people. Corps of mild, polite guests have been known to display rabid behaviour when the shrimp platter is circling. So I am not entirely insensible to Poseidon’s largesse. Why then do I feel a stewed fish to be a personal affront?

If Exhibits A and B seem flimsy or fabricated, I offer the following astonishing truth: smoked or salted fish — marlin, salmon, cod — are among my favourite things. Note: they contain no bones. Also, the curing process so intensifies the flavour that it tastes like a legitimate flesh, like bacon. I would be so willing to consume all aquatic life if only it came out of the sea already cured. Hardly an unreasonable request, given where it lives.

We have mishandled the fish — no — mistreated it. We have given in to our base instinct to do too much rather than, in this case, a far more generous and considered less. This — as I suspect my A to Z list of nephews and nieces will attest — might also be a useful guide for raising human children. I make a case for fish such as I expect any pre-med student could: do no harm. Don’t fry it. Don’t stew it. Don’t curry, stuff, slather, over-season, broil, boil, or otherwise do things to the fish that will make it less itself. Could nature be telling us something by giving it a home in a big bowl of salt water with the sun overhead?

Mistreating fish in the manner described above confuses it. Its flesh is delicate and yielding. It doesn’t need to be decorated; rather, it needs a little reminder that it’s OK to assert itself. Smoke. If it was good enough for those who invented the wheel, it’s good enough for me.

It appears I must recant. I do not despise fish. I despise fussy cooks. It’s not the fish’s fault that most people don’t know how to treat it.

But until they do, I will continue to actively avoid having bigger, or indeed any, fish to fry; I will not keep more than one kettle at a time, lest the different one prove to contain fish; and I will know, deep in my heart, that to give a man a fish might be overlooked, but to teach him to fish is unpardonable.

Anu Lakhan


Tales of a tawah

Irma Rambaran on the most important piece of equipment in her kitchen

My tawah is my friend. It is the only kitchen implement that never leaves my stovetop (if only because its round, large, black flat shape provides a focal point as you approach the stove, and is an excellent cover for scum not cleaned after cooking).

Over the years I’ve discovered its user-friendliness, versatility, hardiness, durability — even when it came crashing down on my toe it did not break or dent or require a shopping trip to Charlotte Street. It is the only kitchen implement that has not been changed in some 20 years of cooking. Ours, however, was not at first an easy friendship.

Shortly after I moved out of my parents’ house, I was confronted by the challenge of feeding myself. In the kitchen of my flat my landlord had left two iron pots, a kettle, and a tawah. The kettle worked, but the pots failed me miserably. With the exception of macaroni and cheese, all that chopping and mixing and burning left me not just with indigestion, but with depression. Home-cooked food beckoned, but pride and independence intervened. And there was the tawah. Sada roti! How hard could it be? Flour, baking powder, salt, water. The result was — well, not so hot.

The dough when rolled looked like a map of Trinidad, and no amount of re-rolling could make it circular. When placed on the tawah it refused to swell into that perfect, puffy soccer-ball shape — despite an abundance of baking powder. I even tried to burn the edges in that slick manner, holding the tawah with a cloth and turning around the dough above the flame, the way the pros do it. The result: a crumbling black unpalatable edge, and burned fingers. What was not burned tasted like baked vinegary flour. So much for the merits of baking powder.

But hunger is a motivation for invention. I looked at the tawah — then, eureka! What’s also flat and needs to be warmed? Good old slices of bread with cheese. Voila! Toasted cheese in a flash — and no baking powder needed. I soon discovered the joys of tawah cooking — bread on one side, slices of sausage on the other, and the inevitable cheese rounding off the morning and evening meals. My culinary skills quickly improved when I realised you could fry on a tawah, and soon my toasted cheese sandwiches achieved gourmet proportions — onion, tomato, ham, and cheese sandwiches became a staple. I even fried eggs. Meals were simple, and the tawah was so easy to clean the pots remained untouched.

My cooking skills have improved over the years, but the tawah has remained on my stovetop, although the increased range of gadgets and appliances often leaves it neglected. My roti is now almost perfect, even if I still don’t always get the soccer-ball effect. But the tawah is always there for heating up those marvellous store-bought potato patties and warming up things like leftover fried fish — the toaster oven just doesn’t give you that crispiness. And, of course, since no one has time to clean these days, my tawah, in case anyone unexpectedly ventures into my kitchen, hides the scum on the stovetop.

Irma Rambaran


Fruited out

Kellie Magnus on Jamaica’s traditional Easter bun

Pity the lowly Jamaican bun.

For most of the year, the predictable pastry lives a perfectly low-key life, sporting only a dainty dash of spices and a few modest raisins. But come Easter, as houses sparkle with new coats of paint and little girls boast new dresses and bows, the poor bun gets caught up in the frenzy. The Jamaica Easter bun, a seasonal hybrid, makes its annual appearance each spring, growing from its usual slim 28 ounces to a whopping 56, and sporting the culinary equivalent of a new outfit — a gaudy assemblage of fruits and spices that makes the bun groan.

Nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, cherries, and currants jockey for space on each square inch of bun. The cause of this carnage? “Tradition,” says a source at Kingston’s Yummy Bakery, speaking strictly on the condition of anonymity. “The truth is, nobody likes the fruit in the bun, but it’s not an Easter bun without it.

“Easter is a time of celebration. We give up so much for Lent that at Easter we have to make the bun richer than usual. Plus, it’s traditional to give a bun at Easter time. You can’t just give a plain old bun. The bun has to look special.”

That special look comes from the addition of heaping quantities of diced fruit and mixed fruit peel to the regular bun recipe. Mixed peel — one of many sins committed in the name of tradition — is the ruination of a perfectly good bun and the genesis of another, less discussed Easter tradition: spending whole afternoons picking tiny pieces of fruit out of your bun and hiding them under your plate.

Turns out the Jamaica Easter bun takes its place in a global array of decorated desserts celebrating the season. Little buns were baked all over pre-Christian Europe in honour of the spring goddess, and the Saxons carried the tradition to England, where it evolved into the modern-day tradition of eating hot cross buns on Good Friday. Most of today’s Easter buns are yeast-based, slightly sweet, and enriched with eggs and dried fruit. Some are individual buns, while others, like the Russian kulich, the Greek tsoureki, the Italian columba, and the Jamaican variety, are single large loaves or cakes meant to be shared by families and friends.

Two thousand years of tradition aside, what’s really worth celebrating is when, at the end of the season, the regular bun, like Christ, rises again. Free of its holiday raiment, the good old bun is ready to embrace its year round partner: cheese.

“That’s really all you need to dress up a bun,” says my source. “Any kind of bun under a piece of cheese is a celebration.”

Kellie Magnus