GI in the WI

Franka Philip adopts a healthy approach to eating her favourite Caribbean dishes

  • Jerk chicken, a popular Jamaican dish. Photograph by Shirley Bahadur
  • Ackee and saltfish with dumplings and provision. Photograph by Shirley Bahadur

Ever since I decided I might throw my lot in with the bikini-and-Spandex crew for Trinidad Carnival in 2008, I’ve been taking the gym and my diet much more seriously. After all, if I do opt for bikini mas, I don’t want to be caught looking bad on one of those photo websites that are so popular with Trinis at home and abroad.

One evening at the gym, I was chatting about diet and nutrition with Heavon, one of the sexy instructors, and we got around to discussing Caribbean food. As a second-generation British-Jamaican, his memories of holidays in Jamaica are dominated by family gatherings where he ate some “amazing food”.

This modern-day Adonis revealed that when he last visited Jamaica about three years ago, the hotel served “divine” ackee and saltfish with dumplings for breakfast. And after two weeks of ackee and saltfish for breakfast, lounging by the pool during the day and partying at night, it was no surprise that he was struggling to button up his jeans when it came time to return to England.

Heavon’s story is by no means unusual, as people always say they’ve put on weight after a Caribbean holiday because they enjoyed the food so much.

That I can deal with, but what annoyed me recently was an article by a British journalist who opened her account of Trinidad Carnival 2007 by questioning the health of Trinidadians, because she’d never been to a place where people ate so much KFC. Clearly she’s never been on any high street in London and seen the long lines at McDonalds and Burger King! But I guess she hadn’t had the chance to sample the great local fare on offer in Trinidad.

Honestly, though, she may have a point, because there’s been a lot written about the increase in lifestyle diseases like adult-onset diabetes, hypertension and obesity in the Caribbean in recent years.

But that couldn’t be down to just the food, because in the Caribbean we are lucky enough to have some of the most incredible fresh produce in the world. The question is, are people cooking and consuming that produce sensibly?

On a trip to Jamaica two years ago, I observed a range of healthy options at most restaurants, so where there was fried or grilled fish on the menu, I opted for grilled. But I’m not going to be a stick-in-the-mud, because there are times when you simply need to enjoy delicacies like fried fish and fried bake—just not every day, or even every week.

So with that kind of judgement and some precious hours in the gym, I managed to lose some weight while eating what is virtually a West Indian diet.

I didn’t do it by guess; I got hold of a diet book—not a fad diet book espousing two sticks of carrot and a bunch of grapes for lunch, but a book about the GI Diet. GI means “Glycaemic Index”, and it’s a posh way of saying how slowly or quickly food releases sugar into your bloodstream. And you know what happens to all those simple sugars—yep, they end up on your hips and bum!

A friend also sent me a great article by Patricia Thompson, a Jamaican nutritionist who dispelled long-held myths about some of our favourite foods. So armed with all this information, diet deconstruction followed. Out went Irish potatoes (especially fries), pasta and white rice as primary carbohydrates, and in came more sweet potatoes, eddoes, yams, cassava, plantains and brown rice. That way, I never felt guilty about having a jerk chicken sandwich with brown bread, or lunch of either stewed saltfish, with eddoes and cassava and green salad, or steamed fish with tomatoes, sweet peppers, dasheen and plantains.

This is not to say that I neglected my favourites like roti, oxtail soup, zaboca (avocado) and ackee. In fact, thanks to Thompson’s article, I now eat avocado and ackee with much more relish, since she attests to their high nutritional value: “Two other sources of fat that are often mislabelled are the Jamaican ackee and the avocado pear. Neither has any cholesterol and the fat is monounsaturated—the same type of fat in olive oil.”
Even sea moss or Irish moss, long reputed for its aphrodisiac properties (no, I still haven’t proven that), became a regular component of my diet because it’s a fantastic source of minerals. I use it as an occasional meal-replacement drink, and unlike the folks at home who tend to use obscene amounts of condensed milk to sweeten the drink, I use plain milk with wheatgerm, raisins and honey to produce a beverage that’s just as nice and even healthier.

Even though fresh British strawberries, raspberries and blackberries are especially fabulous when they’re in season during the summer, there’s nothing to beat the amazing variety of fruit available at home, including governor plums, cherries, pommecytheres, pommeracs, naturally ripened bananas and Julie mangoes, that are available across the whole year.

A lot of people in the region tend to prize apples and grapes over our own stuff and I don’t understand why. We overlook fruit like the humble guava, which according to Thompson has 19 times more Vitamin C than an apple and 25 times more than a bunch of grapes. I strongly believe that apples are best when they’ve been pressed, fermented and bottled. A chilled glass of cider on a warm day is a revelation—not very healthy, but extremely tasty.

Actually, having a fitter body for the streets in Carnival 2008 is just one of the benefits of living a healthier lifestyle. However, as a committed and adventurous food lover, there are some things I simply won’t compromise on, and one of them is coconut milk. It’s not supposed to be good for us because it’s so high in fat, but what else could give dishes like pelau, callaloo and breadfruit oil down that unique flavour?

The nutritional information on the tin does not make for good reading. One cup (240 g) of coconut milk has 552 calories, 88 per cent of which come from fat—and mainly saturated fat. However, there is one bit of good news. The figure next to the dreaded word cholesterol is a big fat zero—and that’s enough to assuage any guilt, isn’t it?

Recipe: Jerk Chicken Sandwich

This is an adaptation of a recipe by Gary Rhodes, of Calabash by Gary Rhodes in Grenada. His recipe calls for mayonnaise but I’ve replaced it with vinaigrette. You can make your own jerk seasoning, but high-quality seasoning is widely available at supermarkets.

1.75 kg (4lb) whole chicken
Jerk seasoning to taste
2 tbsp olive oil
8 slices of whole grain bread
1/2 medium lettuce, shredded

For the vinaigrette
1 tsp Dijon mustard
2 tbsp lime juice
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 tsp very finely minced garlic
1 tsp chopped coriander/cilantro/chadon beni

1. Season chicken with jerk seasoning and leave to marinate for at least two hours, or overnight if possible.
2. Preheat the oven to 200C/400F.
3. Brush the chicken with the olive oil and bake in a heavy-based ovenproof pan for an hour to 90 minutes. Test for doneness by piercing the thigh with a skewer and if the juices run clear, the chicken is cooked.
4. Remove from the oven and rest for 20 minutes.
5. Meanwhile, make the vinaigrette by whisking together the mustard, lime juice, garlic and coriander. Then add the oil slowly and whisk continuously to make sure the ingredients are well combined.
6. Cut off the legs, remove the skin, strip the meat from the bones and chop finely.
7. Mix the vinaigrette with the chopped leg meat and set aside.
8. Remove the chicken breasts and carve into thin slices.
9. Spread the chicken and vinaigrette mixture equally on four slices of bread.
10. Cover mixture with shredded lettuce and sprinkle with a small pinch of salt.
11. Put a few slices of chicken breast on each sandwich and cover with remaining slices to complete the sandwich.