The dread I feel at Christmas is entirely owing to the gift situation. A fairly traditional Hindu upbringing has failed to instil a healthy degree of asceticism amongst my relatives: we are devoted to presents. This poses problems for someone with the shopping aptitude of a watermelon. It has taken me the better part of three decades to figure out that my salvation lies where it inevitably does: in food.
The 12th Day Before Christmas
Halfway through December, and though I have not bought a single present, it appears that I still have an unusually large number of siblings, small relatives, and assorted persons in my life. How did I let this happen? Again. Because I am a coward. I fear the rabid shoppers coveting their neighbours’ goods and the slow descent into madness from over-exposure to shrill children’s choirs and cuatros. I stare at the series of gift-lists like I’m reading a tarot deck.
The 11th Day Before Christmas
A dozen lamb pastelles later (“consumption pattern” on my retail expeditions measures what is eaten, not bought) and still no presents. No, no one in my family wants a poinsettia-patterned tea-cosy or a manger scene made from egg cartons, but if I eat enough of these very sugary cookies I may fall into a coma and not wake up until Easter. Online shopping has proved unsuccessful because it deprives me of the false hope of impulse purchasing.
The 10th Day Before Christmas
And then, as if by divine inspiration, it hits me: food! No one in my family cares much for getting flowers, so I’d thought that, like the perishable blossom, the transient pleasures of the edible would be derided. But is my family not the very one whose only excess greater than gift-giving is lavish cooking? I let the idea, the rightness of it, sink in under the weight of Christmas party ham and homemade bread. This is no box-of-chocolates, tin-of-biscuits idea: it calls for skilled planning, deep character insight, and actual work. But I feel equal to the task: I fear nothing in my own kitchen the way I fear the manic traffic and Santa-driven fire engines.
The 9th Day Before Christmas
I throw out all the old lists. I line up my cookbooks and recipe files and make notes. No one makes anything easy for me. There are allergies to be considered, vegetarianism and a host of other infirmities. That really good chicken liver paté recipe that insists on feeding about fifty no matter how I adjust it is out. No shellfish, nothing with too much chocolate. This is worse than catering for a party, because there must at least be the appearance of sensitivity to the needs of those being fed.
The 8th Day Before Christmas
I know what I can’t make and what I won’t make. Pastelles, perhaps the best reason not to hibernate for Christmas, are out of my league. Making them involves something tricky with cornmeal and something intimidating with a banana leaf. Besides, they’re too common just about now. It’s too late to take on the monumental sausage-making task I have started to fantasise about. I don’t know how sorrel became the Christmas drink since I don’t know anyone who willingly consumes it.
The 7th Day Before Christmas
I settle on three items all from the noble family of baked goods: shortbread, toffee bars, and a very light fruitcake. Shortbread is always a winner because, though easy to make, it has the glamour of things that a long time ago came home in suitcases after international travel. The toffee bars really contain no toffee at all. They fall somewhere between biscuit and brownie texture, are filled with almonds, may or may not be covered in chocolate, and as far as I can tell are not made outside of my family. The misnomer remains something of a mystery, as does the origin of the recipe. The fruitcake is my concession to the spirit of the season.
The 6th Day Before Christmas
I’m still deciding on the best time to deliver the goods — surely five o’clock on Christmas morning, my family’s traditional gift-swapping time, is not a propitious time to offload high-calorie treats on either the aged or already-hyper youth. In the meantime I can work out the problem of presentation. I have intelligently structured my schedule so that there is plenty of time to chase appropriate packaging. Tins, which I am determined to use for their snazzy yet quaint feel, are only deceptively commonplace. In truth, I am on the verge of surrendering to zip-loc bags when I finally find a place willing to sell me unbranded tins. Forget all this “it’s what on the inside that counts” business. If you’ve ever bought anything that was an eighth the size of its blister pack you know that appearances matter. I make labels with a picture of a Zen-like cat in honour of my newfound peace with the holiday and of my newfound pet, who is both a cat and Zen-like.
The 5th Day Before Christmas
The cakes will have to be first: one, because they will keep longest, and two, because they are the easiest to make and will give me encouragement to go on. I find the traditional Trinidadian black cake, the fruitcake to end all fruitcakes, to often be the end of me. Its flavours are so intense as to be daunting. It is one thing for a cake to be difficult to prepare, but I am on principle opposed to foods that ask too much of me at the eating stage. One does not like to feel engaged in a test of wills with dessert. I decide on a lightish sponge imbued with fruit that has been soaking in rum for longer than any primate has been upright. The result is fragrant but not overwhelming, flavourful rather than gagging.
The 4th Day Before Christmas
The trouble with the toffee bars is that their delicate balance does not allow for unlimited multiplication. If the recipe is more than doubled, you end up with something more like insulation material than food. Unlike the magic paté recipe that can feed infinite guests, the toffee bar recipe seems to suffer a diminishing effect. Every time I make it, less comes out of the oven than went in. The more people ask for it, the fewer bars are produced. Might the toffee bar have a bright future on the stock exchange?
The 3rd Day Before Christmas
I have come to feel about shortbread the way I feel about pepper jelly; they are among the most rewarding things to actually cook. No one thinks to make them and therefore people are terribly impressed when they are presented. Unfortunately, the thing that would make my shortbread truly magnificent would be its consent to be cut into pleasing shapes. This is not to be. I do not despair. It is crumbly-buttery-light, never mind the pieces look like continental shift charts.
The 2nd Day Before Christmas
I have the singular delight of delivering my shiny packages just when everyone else is at breaking point. Not only am I to be congratulated on making it through the season without the traditional panic, but my well-timed distribution seems a nice treat for those still suffering. O tidings of comfort and joy.
A deep peace envelopes me. Is it the goodwill of the season, or the smug satisfaction of beating everyone to the present finish-line? Does it matter? Maybe this year when I have to wish people “Merry Christmas” at an unholy pre-dawn hour I won’t even snarl.
RECIPE: Coconut shortbread
4 oz flour
2 oz corn starch
4 oz salted butter
2 oz icing sugar
3 tablespoons freshly ground coconut
1 teaspoon vanilla essence
Sift together the flour and corn starch (also called corn flour, but definitely not to be confused with corn meal). Cream the butter and icing sugar and add essence before mixing in the flour and corn starch.
Now, about the coconut. A de-husked coconut, referred to as a “dry” coconut, is not hard to find in Trinidad. I can make no claim for any other territory, Caribbean or otherwise. If you’re using a dry coconut, break the shell, remove the hard flesh, peel off the brown skin, and grind, grate, or mince enough to give you three heaped tablespoons. The coconut should be as finely ground as your choice of appliance will allow. “Fresh” frozen coconut will work too, but not the desiccated stuff used to make coconut cream.
Mix the coconut in with the rest of the ingredients. On a sheet of wax paper (lightly buttered and dusted with icing sugar) roll out an 8-inch circle, a little more than an inch thick. Anything less feels stingy, more is starting to become a brownie. Use a fork to make tiny holes all over the circle. Bake at 350º for about 30 minutes.
Weakness for sweetness
This year, Divali, the Hindu festival of lights, and the Muslim Eid-ul-Fitr both occur within the last two months. The curries, chokas, and chutneys that predominate at these gatherings are ever popular; the national enthusiasm for them loses nothing from their ready availability throughout the year from roti shops.
But the sweets, usually served not so much as dessert but in a sort of party bag, are another matter altogether. Until fairly recently, Indian sweets were prepared almost exclusively at home, making big celebrations like Eid and Divali the main opportunities for those outside the faiths to get in on the goodies.
Since the Muslim and Hindu communities of Trinidad share a common Indian ancestry, it is not surprising that the lines of “who brought what” are somewhat blurred, that flavours have been adapted and names have been thoroughly muddled.
The first Indian sweet to cross over into the mainstream Trinidadian diet was probably kurma, sticks of crunchy fried dough rolled thickly in sugary syrup. Made with a base of fresh milk in India, but powdered milk in Trinidad, the versatile barfi, accented with coconut or nuts, is another crowd favourite; so too the deep golden balls of ladoo made from ground split-pea powder that has been fried and sweetened. Less common but no less loved are ras milai, gulab jamon, and pera, each one more shockingly sweet than the last.
Of course, what you call gulab jamon depends on who you talk to. In Trinidad, a kind of soft, obese kurma is usually called by that name, though in India it refers to a soft, sticky ball suspended in rose-infused syrup. And the white-grey chalky square Trinis call pera in no way resembles the creamy white sweet with a soft-cheese texture that can be found not just in the remote subcontinent but in diaspora communities in the US, Canada, and the UK.
Mohanbogh, an important offering at Hindu ceremonies, is a bit like a mass of sweetened roux with raisins. It’s not so radically different from the halwa made for Islamic observances; halwa is wetter and less sweet. And our halwa is not at all like the kind of Turkish Delight it calls to mind outside Trinidad.
With such cross-cultural caloric feasts closing off one year, it is a great blessing that the aerobically joyous Carnival follows early in the new one.
Never get wiri-wiri yet
What’s Cooking in Guyana?, Second Edition
Carnegie School of Home Economics (Macmillan Caribbean, ISBN 1-4050-1313-3)
Cookbooks are tempting. They can’t help it, it’s just their nature. You succumb to the bright, glossy photographs. You are beguiled by the simplicity of the instructions. You take them home only to find that the deep sense of possibility you felt in the bookshop has failed to follow you into the kitchen. Why does temptation have such a reputation for excitement, when it so often fails to deliver?
If you’re lucky, you’ll have one book that you really can and do use, something practical and sensible. If you happen to live in Guyana, that book is likely to be What’s Cooking in Guyana? First published in 1973 by the Carnegie School of Home Economics in Georgetown, the book’s second edition has been revised and glammed up a bit, but maintains a no-frills approach to food. Like its Trinidadian parallel, the Naparima Girls’ High School Cookbook, What’s Cooking offers a wealth of nutritional facts, helpful measurements, and kitchen tips. Guyana’s strong Amerindian and East Indian influences are well represented, and no exotic, impossible-to-find ingredients were involved in the making of this book. The recipes have that ring of authenticity that comes from familiarity: these could be recipes that are handed down through families but usually never actually recorded. For cooks not conversant with Guyanese dialect, there is a small problem of translation: several names for common ingredients, equipment, and techniques are quite mysterious (what is a wiri-wiri pepper? a banga-mary? married man pork?). Still, like the Naparima book for Trinidadians, this looks like an indispensable tool for Guyanese students away from home for the first time, long-time ex-pats, Guyanese residents, and anyone interested in sharing the secrets of farine and cassareep.
What could be more Guyanese than this traditional Amerindian dish? The secret is the cassareep — made by squeezing the liquid from fresh grated cassava then boiling it down — which has a preservative effect on the meat. Once the pepperpot is reheated each day, the tradition goes, it will last almost forever, supplemented by fresh meat whenever the pot approaches empty.
2 pig trotters or 1 cow heel
2 lb stewing steak or brisket
8 oz pickled meat
2 lb oxtail
1/4 pint cassareep
2 red peppers
1-inch piece of dried orange or lemon peel
1-inch piece of cinnamon stick
2 oz sugar
salt to taste
Wipe and clean meat thoroughly. Put heel or trotters in pan. Cover with water and bring to boil. Skim. When half tender, add other meats, and hot water to cover. Cook for about 1 hour. Add other ingredients and simmer until meat is tender. Adjust flavour for salt and sugar. Serve hot.