Caribbean Cookup – November/December 2005

Articles for various contributors on what's cooking in the region

  • Duck with tea. Illustration by Shalini Seereeram
  • The West Indies in Florida: ten places with the taste of home. Map created by Caribbean Beat
  • Merry measure. Illustration by Shalini Seereeram
  • Jah Lamb. Photograph by Chris Huxley
  • cookup-4
  • Duck treason. Illustration by Shalini Seereeram

DUCK FOR SALE. Always these three words, on a hand-painted sign on a fence as you drive through any area in Trinidad where the backyards are big enough to swing a cat. Duck. Just the one duck? And if I were to avail myself of this duck, would the proprietors pack up shop and disappear? Or, like the traveller’s palm and the phoenix, is there always another one waiting to take its place?

In Trinidad, the duck does not whisper to us of the exalted tables of France, nor of the musty game sheds of English country houses. It does not promise us a nice paté nor suggest exotic sauces. Indeed, the duck hardly has a chance to intimate anything before it is threatened with currying. The 1933 Marx Brothers movie Duck Soup would have been boycotted by the masses for sheer pointlessness.

Ducks are for curry. Apart from some modest inroads by the Chinese in interesting us in roast duck, the idea of a duck meeting any other fate is preposterous. We are not a militant people, not quick to arms or order. Only a few things can raise the fighting spirit in us: cricket and Christmas curtains number here. But to ask, to demand, nay, to desire anything of a duck but curry, is high treason.

The currying of ducks on riverbanks is a national pastime. There are regional and island-wide cook-offs. It is only a matter of time before the duck appears on our coat-of-arms. And would that really be so bad? As it is, the scarlet ibis, Trinidad’s national bird, is endangered. Might we lapse into political correctness by banishing it from the state symbol and replacing it with one of the few things enjoyed by all races and cultures?

Does the duck crave this celebrity? Hard to know. Far easier is the question: do we really know the bird we so revere? The answer is a clean, unadorned no. For it is steeped in the massala, geera, saffron, and myriad spices that make a curry. For it is cooked endlessly until it melts in its own gravy, or else it is bongeed, cooked past all recognition, past all moisture into a dry curry of intensest flavour. Well we know its guise, not at all its essence.

And so to the heart of the matter. Or rather the meat of it. Ducks are not really birds. I don’t mean that in an ornithological sense, but in the gustatory sense. Every time someone bucks up a taste they can’t quite identify, they compare it to chicken. Rabbit, bah, tastes like chicken. Frog, just like chicken. What kind of poultry are these people encountering? But duck does not taste like chicken, or any other bird I know. It has a sweetness unrivalled. A slow-release sweetness, not instant, candified, coat-your-insides cloying. It’s a sensation that demands patience. A dressed-down seared duck breast will make you wait. First the texture, firm but yielding — like a good mattress. Then the flavour. Before the sweetness, the robust duckiness. Not quite gamey, but not domestically insipid. Then, as you chew gently, the little waves of sweetness roll in. They are not overwhelming. Don’t expect a tsunami. They fill the mouth, trickle down the back of the throat. You’re in a semi-stupor before you realise half your meal is still on the table. This, precious eater, is the duck.

In a land that will curry anything that stands still, it is easy to see the need to so abuse even the wondrous duck. We are an impatient folk. The blend of spices brings the duck flesh to instant sweetness. Bang, zoom, to the moon. And I don’t mean to denigrate curry, the act of currying, or any curried delicacies. I just think that sometimes (here I see men storming the house to tear up my passport, my driver’s licence, birth certificate, anything that attests to my nationality) maybe we might consider (or is it the men come with the unusually long-sleeved jacket to truss me up?) that there are other things to do with a duck. Well, might as well be hanged for a team as for an egg: currying a duck is overkill. There: do your best tourist board, roti shops, river-limers.

So I embark on that rarest of adventures: one that turns out well. I am determined not to overwhelm the duck. A nice perfume, something to enhance the colour. Things I don’t do for myself I am prepared to do for this duck. My adored stash of mango indica tea is almost all I need for the transformation. If all goes well, this single ingredient will have the effect of wrapping a wallflower in cashmere. The duck in all its glory will be mine.

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Recipe: Duck with tea

1 duck
a lime or lemon
1 tablespoon orange marmalade
3 tablespoons tea leaves
1 onion, chopped large
3 or 4 cloves garlic, smashed
black pepper

Find a nice young duck. A female between four and five pounds, about three months old. These are the most tender and sweet. Get the duck seller to pluck it for you, pay them whatever they ask. Even so, when you’re washing and preparing your duck you’ll find plenty of recalcitrant feathers or parts thereof to remove. Duck feathers are like alligator teeth, they seem to keep shooting up from nowhere.

Now for the tea. Good chefs say you should cook with a wine you like, not some cheap pseudo-wine from a source that doesn’t know its vintage from its vinegar. Same with tea. The mango indica tea I chose is one of my favourites. I protect it savagely, and if I offer it, you can be sure I’m on the verge of proposing marriage to the guest. It’s a rich black tea, and despite the mango in its name it’s not really fruity. The fine strands of dried golden mango lend a mild perfume more than a flavour. Use a tea you like, leaves, not tea bags. If you don’t like tea at all, I can offer no advice. I have not tried this with coffee or hot chocolate.

Wash the duck with a lime or lemon, pat dry and rub all over with the salt, black pepper, and marmalade. Brew the tea by setting the leaves in two cups of water at room temperature for about twenty minutes.

In a large iron pot or other receptacle that can be moved easily from stove top to oven, sautée the onion and garlic in a bit of butter. Pop in the whole duck, turning it so it’s slightly browned all over. Remove from heat and pour the tea over it. Do strain the tea first. The duck juices at the bottom of the pot, onion, garlic, and tea will evolve and dissolve into an exquisite gravy. Cover the pot with foil (or its own lid) and put it in the oven at about 400 degrees. It should take about an hour before it’s fully cooked, but consider the idiosyncrasies of your oven and work to suit. Remove the foil and leave in for another ten or fifteen minutes. The tea should colour the bird a deep mahogany and the room should smell like succulent meat and something refreshingly botanical.

Behold the duck!

The West Indies in Florida: ten places with the taste of home

Just north of Cuba, a short flight from Jamaica, Florida has long been a popular choice for Caribbean people looking for everything from universities to shopping, medical care, and emigration. Broward County — Fort Lauderdale and its environs — has been one of the major hubs. Though better known for its Cuban and Haitian influences, it’s still possible to find the foods of the West Indies (mostly Jamaican and Trinidadian, though) in specialised groceries and restaurants.

With a Caribbean community that’s more than doubled in size in the past ten years, a good roti shouldn’t be that hard to find.

1 Tropics Restaurant and Nightclub, 7100 Hollywood Boulevard, #4 Pembroke Pines
Guyanese-style Indian and Chinese food. Takeaway available, and there’s a nightclub. Look out for special events on weekends.

2 Joy’s Roti Delight, 1235 North State Road 7, Lauderhill
Popular Trini-style roti shop in south Florida. Favourites like dhalpuri and curry duck, paratha and curry goat, doubles, aloo pie, and pholourie too. They also carry Trini brews like Carib and Shandy.

3 Leta’s Bakery, 8351 Pines Boulevard, Pembroke Pines
Authentic Trinidad pastries like currant rolls, meat pies (try their signature smoked herring pie), hops, black cake, and pone. Different daily specials like shark and bake, callaloo, stewed chicken, and macaroni pie.

4 Jah-Net’s Caribbean Cuisine, 3810 South State Road 7, Miramar
Three thriving locations serving sumptuous Jamaican cuisine. Jerk meats and curry goat as well as a wide selection of vegetarian meals. Fresh drinks like peanut punch and Irish moss are made daily. The food is tasty and inexpensive, dine in or takeaway.

5 Nirvana, 1701 North Congress Avenue, Boyton Beach
Nirvana’s chef-proprietor calls his menu Indo-Caribbean fusion. It’s Trini-style Indian food with Creole and American accents — like his garam masala filet mignon or chicken breast stuffed with mango and goat cheese.

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6 Pusser’s at the Beach, 429 Fort Lauderdale Boulevard, Doubletree Hotel, Fort Lauderdale
Seafood and other Caribbean fare. Menu includes Jamaican jerk chicken, oyster stew, and Old English fish and chips. Live steel pan music on weekends.

7 Island in the Pines, 162 North University Drive, Pembroke Pines
Family restaurant with a lot of island style. Authentic Jamaican food like jerk, escovitch king fish, and mouth-watering flaky beef patties.

8 Sango, 8120 Pines Boulevard, Pembroke Pines
Not something you come across every day: a combination of Jamaican and Chinese fare. You’ll also find an assortment of curries. The portions are huge, tasty, and very affordable.

9 Calypso Restaurant and Raw Bar, 460 South Cypress Road, Pompano Beach
Fine island fare and fresh seafood. Sample Bajan-style scorched conch or spicy Jamaican Blue Mountain curried chicken wings. The menu is quite varied and reasonably priced.

10 Jerk Machine, 8085 West Oakland Park Boulevard, Fort Lauderdale
Jerk Machine has several locations in south Florida, from south Miami to north Broward. They specialise in Jamaican food served in a family setting. Jamaican favourites like curried ox-tail served with white rice and salad are quite inexpensive.

– Shammi Sarran

The real thing

Eat Caribbean  Virginia Burke (Simon & Schuster, ISBN 0-7432-5949-1, 240 pp)

This is a misleading title. For one thing, by “Caribbean” the author means mostly Jamaica, a little of Trinidad, and very little of the Dutch, Spanish, or French territories. For another thing, it is full of recipes, suggesting to me that cooking is what it is encouraging and not eating, not immediately, anyway. This seems cruel.

Apart from these minor transgressions, Burke, marketing director of Walkerswood (first commercial manufacturers of jerk and other Jamaican seasonings), has pulled together a wonderful collection of recipes and general food information. She knows her Jamaican home cuisine best and says as much, but she also understands that the islands have more in common than not; many of the recipes have different translations of similar dishes across the region.

Caribbean cookbooks used to be full of American or European recipes adorned with pink paper umbrellas. Or they were really useful and earnest and looked like schoolbooks. Now, with an increasing interest in island cuisine, Eat Caribbean gets down to the real flavours and traditions of Caribbean food. The recipes range from the simple to the sublime, from everyday home staples to glamorous twists on old favourites. There’s a whole section devoted to jerk, and lots of hot sauces. There’s a very good glossary of ingredients and suggestions for substitutes when the real thing is hard to find. Cookie Kincaid’s photography is lush and vibrant.

– Jamie Eliot

Merry measure

Keith Smith on the wonderful perils of Trini Christmas food

The world knows that no two fingerprints nor no two snowflakes are alike. What the world may not know is that no two callaloos are alike either. Nor two pastelles, nor two fruit cakes.

To the outsider, it might seem that the Trinbagonian Christmas tradition of going house to house visiting family, friends, and even strangers is round after round of eating and drinking the same things. But only superficially, only superficially.
Let’s start with that Christmas basic: a glass of sorrel. Basic though it is, there is sorrel and there is sorrel. Too sweet and it is dispatched with a flurry, lest a lingering facial grimace offends the host who, after all, may have brought you the result of his mother’s mother’s mother’s recipe.

Not sweet enough, and the ritual is as before — swift dispatch, the better not to offend and thereby disturb the Christmas cheer. But then, more often than you would believe, stranger, there is the perfect sorrel. The balance between sweetness and acidity is achieved. The guest is inclined to linger, to savour the romance between the two flavours. The approbation, whether articulated or not, is a heartfelt “Ahhhh . . .”

Mark you, we have to be careful lest we become too scientific. Again, not being an insider, you might infer that there is only one perfect sorrel. Perish the thought. All perfect sorrels do not share the same balance between sweetness and acidity. While the trick here is to achieve balance, that balance may involve slightly more of one than the other; the test being whether it tickles the palate enough to prod the guest into asking, “Just a lil’ more, please,” even as he secretly wishes for something more in the line of a barrel.

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The trick of Christmas eating all over the world is to venture carefully, even gingerly. Not out of fear of what you may be served (Caribbean cooking is at such a level that it is the poor house indeed that does not serve at least reasonable fare), but because you could end up stuck, that is to say, gorged at the first step.

Let’s say you went overboard and, relishing and revelling in the balance, ended up having not two ordinary glasses but two supersize — that is to say, tumblers — of the seductive red stuff.  Perfection made plenty, but at what cost? Comes now the pastelle offer, and you are forced to pass it up, never knowing, unless you are confident of a second invitation, whether or not you have missed the chance to sample a perfect pastelle (leave out the raisins, leave out the raisins!).

Perfect again, you ask derisively?

But you see, my outsider friend, that is precisely the point. One cannot guarantee that, in your festive and feasting time, you won’t bounce up with a so-so sorrel or a poor pastelle or a “green” ginger beer or even, God forbid, a putrid ponche de crème — but the chance of that, be assured even as you stretch out a receiving hand, is less than one in ten or even twenty.

You see, one does not make the boast that Caribbean Christmas cooking is better than any other in the world (except those parts of the world where festival cuisine comes ready-made out of a box). What one does contend is that it is cooked on a foundation of love, which means that it is not cooked fast, but slow — which, come to think of it, is exactly how the best love is made out to be.

Three questions for Jah Lamb

Jah Lamb’s restaurant is a small, green, wooden house in the heart of old Soufrière in south St Lucia — and I mean old Soufrière, in its unrenovated condition, a street where the ordinary people of Soufrière live, no concessions to the tourists for whom Jah Lamb’s place has become an essential stop. He started as a mobile ital vendor in the 1970s, and is proud to own the building which he bought in 1995. The kitchen is decorated with articles about vegetarianism and posters and newspaper cuttings about famous Rastafarians and their friends — Bob Marley and Haile Selassie, Buju Banton and Nelson Mandela.

What do you think makes your food so remarkable?
I use a very ancient style of cooking. There is no water in my food, only coconut cream. My grandmother showed me how to make the coconut cream so it makes a kind of oil — the old people used to call it mapa. I buy my ingredients from organic farmers around here. All my seasoning is local, scallion [ti lonyon in Kweyol], seasoning peppers, lots of garlic, sweet peppers, a little piment manjak, but not too much, the weather is too hot . . . no black pepper, curry or anything like that. It is all vegetarian; this is important, since a diet like this is healthier, makes you live longer and better.

What’s your speciality?
The pizza is my most famous: it has split peas, christophene, cabbage, pumpkin, and a little cheese. A little cheese is the only animal product I use now, and that is only because the local people cannot afford the tofu. Sometimes I make special orders of pizza with tofu for foreign visitors, but in the summer it is mainly our local people, the people who have supported me since I came up from the dirt.

How did you go from being John Simon to Jah Lamb?
When I was seven years old and my grandmother started to teach me about hygiene and cooking and how to look after myself, I thought I was being treated like a slave. Now I get up at five every morning and sometimes at eight at night I am still here wiping dishes . . . You can be independent and look after yourself and teach the other people who come after you, but you must do it slowly, with humility. That is why my friends gave me the name Jah Lamb; they say I am calm, understanding, patient and humble.

– Jane King