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Caribbean Beat Magazine

Ground provisions: food of champions

Franka Philip hits pay dirt with ground provisions

  • Ground provisions, such as the dasheens and sweet potatoes seen above, are not just poor peoples food. Photograph by Andrea De Silva

Didn’t we all jump for joy last August when our Jamaican cousins swept the board in the main events on the track during the Beijing Olympics? Like everyone else in the world, I was blown away by the record-breaking feats (and of course, the showmanship) of Usain Bolt, the utter dominance of Veronica Campbell in the 200m and the annihilation of the field by the fantastic trio led by Shelly Ann Fraser in the women’s 100m.

In the run-up to the games, there was a lot written about the long tradition of Jamaican sprinting and the effective training structure that seems to churn out champions. Some writers suggested this success was genetically hardwired and pointed to the Jamaican roots of Briton Linford Christie and Canadian Donovan Bailey as proof of their theory. Then of course, there were the cynics who simply felt it was down to some well-targeted performance enhancement.

In the end the information came from the horse’s mouth as Shelly Ann Fraser, the 100m champion, made the revelation in a post-race interview with the BBC. It went something like this:

BBC: “So, Shelly Ann, Jamaica has just had a clean sweep, the top three…”

Fraser: “Yeah, man, is yam, banana and dumplin’ dat mek top three!”

Mr BBC Interviewer was clearly stunned—probably because he didn’t understand a word of what Fraser had said—and I was on the ground rolling around laughing.

I was struck by the sheer West Indian-ness of her comment and suddenly felt like I was part of a select group of people who were in on a private joke.

It was probably the yam’s most high-profile moment, and in the weeks that followed, my inbox was bombarded with spoof e-mails about the international doping agencies wanting to put yam, bananas and other ground provisions on the list of banned substances.

Yams and other ground provisions haven’t always been lauded as superfoods. In fact as the poor relations of the vegetable family, they’ve been snubbed by many of our own people who regard them as “poor people’s food.” They were even slated in one of VS Naipaul’s novels, A Way in the World, where the author’s quarrelsome aunt described Grenadians as “people with gross tastes, eaters of ground provisions, poor and ignorant.”

Thankfully, people are no longer so rude about either Grenadians or ground provisions. But 10 years ago, you couldn’t go to a posh restaurant and find cassava, yam and dasheen on the menu—that was for the working-class establishments to cook. If you go to a Jamaican restaurant or takeaway, you’ll find provisions on the menu as “hard food,” usually boiled and served as a side dish for stewed oxtail or goat curry.

I really love ground provisions (which, incidentally don’t all come from the ground) but they aren’t always easy to find in the UK, unless you live in a big city where there are markets and shops that cater to West Indians or Africans.

Typically, the vegetables that fall under the banner of ground provisions include yams, dasheen, sweet potatoes, eddoes, cassava and tannia. But when Caribbean people broadly speak of provisions, they tend also to mean green bananas, plantains and breadfruit. This makes sense, especially if you group them all under the category of “hard food.” Cassava (also known as manioc or tapioca) is one of the most versatile provisions. It can be used to make flour, farine and a sauce called cassareep that’s at the heart of the famous Guyanese pepperpot.

Actually, I’m surprised that more people aren’t turned on to ground provisions. They’re cheap and a fantastic source of complex carbohydrates. The simplest way to prepare them is either to boil or roast, but there are other ways to sex them up if you want to do something special.

At Cottons, the hip and trendy Caribbean restaurant in north London, Chef Ledley Walcott has found several ways of using ground provisions on the menu. Two of his most popular main-course dishes are chickpea and roast pumpkin curry, with grilled roti and sweet potato with cassava shavings; and sirloin peppered steak with wok-fried spinach, creamed yam mash and ginger wine/tamarind sauce.

“I always find ways to use them in my dishes, even at home,” Walcott said.

“They’re not difficult to cook with at all.”

On the menu last Christmas, he offered a twist on an English seasonal staple, bubble and squeak. It’s usually made with mashed potatoes and cabbage or Brussels sprouts, but Walcott’s version used yam.

“You could also try yam dauphinoise, and turn a French classic on its head,” said the affable Walcott, who has worked in several of London’s top restaurants.

Potato dauphinoise is similar to what many in the Caribbean know as scalloped potatoes.

“The yam is replacing potatoes, and as they’re quite dense, you’ve got to slice them really thinly,” he noted. “In dauphinoise, you use cream, but since you want to give it a Caribbean flavour, you’re going to use half cream and half coconut milk.”

Registering the quizzical look on my face, he laughed. “I know it sounds fattening, but you’re only eating it on special occasions, so it’s no problem!”

Walcott thinks provisions are gradually winning a mainstream following, as more people eat them while on holiday in the Caribbean or enjoy them at Caribbean restaurants in the UK.

“More non-Caribbean people are also going to the markets in London like Ridley Road, Brixton and Walthamstow, and experimenting.”

With all the exposure for our humble ground provisions or “hard food,” don’t be surprised if, at the 2012 Olympics in London, a gold-winning British athlete from south London says, in the most urban London accent, “I wanted to be as good as them Jamaicans, so I put lots of yams, green bananas and sweet potatoes in my diet, and look at me now—I’m a champion, innit!”

Recipe: Yam dauphinoise

1 garlic clove, crushed
450g yams
200ml double cream
200ml coconut milk
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 tsp nutmeg

Preheat the oven to 170C/325F.
Mix the cream and coconut milk, add nutmeg and leave to infuse.
Slice the yam thinly.
Rub a Pyrex dish liberally with the garlic and butter.
Layer the yam slices in the dish, making sure each layer is seasoned.
Pour over the cream mixture and cook in the oven for 1 1/2 hours.
Turn up the heat to 200C/400F and cook for a further 15 minutes until the top is golden.