Out of the blue

Dasheen, known as “blue food”, is a stolid root vegetable – except in the hands of Tobago’s cunning cooks at the Blue Food Festival

Dash mint creme, a creme de menthe-flavoured liqueur. Photograph by Oswin BrowneThe table that won `best display` at the Blue Food festival, showing pastries, cakes, cookies and a liqueur. Photograph by Oswin Browne

Tobago’s Blue Food Festival

Dasheen ain’t caviar. A starchy tuber or root crop from a food group so basic it is called “ground provision” in the West Indies, dasheen forms the backbone of a labourer’s meal, not the icing on a gourmet’s gateau. Like its cousins eddoes, tannia and yam, dasheen is the West Indian equivalent of the potato, but without the glamour of the spud – but dasheen does have one thing going for it: it really is a blue food.

The late American humorist George Carlin lamented that there was no blue food. “Every other colour is represented. Red is raspberry. Orange is orange. Green is lime. Don’t say blueberries, they’re purple. Blue cheese is just white cheese with a bunch of mould. There is no blue food!” he declared.

The old George clearly never laid eyes on dasheen.

In Trinidad & Tobago, dasheen is called “blue food” because, when cooked, it really does turn several different shades of blue (varying with the method of preparation, the most common being a kind of light greyish gunmetal blue). Very heavy in the hands and alimentary canal alike, dasheen has always been primarily intended to fill rudimentary stomachs, not to thrill discerning epicures. You don’t roll dasheen around your tongue and sift for flavours and appreciate textures, before turning to ask your dining partners excitedly whether they’ve picked up the hints of basil under the paprika; you’re more likely to ask for another glass of water.

“Somebody’s got the blue food, goddammit!” swore George Carlin. “It probably bestows immortality; that’s why we haven’t been given any.”

Little did old George suspect it was a rural community in Tobago. Once a year (usually in October), the Blue Food Festival is held at Bloody Bay. Last year’s was the 11th edition of the festival and I embedded myself with the judges to see what the dishes were made of. (The answer: dasheen!)

The proof of the pudding really is in the eating; and it was unexpectedly good. Having been regularly and delightfully surprised by what a skilled chef can do with saltfish, doughnuts, and chicken and pepper jelly, I’ve learned not to prejudge any taste at all; but, really – dasheen? What the firetruck can anyone do with dasheen to make it worthwhile? You don’t enjoy a dasheen dish, you finish it – or as much of it as you can.

Unless it’s a dasheen wine or punch, naturally. Both were very good indeed, with the punch using the heavy, crumbly dasheen texture to great effect in the mouth. And what do you make of a dasheen ice cream, if not short shrift? Particularly on a very hot day? Like the punch, the flakes of dasheen in the ice cream delivered an exceptionally pleasant textural juxtaposition in the mouth, not unlike water chestnuts wrapped in bacon.

I tasted dasheen in every form imaginable: dasheen pone (the cassava went unmissed); dasheen cake (several varieties, including marble, cup- and sponge); dasheen lasagne; and the startlingly good in appearance (and surprisingly acceptable in taste) dasheen chow mein.

The best I tasted, all-round, was the combination of the famously blue ground provision with another well known and much-loved dish that was itself as ordinary and simple as its Hindu peasant origins. Outwardly, it looked just like its plain flour cousins, down to the traditional powdery sugar coating on the crisp exterior; once crunched, though, the blue-food taste came through as dominant. For its additions in taste and texture, to my palate, the dasheen kurma was tops.