Caribbean cooking: doing it by the book

Franka Philip browses through new books on Caribbean food

064_cookup114John Lyons in his kitchen in Cambridgeshire, England. Photograph by Franka Philip

If you love food, you’ve got to love cookbooks, so I’m celebrating three books that I’ve enjoyed reading and cooking from.

Guyanese writer Cynthia Nelson has produced one of the most sumptuous cookbooks I’ve seen from the Caribbean in a long time. Tastes Like Home isn’t just a cookbook; it’s a food memoir with recipes and photographs. This book is a natural progression from Nelson’s Stabroek News column and blog – both also called “Tastes Like Home”. She’s got a very conversational style that puts the reader at ease and makes her recipes very accessible.

The first part of Tastes Like Home is the memoir in which Nelson talks about her favourite food memories and passions. What comes across clearly is how important food has been in helping her to develop a bond with Barbados, where she now lives.

“One of the things I wanted to talk about in the book is how my table has become this merged space of foods I have adopted from Barbados and different countries. My table is now a melting pot, and you’ll find a lot of things that reflect me and the way I see myself as a Caribbean person,” she told me.

In the chapter “Making A New Dish”, where Nelson tackles the Bajan speciality coo-coo, it’s funny to read how she was intimidated by talk of how difficult it is to master.

“Nothing makes people more incensed than when some foreigner tries to make their food and pass it off as the real thing. So it was with reverence, timidity and a light sprinkle of cooking confidence that I approached making this dish.”

Judging from the appealing photos of her coo-coo, it looks as if she got it right. And it’s not only the coo-coo photos that are appealing, but all of them. Nelson did the photos and she purposely eschewed highly stylised food photography in favour of a more natural approach.

“I wanted to make the photographs as accessible as possible. In other words, if you came to my house and I made you any of those things from the book, it’s exactly how you see it. That is how I’m going to present it to you.”

If you really love Caribbean food, Tastes Like Home is a must for your kitchen, no matter where you are in the world. It’s one of those books that will get stained and dirty, because you’ll find yourself cooking from it again and again.

Food and memory are inextricably linked, and though food writers enjoy discussing new recipes, techniques and ingredients, you’ll find that most of us – especially those who live away from home – will  draw on our native food memories to define ourselves in our writing.

This is especially clear in Cook-Up in a Trini Kitchen by John Lyons, a homage to the author’s Trinidad & Tobago roots that uses art, poetry and food. In the introduction, Lyons says: “As a

Trini far away from home, I derived a strange sense of identity and confidence from cooking that drew on memories of childhood and youth.“

Cook-Up in a Trini Kitchen is a highly original cookbook that can be read in the way you’d read a collection of short stories. It’s peppered with anecdotes, and the colourful illustrations are a joy to behold. Lyons describes the book as an “explosion” of his three passions.

This book also has a fantastic range of dishes. I liked the fish section; it’s one of the best I’ve seen in a Caribbean cookbook. Lyons draws the reader in with his witty recipe titles – Fish Bacchanal (fish soup), Jab Molassie Chicken (stewed chicken) and Hurry-Hurry Corned Beef with Herb Butter Rice.

He’s a meticulous cook, something he derives from his work as an artist, and says that “knowledge of materials and an understanding of what is possible with them is fundamental”.

This attention to detail is evident in the recipes, which are clearly written and extremely easy to follow. He also included in the book something called JL’s Menu Cooking Grid, which he developed when he started cooking regularly for large numbers of people. The grid maps the steps used in a recipe and also the time that each step takes. It also sets out the equipment needed for cooking each dish. It might sound geeky, but it’s similar to systems that chefs in some large kitchens use.

Cook-Up in a Trini Kitchen is a great gift for anyone who’s looking for a different approach to Trinidadian cuisine and won’t mind colourful illustrations instead of photos.

On television’s food channels you can find programmes where cooks compete against each other in the hope of emerging as the next star in the foodie firmament.

In Stir It Up, by Ramin Ganeshram, the lead character, Anjali, is a cooking-mad Trinidadian-American teenager who dreams of becoming a chef. This book is aimed at young readers, and the story and the characters make this a very enjoyable read.

The story is set in Richmond Hill in Queens, New York – home to many Caribbean immigrants – where Anjali’s family runs a busy roti shop. Anjali, who has a gift for cooking, helps out in the shop, where she learns from her beloved grandmother Deema. When she finds out the Food Network is holding auditions for a children’s reality cooking show, Anjali goes all out to fulfil her heart’s desire. However, her dreams don’t fit in with her parents’ expectations, and a clash of old and new values ensues.

The story of Anjali’s quest is woven around appealing, Trinidadian-influenced recipes written by Ganeshram, whose book Sweet Hands: Island Cooking from Trinidad and Tobago is a favourite among Caribbean foodies.

Asked about the inspiration for Stir It Up, Ganeshram said she had a similar experience growing up, though she didn’t want to be a chef.

“I always knew I wanted to be a writer,” she said. “Like Anjali’s family praising her cooking, but not encouraging it as serious work, my family praised my writing, but did not see it as a career.

“As I wrote, my motivation evolved into really wanting to write a story that showed that the hopes and dreams of young people need to be respected and nurtured – by their respecting themselves and those around them first. My sincerest wish is that this is an inspiration story for all tweens and teens, whether they like to cook or not.”