Caribbean cooking for the future

In a time of hectic daily schedules, when many households rely on takeaway restaurant meals, how do culinary traditions get handed down? Franka Philip talks to three food writers in Trinidad, Jamaica, and the United States about the importance of cooking skills for young people

Illustration by Shalini Seereeram

I was having a conversation with a chef about home baking, and just as we reached the part about the amazing smell that fills the house, he looked at me and said, “You know, Franka, nowadays a lot of children don’t have that experience anymore.”

He was absolutely right. And his statement had wider implications, as I soon recognised it isn’t only homemade bread that many young people have never experienced. In some homes, up and down the country, the smell of any food cooking is not very common.

When I did a bit of (unscientific) research, the responses I got from people who don’t cook very often — not that they can’t cook — was that they simply don’t have the time. This is particularly so in Trinidad. Many people who work in the nation’s capital, Port of Spain, spend three to four hours a day commuting to and from work because of the horrendous traffic on the roads here. People told me they didn’t have the energy to “face the kitchen” after a mentally and physically draining day. Others pointed out that in T&T, where more people have disposable income, there’s a “convenience culture” around food.

At lunchtime in T&T, it’s easy to find eateries which offer decent “homestyle” Creole food at relatively affordable prices. So it’s not hard to get traditional dishes like macaroni pie, pelau, callaloo, and provisions on a daily basis. Even on Sundays, you can find families enjoying a restaurant lunch after church, or people picking up a takeaway meal because they simply can’t be bothered to cook.

In the midst of all this, here’s my question: if so many parents aren’t in the kitchen regularly, how do young people learn about food and cooking?

Trinidadian chef and cookbook author Wendy Rahamut teaches a range of cooking courses all year round, and she says young people make up about twenty per cent of the participants in her classes. “Most of them come after CXC or CAPE [examinations] if there is a window there for them to do it. They come on their own from as young as thirteen or fourteen,” she says.

Rahamut believes that cooking knowledge should come from the home, and should start with children being encouraged to help prepare meals at an early age. “They can have some autonomy in the kitchen. Then, if there is interest, a cooking lesson or two would be even better.”

In Jamaica, however, the situation is quite different. With that country dealing with austerity imposed by the IMF, people are trying to make the most of their budget. “People are making their lunch and taking it to work and school to save costs — versus a few years ago, when most could afford a basic ‘box lunch’ every day,” says food writer Jacqui Sinclair. “Some cook out of economic necessity and survival, because they don’t have the disposable income to eat out. I am noticing that it has now become cool for youngsters to learn how to cook.”

Jamaicans are known to be fiercely patriotic, so it’s not surprising that many young Jamaicans are proud of their culinary traditions. “Cooking has become very trendy here,” Sinclair says, “and many, especially those in the countryside, are taught by their grandmothers or other elderly relatives.”

Some chefs in Kingston offer cooking classes for children and teens, especially during holiday periods. These tend to fill up quickly, as they are very popular. “This is typically catered to middle- and upper-class children,” Sinclair explains.

Meanwhile, in the United States, chef and author Ramin Ganeshram has been doing her part to get young people cooking. Ganeshram, who is half-Trinidadian, focuses on young people who dream of becoming chefs in her novel Stir It Up! and her recipe book FutureChefs.

Stir It Up! is a work of fiction about a Trinidadian-American girl who longs to be on the Food Network, and enters a competition without her parents’ permission,” Ganeshram explains. “The book includes recipes, and all of these kids started writing me about how they had cooked the recipes or how the main character was just like them,” she says. “A lot of parents and librarians and teachers too — I realised there was a real-world group of kids who cook seriously, and that group was growing.”

Ganeshram believes Caribbean food traditions are being kept alive by families in the US, because children in homes of Caribbean heritage are still expected to help out in the kitchen. “There is more of an expectation that the kids in the family will appreciate and eventually learn to cook traditional foods — so this sets a good stage for encouraging kids to cook.

“However,” she adds, “I also see that Caribbean immigrants are using more and more convenience products and trying to find solutions for hectic everyday life — and home cooking falls by the wayside. The good news is that it’s often the kids taking up the baton where mom and dad leave off.”

Getting children to learn to cook is not just a matter of passing on traditions — it’s also important for encouraging a healthy lifestyle for young people. Globally, rates of obesity, diabetes, and hypertension in young people are too high, and experts put this down to sedentary lifestyles as well as poor eating habits.

Both Ganeshram and Rahamut believe we must get children involved in understanding nutrition and cooking as early as possible, as it teaches them key life skills. “Nutrition comes from the home, and eating clean, fresh foods every day will set a strong foundation for later on,” Rahamut says. “Nutrition also needs to be taught in school — this, together with the home, will cement the info”.

Ganeshram believes parents and educators need to be more creative about making cooking a regular and interesting part of children’s lives. “Cooking isn’t only about eating, but about learning math skills (fractions), logic (method and directions), culture, and working together as a team, as well as confidence building,” she says. “Sure, there are a lot of media and access points to cooking skills that are great for kids, but we need to make opportunities to use cooking skills throughout [school] curricula, so that it becomes more a regular part of kids’ daily lives.”

 

Sophia Hunt’s Giandujia Raspberry Cookies

Culture crossing is food blogger Sophia Hunt’s main inspiration when it comes to cooking. Of both Brazilian and fifth-generation Scottish-Welsh-English descent, Sophia is also an avid singer involved in several choirs. “My culinary style is a combination of everything that makes me who I am,” says the sixteen-year-old. “My two cultures bring in a combination of flavours that are not only comforting, like pecan pie, but tropical and fresh, like a shrimp stew made with coconut milk.”

On her blog, Sophia’s Sweets, the Brooklynite shares her passion for baked goods, and she says she hopes to open her own bakery one day, or even star in a cooking show called “The Singing Chef”. Her Giandujia Raspberry Sandwich Cookies were inspired by brigadeiro, a chewy chocolate truffle made in Brazil. The chocolate flavour is intense enough to be a complement to a cup of good strong coffee or even espresso.

  • 3 egg whites, at room temperature
  • 1½ cups powdered sugar, divided, plus additional sugar for dusting
  • ½ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 2 tablespoons cornstarch
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 13-ounce jar hazelnut chocolate spread such as Nutella
  • ½ cup chopped bittersweet chocolate or bittersweet chocolate chips
  • 13 cup hot chocolate mix or cocoa powder sweetened with 1 tablespoon of sugar, for rolling cookies
  • 13 cup raspberry jam or jelly

Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

With a stand mixer, or using an electric hand mixer on high speed, beat the egg whites until they hold soft peaks, about two to three minutes. Gradually add ½ cup of the powdered sugar, until the mixture has doubled in volume and has the consistency of marshmallow spread, about three minutes.

In a medium bowl, sift together the remaining one cup powdered sugar, unsweetened cocoa powder, cornstarch, and salt. Add the cocoa mixture to the egg mixture on low speed, until just incorporated. Quickly and lightly fold in the chocolate spread and chopped bittersweet chocolate. Refrigerate dough for thirty minutes.

Using a tablespoon or one-ounce ice cream scoop, scoop the dough into small balls. Roll these balls in the sweetened cocoa powder and arrange them at least one inch apart on the cookie sheets, to allow room for spreading.

Bake the cookies for ten minutes. The edges should be firm to the touch, but the centres will be very soft. Remove the cookies from the oven and allow them to cool completely on the baking sheets.

Spread one to two teaspoons of raspberry jam on bottom side of one cookie and then sandwich another cookie onto it. Repeat until all the sandwiches have been made. Dust completed cookies with powdered sugar before serving.

Makes about one dozen.

 

From FutureChefs: Recipes by Tomorrow’s Cooks across the Nation and the World, by Ramin Ganeshram