Dining like the ancestors

Our earliest Caribbean ancestors had a more diverse diet than we realise, writes Tracy Assing — and a “new indigenous” food movement is turning back to ingredients native to our ecosystems

Illustration by Shalini SeereeramThe seeds of the roucou tree — also known as achiote — are used to make annatto, a mildly peppery seasoning and natural food colouring. Photo by Rodrigo Carneiro Moreira/Shutterstock.comA bunch of mataboro fig, a variety of purple-skinned banana. Photo by Taira/Shutterstock.com

We don’t know enough about the pre-Columbian history of the Caribbean. Many believe that our island chain — formed through tectonic plate action millions of years ago — was first inhabited by two tribes: the Arawaks and the Caribs. The Arawaks have often been characterised as “peace-loving farmers,” while the Caribs were believed to be “war-like cannibals.” These descriptions prevailed until archaeologists and anthropologists realised there were in fact as many as a dozen different tribes populating these isles.

They were capable of travelling between the islands and the mainland using canoes. They traded food, ceramics, and technology. Where the colonising Europeans saw impenetrable forests when they landed, indigenous peoples saw free-range farming and organic agriculture. As there are no large carnivorous animals in the Caribbean, humans needed to compete only against each other for food — and rarely did, as it was plentiful. This meant the weather had the greatest impact on diets, with some foods available seasonally, while during the rainy season fishing in the open sea might be difficult, because of cloudy waters.

These early Caribbean peoples’ proximity to the South American mainland and their own indigenous ecology meant that pre-Columbian forests and rivers were teeming with even more life than we know to exist now. Even the sea that separates these islands was full of food.

We all had one key, sought-after cooking ingredient easily available: salt, which could be collected from the sea. Preserving meat wasn’t a problem — vital in the tropical heat. Ginger, nutmeg, and roucou were easy to find. The honey and cocoa found in this region can intoxicate the connoisseur palette even today. Many of the herbs used to flavour food were also valued for their medicinal properties — the leaves and roots of plants were used extensively for medicine. The elements of this simple yet complex diet are still being studied.

Diets were enriched by trade between the islands, among different tribes who specialised in different produce, or if some crops thrived in places others didn’t. The idea that pre-Columbian Caribbeans had a diet limited to cassava and fish is a myth. Their cuisine was more varied than we can imagine. Caribbean people today have even forgotten some of the staples consumed by our ancestors, like the guayiga or marunguey palm (the pulpy inside of its fleshy trunk was consumed just as often as cassava).

 

I grew up in the indigenous community of Arima, east Trinidad, where we still prepare basic traditional meals, though now on stovetops instead of open wood fires. We still ate a lot of food we generated on our own. Corn, cassava, peas, ground provisions, and herbs were grown in the garden. The river that flows alongside the house wasn’t as polluted as it is now, and there was still an abundance of freshwater fish and crayfish.

My father, uncles, and young male cousins sometimes went hunting in anticipation of an important family gathering. They would often return with quenk (wild hog), lappe (paca), or deer, sometimes already smoked. The hunters would cook some of the meat in the forest, and rub salt, black pepper, roucou, and ginger into the rest, smoking it over an open wood fire — infusing the meat with flavours of lemongrass and bayleaf, the leaves of which would be applied directly to the fire beneath the meat. A simple grill would be constructed using young tree saplings. Among these saplings, cherry guava wood was favoured, but other wild guava saplings were just as useful, slow-burning and full of flavour. This practice was passed on from generation to generation, and is still used today.

Small tapia (mud and straw) ovens would be used for baking, or else the food was wrapped in leaves and placed on top of and covered with hot stones for the same purpose.

A lot of work went into food preparation, too. Provisions like arrowroot, sweet potato, yam, taro, and moko and mataboro fig (both varieties of banana) were peeled and pounded to soften and break them down before they were boiled or roasted — or they were roasted whole. Poisonous juices had to be squeezed out of the cassava before it could be eaten. Corn was parched and ground between stones to make flour from the kernels.

Few people are inclined to this kind of work today, but interest in the “Paleo diet” has not waned. As the dangers of processed foods become clearer, and concerns grow about food security worldwide, more and more people are looking into diets based on the types of food thought to have been eaten by early humans.

Gillian Goddard is an environmentalist and the founder of Sun Eaters Organics, known for its chocolate made from cocoa grown in Trinidad, and steadily increasing its portfolio to include plantain flour, breadfruit flour, and moko fig flour. She says the preservation of indigenous traditions is a pillar of her business model. Goddard is spearheading a “new indigenous” movement that has led to many tasty experiments in the kitchen. She thinks looking back is a good idea.

“Now that we’re in 2016, and have had over four hundred years of mass movements of people, plants, and animals, it’s timely to engage with what I’m calling ‘the new indigenous,’ she says. “Colonisation separated us from locally produced materials — ‘reindigenising’ will bring us back to them. We now have breadfruit, yam, mangoes, and coffee — all ‘new’ crops — growing alongside cacao, bananas, and cassava from this hemisphere. The possibilities are immense for how these new ecosystem combinations can be used to make foods, textiles, craft materials, and more. Going backward is not a possibility,” Goddard explains, “and not desirable, in my opinion. But our movement forward has to shift away from imported raw materials as staples, to a system grounded in the use of local and regional input.”

In one afternoon at Goddard’s home-slash-lab in Maracas–St Joseph, we made breadfruit flour, ate bars of chocolate flavoured with tonka beans, and painted ourselves with the juice of the fruit of the juniper (or monkey apple) tree. The temporary tattoos faded over a week.

“Before, I would bake with imported flour and fats as the backbone of my recipes,” says Goddard, “while using local seasonings or flavorings as the accessories. Now I prefer using all local materials as the base, and the imported inputs — spices, seasonings, etc — as enhancements.

“We are trying to encourage others to follow suit,” she continues, “so we can create a mass movement using local raw materials for body decoration — jewellery, tattoos, dyes — as well as cuisine, costuming, and construction. No area of human endeavour need be untouched by this change. Not only is it good for the natural environment to make this shift, but it also means we can create unique products and livelihoods, which cannot be replicated or imitated elsewhere.”

 

Here’s Gillian Goddard’s advice on making mataboro fig pancakes. The mataboro is a red- or purple-skinned banana; if you can’t find it in your local market, you can substitute it with plantains.

When choosing which fruit to use, pick a bunch that is full but not ripe. The fruit must be peeled and dried in the sun, then ground into flour.

To make pancakes, muffins, or griddle cakes, use one cup of flour to one cup of liquid (coconut milk or other milks are suitable), and an egg. To optimise the recipe, add one teaspoon baking powder, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and one tablespoon brown sugar. Flavour with nutmeg, vanilla, or cocoa powder.

Mix all the ingredients together and let sit for ten minutes. Then cook over a medium to low heat until the pancake is cooked on both sides.

Add more liquid for a more crêpe-like recipe, and less liquid for muffins or thicker pancakes.

Dress with ripe mammy cepote (Pouteria sapota), pawpaw, or avocado.

 

You can keep track of Goddard’s experiments via The New Indigenous Instagram page, @thenewindigenoustt