Vegetable Horrors

Anu Lakhan is terrified of vegetables. Then she goes to Jamaica and is faced with an ital meal • Robert Clarke shares fond beer-drinking memories • The ambivalent chennette: so bad it's good? • Paul Yellin's Infusion! has no time for Caribbean culinary clichés


He says we must go to a vegetarian restaurant, and immediately I feel the icy hand of fear clamp down on the base of my neck.

I have too many other things to do. The car is not working. I need to rearrange my library according to the number of pages in each book. When must we go? Tomorrow? I’m going to be ill that day. If he persists, I’m going to be ill right now.

Vegetables, they say, are not the enemy. But this is a claim they make on behalf of spiders, heights, and open spaces, and yet no one scoffs at those as legitimate objects of fear. My own extensive research on one or two slightly suspect websites confirms my belief that there is documented evidence of the existence of a phobia towards just about everything on this planet, and a few others. But while some phobias are given respect, consideration, millions of dollars in research funding, and clinics of their own, others are dismissed as quirks or ridiculed.

The realisation that my feelings towards vegetables were not in keeping with either cultural norms or dietary RDAs came slowly to me. As a child, my leafy intake was non-existent. The combined efforts of my entire family only barely made it possible for me to submit to the odd starch. Up to the age of about seven, I was perhaps the world’s only campaigning ovo-carnivore (Atkins was out of vogue, and not back in as yet). The Mayo Clinic Diet, taped permanently to the side of our refrigerator, forcing the mass-challenged to consume nine eggs a day, seemed like the tablets from Mt Sinai.

But for all the sermons and ranting I’ve endured over the years, no one, not even the mother who could diagnose everything from measles to psycho-chemical imbalances, saw my diet for what it was, for what I now know it to be: a cry for help. I have, gasp, a condition. I am lachanophobic. An abnormal fear of vegetables. It turns out I’m not just a flesh-glutton, but a truly sick and suffering person.

There is something vastly reassuring about being able to put a name to a problem, and an impressive medical-sounding one is all the better. The medical profession is a source of great comfort to me. Whether there is a cure or not is not terribly important; once they know about the problem there’s always the possibility of drugs and, at the very least, if the situation is likely to prove fatal (or, worse, painful), they’ll be sure to let me know.

Nor is the significance of this particular name lost on me. The phonetic similarity to my own name is shocking. My friends think it is a joke (Google it if you too need evidence), and I suspect that my vegetarian siblings will soon be writing to the relevant authorities to lobby for a name change.

I only wish I’d been aware of the legitimacy of my frailty when all this business about vegetarian restaurants started. We are in Jamaica for a short time, and it borders on absurdity, if not insanity, to deny myself flesh in a country whose cuisine so celebrates meat and is so, by and large, indifferent to the vegetarian. I do appreciate that both my colleague and the people we are to meet are all vegetarian, but fail to understand why it seems impossible to find a place that can accommodate us all. I find the mere idea of a vegetarian restaurant excessive. I know of no all-flesh restaurants in the Caribbean. Normal restaurants do not refuse to serve you if you have a partiality for a meat-free meal. From whence does the vegetarian summon the sense of superiority that allows him to discriminate against other dietary preferences?

Were I armed with my later lachanophobia insights, I might be able to counter with a suggestion that we dine in a snake pit, or somewhere else that would make my companion break into a nice cold sweat. But, sabotaged by my ignorance and threatened by my editor, I accept my fate some 24 hours before the scheduled meal.

It takes a 12-ounce porterhouse steak (rare) for dinner on vegetarian restaurant eve, plus the best beef patties in Kingston and a chocolate mousse for breakfast on the day itself, to prepare me for the trial to come. Bring on your ochros and cabbages, ply me with callaloo and caraille — I am fortified against all evil.

Perhaps I will just order lemonade and claim to be a juice-ist.

It turns out to be an ital restaurant, and the menu appears interesting. Ethiopian rice sounds intriguing, but turns out to be just brown rice. This disappointment fails to surprise me. My fellow diners feast on what looks like a random assortment of seasonal vegetables congealed in a murky coconut sauce, or else the dreaded soy burger. I have pasta cooked in vodka because I think it will help dull my senses to the absence of meat. It is actually quite good, though I am flabbergasted to find that while flesh and caffeine are not ital, vodka seems to be. Lunch transpires without incident.

The following day, buoyed by my earlier triumph, I consume a carrot cookie just to prove that my strength is not a fleeting thing. Missing the point of this display entirely, my companion suggests another vegetarian restaurant of renown. I think of the gargantuan crabs I have seen being sold by roadside vendors in downtown Kingston, and begin to plot my revenge.

RECIPE: Ital Rundown (semi-Trini version)

For just over a week, during our trip to Jamaica, my vegetarian companion submitted to some version of this vegetable stew at least once a day. I feared he was starting to take on something of murky white tinge from all the coconut milk. My heart went out to him. Two days after our return to Trinidad, a triumphant call disabused me of any idea of his suffering. He had, in the absence of a legitimate recipe, found a way to replicate the dish. He wanted to be pursued across the oceans by the medley of vegetables and milky sauce.

Like many traditional dishes, there seems to be a variety of ways to prepare ital rundown (the non-ital kind involves pickled herring). One popular method calls for the separate preparation of sauce and vegetables. Vegetarian companion’s spin on this leaves the veggies to stew in the milk until the desired consistency is achieved.

1 pound pumpkin
1 carrot
handful of green beans
1 medium-size potato
1 tomato

1 onion
2 cloves of garlic, chopped or minced
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
1 cup coconut milk
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon cardamom
pinch of chili powder
pinch of black pepper
spring of thyme
chopped chives

Chop the vegetables into convenient bite-size pieces (feel free to substitute according to your preference — cauliflower, christophene, squash, whatever’s your favourite). Sauté the onion, garlic, and ginger in olive oil for a couple of minutes, then add all the vegetables. Stir for another minute or so, then pour in the coconut milk and add the spices and herbs. Cover and simmer until the vegetables are cooked and the coconut milk has thickened to a creamy, custardy consistency. Add salt to taste. Serve with rice. A real Jamaican rundown recipe would probably include a scotch bonnet pepper, resulting in a much hotter dish. Experiment at will. Vegetarian companion sometimes throws in a handful of raisins. What do you expect from someone who won’t eat meat?

Cool Things

BEERLY REMEMBERED

Robert Clarke shares fond memories of seven island brews

For the true aficionado, a beer is a special type of travel souvenir, to be greedily consumed and tucked away with all its heady memories. Beers don’t create reminiscences, they merely preserve them in a delicious, slightly bitter, amber light.

There are few places in the world where a beer can be more enjoyed than the Caribbean. Note the subtlety of the assertion: I’m not suggesting the world knows no better brews, simply that our pleasure in them is heightened. That’s because we throw better parties.

Enjoying a West Indian lager has less to do with differences in texture and taste and more to do with time and place. So forgive me if my country’s own beers seem somewhat more “full-bodied” than other Caribbean offerings — they are two very old friends with whom I’ve spent more raucous nights and mellow evenings than any other.

This list catalogues the characteristics of a few major Caribbean brews. In these frothy definitions, I’ve omitted value judgments, such as which of these lagers is most watery, which most likely to induce headache, and which will most speedily “badden your head”. You’ll just have to learn those things on your own. My list is not exhaustive, but rest assured, the most diligent research is ongoing.

Please note that these associations are in no way meant to intrude upon your own personal memories conjured up by Caribbean beers; they belong solely and wholly to me.

TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO
Carib
Reward: as the first boundary of a five-day Test match jumps off the bat with a satisfying tock.
Loyal girl: who knows you’ll be back, no matter how far you stray in pursuit of something new.
Comma: in the midst of a frantic workday. Stag
End: to cutting down that stubborn bamboo patch.
Mistress: the first taste of whom makes you feel ever so guilty.
Companion: on that long 5 a.m. walk back to your car after the sweatiest Carnival fete of the year.
Sign: that you’re no longer in north-west Trinidad.

JAMAICA
Red Stripe
Reassurance (dusty and half hidden on the shelf of a Montreal bar): that the Caribbean still exists.
Partner: for patty and coco bread.
Friendly face: in an unfamiliar Kingston rum shop.BARBADOS
Banks
Shade: from the insufferable Bajan sun.
Prelude: to an argument about who’s the greatest batsman in the world.
Invitation: to share flying fish and coo coo.GUYANA
Banks
Anti-anxiety treatment: on a herky-jerky Land Rover ride through the interior.
Balm: for sore parts afterwards.

SURINAME
Parbo
Tonic: for dancing with the Caribbean’s most exotic women.
Excuse: to mouth the luscious Parbo slogan: “Parbo bieri, dat na bieri”.

ST VINCENT AND THE GRENADINES
Hairoun
Aperitif: before tasting some of the most beautiful (but not quite so thirst-quenching) sea water in the world.
Distance marker: on the sail between islands (for example, Bequia to Mayreau is a four-Hairoun trip).

In Season

SLIPPERY WHEN ATE

The chennette (alias guinep) belongs to that cultish fringe group of the culinary world: extreme foods. Like the puffer fish, it is as likely to kill as to delight. While I can think of no documented cases of asphyxiation by chennette seed, this is a peril so strongly cautioned against by older relatives as to make the fruit almost irresistible to the young.

Unlike most Caribbean fruit, the chennette is not commonly deployed in the making of ice creams, syrups, and sweets of all kinds. I have heard of chennette juice, but the effort seems a thankless task. Chennette skin — sometimes smooth and glossy light green, early on, sometimes dry and roughish dark green, later — is a bit like one of those plastic eggs that gum-ball machine prizes come in: firm, and meant to be popped open at exactly the half-mark. The fruit itself comes away cleanly from the skin, a softish-slimy and sourish-sweet flesh-coloured flesh, covering a large hard seed.

Ambivalence is the soul of the chennette.

Among its curious properties is an almost anaesthetic quality. Too many chennettes, or a single particularly aggressive one, will leave you with that puffy, mouth-full-of-cotton-wool sensation. Where, you wonder, is the delight of the chennette? Why would anyone but fools or starving gypsies eat such a thing? For the brave, the rewards are considerable. The decadent pleasure of that silky slipperiness rivalled only by the oyster’s. The hints of sweetness that climb up through the tartness. The whole delicate process of eating it: no coarse chewing (unless you want to end up sawing though a fairly vile seed). It is popped whole into the mouth and sucked slowly, until the tender flesh is drained of its juices.

Adding to the sense of the forbidden is the impossibility of the tree. A chenette tree doesn’t start bearing until it has a nice view of the city, and its weak branches will permit climbing only by the lightest; little spirit-children like douens, for instance. Nature did all she could to protect us from the perils of the chennete, it seems. But who ever listened to good advice?

Anu Lakhan

Kitchen Shelf

HIGH SPIRITS

Mount Gay Infusion!: Spirited Cooking by Paul Yellin
(Macmillan Caribbean, ISBN 1-4050-1721-X)

Use this book wisely, and hide it well before the first guest arrives. You will seem all the more impressive. Don’t be fooled by the sexy, minimalist design and sumptuous photography; this is no coffee-table trinket.

Infusion! — created by Bajan chef Paul Yellin to celebrate the 300th anniversary of one of the world’s oldest rums, Mount Gay — offers tipsy renditions of multicultural fare livened by liberal splashes of the Caribbean’s favourite spirit. The collection of easily doable recipes kicks off, as well it might, with drinks. In his introduction, Yellin encourages the cook to get into the spirit of the meal by fixing a nice rum-inspired cocktail. The imagination of Mount Gay’s own award-winning bartender, Chesterfield Browne, provides a few suggestions.

Yellin, who has helped open restaurants in New York, Toronto, Berlin, and Barbados, brings an international awareness to the table. His recipes combine European and Asian influences with traditional Caribbean flavours, but he has thoughtfully abstained from little-known and hard-to-pronounce ingredients difficult to find in the islands, and which might do little more than dampen the aspirations of the non-Caribbean cook.

Lose the batik shirts and the songs about bananas and coconut trees — Caribbean cuisine is shedding the clichés.

AL

RECIPE: Drunken Rum Punch Chicken Stew

1 whole chicken cut into pieces
1 teaspoon lime juice
3/4 cup chopped onion
2 garlic cloves chopped
1/2 teaspoon minced scotch bonnet pepper
1 litre pineapple juice
1 litre orange juice
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 cup Mount Gay Eclipse Rum
chives, parsley, and tomato to garnish

Season chicken with salt and pepper and lime juice. Sauté vegetables and chicken until chicken turns white, add juices, sugar, and Mount Gay Eclipse Rum, and stew for 1 1/2 to 2 hours.