The truth about eggs…and more

Is the egg a perfect food? Anu Lakhan thinks so...with recipes and much more

–Eight meals in Georgetown mapIllustration by Shalini SeereeramIllustration by Shalini SeereeramIllustration by Shalini SeereeramKhalid Mohammed in his favourable habitat

Behold the egg: symmetrically exquisite yet not boring; familiar but capable of surprise. The source of life, yes, but better, the source of scrambled eggs.

Any wonder jewel-junkie Fabergé found his highest inspiration in its form? The unadorned egg is a little lesson in the perfection of simplicity: from the timeless beauty of the smooth, fragile shell to the uncompromised richness of what it holds. The egg shares with cake batter the distinction of being utterly delightful in both solid and viscous forms. So venerated is the egg that it’s been bandied about for ages that the hundred pleats in a toque represent that number of ways a chef can prepare eggs. Considering that around the time of the Revolution the French had found upwards of six hundred things to do with eggs, it seems quite modest to expect only a hundred of a professional.

In thinking about eggs it is tempting to go the route of metaphor, to speak of the poetry of ingesting the symbol of birth and renewal; to hard boil, as it were, our hopes for the future; to swallow that tiny, complete universe. Tempting, but highly unnecessary. Eggs are better than metaphors. Eggplant (a twisted joke of a name if ever there was one) on the other hand, or tofu, need all the imagery and verse possible to make them palatable.

Eggs really are kind of perfect. Their versatility is astounding. No matter how minimally they are treated, they offer a range of flavours and textures that cannot fail to liberate the diner from gustatory ennui. What is more sublime than a soft boiled egg, eaten out of its shell with a dusting of salt and pepper and the tiniest drop of Angostura bitters? By all means dress up your eggs; it will do no more harm than it does a beautiful man to get a nice haircut. O to be stranded on a desert island with only cold hard-boiled eggs draped in smoked salmon wading in a light cream sauce.

Eggs provide a wonderful example of how the Caribbean sensibility can take the most sober of things and push it slightly over the top. Consider the garden-variety scrambled-eggs-and-toast of hotel breakfasts everywhere (the hotel being one of those remarkable places where even something as magical as an egg can take on the aspect of the mundane). Here we have something similar. Only, the eggs mix liberally with onions, sweet peppers, hot peppers, and tomatoes; and instead of offensively brittle toast it will be served with golden — roast or fried — bake, crisp to the bite but almost melting towards the middle. I am happy to be offering this praise here, since it has recently come to my attention that I have been giving Trinidadian cuisine more credit than was warranted. How enlightened we are, I thought, to have so many treasured dishes featuring eggs. I see now that buljol, that beloved salt fish salad, is not traditionally made with hard-boiled eggs. The appearance of the eggs in my family’s version was no doubt yet another parental ruse to encourage fish consumption. I hope there will be no further discoveries that threaten to undermine my patriotism.

My parents could make omelettes in their sleep — a thing they were often called upon to prove. I’d wake up in the middle of the night, starving, and one of them would dutifully unravel from the bed, trudge to the kitchen, and return in minutes with a perfect, slightly runny mushroom omelette. Few things in my life have ever tasted as good as those milky, fragrant eggs that I ate half-asleep. The memory is caught in that in-between place that is neither conscious nor unconscious, where all the senses are heightened but the faces are indistinct; that wonderful place where you feel everything and know nothing.

I ached for eggs the way other children ached for sweets, with a longing that begat longing. When you want a glass of water and you get it, the relief starts to kick in almost with the first sip. Not so with eggs. As with sweets (especially toffee) the craving increases and sharpens as you eat, building to a kind of desperate frenzy before you begin to feel any release from want. No doubt this is why the sweetie is designed to be a relatively extended taste experience, to be chewed meditatively, sucked, or swirled around the mouth as it surrenders its flavours and gradually offers satisfaction. If it were not like this, we’d probably have to chomp through dozens of sweets before sanity reasserted itself.

Sadly, eggs have not been fashioned with similar consideration, and excess is the bane of the egg lover. The first time I saw a copy of the Mayo Clinic diet back in the late 70s (a fad diet based on eating nine eggs a day, plus copious quantities of grapefruit, that would last more than three decades and survive utter disavowal by the eponymous clinic) I thought it was a missing tablet from Mt Sinai. I was eating between six and eight eggs almost every day before a somewhat disfiguring allergic reaction arrested my intake. Decades later, I am horrified to find that my Larousse agrees with my paediatrician that no one needs more than two or three eggs a week.

They are, of course, perfectly right. No one needs more than three eggs a week. But then, the overlap of utility and desire has ever been a slender, unimportant region.

Recipe: Scrambled eggs and smoked oysters (for two)

4 eggs
butter
salt
pepper
cream
1 tin smoked oysters
2 tablespoons chopped onions
half a lime or lemon

Drain the oysters and mash them to a paste with a fork. Drizzle the juice of the lime or lemon over this — since all citrus are not created equal, you can measure the juice — not more than two teaspoons. Mix in the chopped onions and set aside.

My pottery teacher used to say, when we were preparing clay for moulding, when you think it’s ready, knead it just as long again. In other words, knead it twice as long as you may think necessary. Apply the same rule when whisking eggs for scrambling. Whisk until your wrist hurts. The fluffier the eggs, the better.

Put a generous tablespoon of butter in your favourite, least-likely-to-stick pan. Set on very low heat, as low as you can turn it down without turning it off. Swirl the butter around so it coats the entire cooking surface. Add the eggs immediately, and begin stirring. Keep stirring and scraping the sides towards the centre. When the eggs are still a little moist, remove from the heat. Fold in the salt, pepper, and about two tablespoons of cream.

Get a couple of ramekins and layer the eggs and oysters as thinly or thickly as seems appealing. I like to have eggs at the bottom and oysters at the top. Or just heap the eggs on a plate, top with the oysters, and serve with buttered toast.

 


 

Viva viandas!

A Taste of Cuba
Beatriz Llamas (Macmillan Caribbean, ISBN 0-333- 97631-2, 139 pp)

Cuba — it’s not just aromatic cigars, Havana jazz, and lazy evenings playing dominoes under the streetlight. If you’ve wondered what preceded the enjoyment of these pleasures, or the knowing, self-satisfied smirk on the face of many a Cuban, A Taste of Cuba reveals all.

Along with Ximena Maier’s mildly entertaining and cartoonish sketches of Cuban life, we find a delicious serving of recipes that are distinctively Cuban and yet somehow familiar. The gastronomic New World of Cuba, as discovered by Spanish caterer Beatriz Llamas, now a resident of Havana, reveals a culinary history peppered with indigenous influences, colonial confections, and secrets staples of the slave plantation. Sumptuous photography by Michael Bonaparte and Wendy Rahamut’s food styling only serve to make us read more voraciously.

Don’t be turned off by its textbook presentation. Llamas, a former cookery teacher at the Alambique Cookery School, gives us easy-to-follow recipes (from hors d’oeuvres to desserts), preceded by a comprehensive glossary of seasonings and ingredients, as distinctive as their methods of preparation. She also includes generous helpings of catering wisdom. It would have been nice to have something to wash down the proliferation of meat dishes and fruit combinations, but there is no beverage chapter to be found.

For the non-Caribbean epicure, this book makes the new culinary experience more palatable; for the rest of the Caribbean, it simply shows what similar tastes we have — whether for dinner or dulces. A Taste of Cuba is not an extraordinary banquet, but a simple family dinner featuring Cuba as a pepperpot of sorts — practical, hunger-banishing, and satisfying in its diversity.

Carline Gumbs

Recipe: Squash fritters with raisins and peanuts

13 ounces squash, seeded and peeled
1 teaspoon flour
2 eggs
quarter cup shelled roasted peanuts
2 tablespoons raisins, soaked in water for 20 minutes
olive oil for deep frying

Boil the squash in water for approximately 20 to 25 minutes until tender. Drain well, place in a bowl, and mash with a fork until it reaches the consistency of a purée. Sprinkle the flour over the mashed squash and mix in well. Add the beaten eggs, peanuts, and drained raisins. Mix all the ingredients together and season with salt.

Heat the oil in a small skillet and drop in spoonfuls of the mixture. Deep fry until golden, then drain on a paper towel.

Makes 20 to 25 fritters.

 

Eight meals in Georgetown

Georgetown isn’t a foodie’s paradise. The best eating experiences are likely to be the least expected — tasty home-style meals in crowded little joints. For traditional Guyanese creole cooking — pepperpot, cookup — try to get invited to someone’s house for Sunday lunch. Failing that, go where the crowds are, and order whatever seems popular. Try Salt and Pepper, with big branches in Stabroek and on Regent Street, and Hack’s Halal on Commerce Street.

The city centre is compact, most good restaurants are within a ten-minute walk from the major hotels and boarding-houses, and taxis are efficient and cheap; the rate of exchange means even the city’s priciest restaurants are good value for money.

Philip Sander

1 Dutch Bottle, North Road
Casual, cool, but elegant Caribbean-Cajun dining, surrounded by paintings by Guyanese artists (all for sale). Popular with trendy locals, but usually quiet enough for an intimate chat.

2 New Thriving, Barr Street, Kitty
The most famous of Georgetown’s many Chinese restaurants, with branches in Kitty and near Brickdam. The evening buffet is good value.

3 Pegasus Hotel, top of High Street
The open-air, poolside restaurant at Georgetown’s biggest hotel can be an oasis for bewildered travellers: reliable grilled fare, and a good Saturday lunchtime buffet with lots of inventive salads.

4 Bottle Bar, Cara Lodge, Quamina Street
Open for three meals a day. Popular with movers and shakers, and hung with paintings from the collection of the Dorothy Taitt Foundation. Eclectic menu, good desserts.

5 Sidewalk Café, Middle Street
Cool, arty hangout, excellent bar. Live jazz on Thursday and Saturday nights, film club on Tuesdays. Caribbean-based menu with international touches.

6 Peppers, Regent Street
Guyana shares a 500-mile border with Brazil, it’s no surprise that Brazilian restaurants have started to spring up in Georgetown. Highly carnivorous fare, excellent beef from the Rupununi.

7 Taj, Camp Street
Indian High Commission chef falls in love with Guyanese woman, opens restaurant. Traditional Indian dishes: curries, chapattis. Go early before items on the menu run out. Afterwards, head downstairs to Jerrie’s for a drink.

8 Shanta’s Roti Shop, Camp Street
Though not a restaurant in the china-and-tablecloths sense of the word, Shanta’s has been a culinary institution for forty years. Cloud-like puri — roti filled with split peas — and an assortment of dishes that changes daily.

 

Three questions for Khalid Mohammed

The restaurant Battimamzelle — the name is derived from the local word for dragonfly — is the delight of Trinidadian gourmets, with a reputation for inventive menus and first-class service. Dylan Kerrigan talks to chef and proprietor Khalid Mohammed about ingredients, attitudes, and the adrenaline required to keep the whole show going.

What’s been your most gruelling restaurant experience?
It really hasn’t happened. Here at Battimamzelle we’ve been good, everything has been good. It’s an every night thing. We’re in the kitchen, it’s busy, it’s hot, we’re screaming, trying to get orders out. I love it. My staff don’t understand, but when I’m in that kitchen and getting things done, I just love that.

If you were to declare your love for someone through a meal, what would the menu be?
I would pull out all the fine stuff. I’d do a nice seared piece of foie gras . . . a small ravioli dish with truffles. For dessert I’d do my favourite thing — a hot chocolate cake that’s still chocolate in the middle after it’s baked.

Do you think any ingredient is overrated?
There is no reason to think a truffle is better than a christophene. I think everything should be viewed equally. It’s not about putting truffles, foie gras, and caviar on the menu, but rather what’s good. Put what you like. Put what you think people would like. But just don’t be a food snob. I try not to be one. Everything being equal, oxtail is as good as a rack of lamb. It’s about how you cook it, and how you work with it, and what you put into it. That’s what I try to do. I mean, I’ve served black pudding at Battimamzelle. I’ve served cascadoo at Battimamzelle. One thing is not better than the next. It’s about how you prepare it.