Hot hot pot

The recipe couldn’t have looked simpler — so Anu Lakhan set out to make casareep, the key ingredient in Guyanese pepperpot • Plus more

–Illustrations by Shalini SeereeramIllustrations by Shalini SeereeramIllustrations by Shalini SeereeramIllustrations by Shalini SeereeramPhotograph courtesy Angostura Distilleries

Consider casareep, the cassava-based Guyanese flavouring that looks like an oil spill and smells like burned sugar.

Casareep itself is not duplicitous. If anything, its impenetrable darkness suggests that its secrets are not there for the sharing. The treachery is in the — and I use the word reluctantly — recipe. Treachery is not too strong a word for that deceptive document, no more than gross idiocy is an overstatement for my falling for it.

I read the instructions. Much too short, much too easy. No one who has ever tried to assemble a piece of gym equipment with only a three-step picture guide and one screwdriver would have been taken in.

The thing is, no one makes casareep. It appears on grocery shelves; apparently the magical produce of the Amerindians, the ancient peoples of Guyana’s interior. But with the hubris that has led to the unfortunate chocolate pear incident and to the paté that took over the world, I ignore the suspicious simplicity of the instructions — nay, I embrace it. No, sir, the days of big wooden horses ain’t over as long as I’m around.

Casareep makes pepperpot. Without it, the renowned Guyanese dish would simply be the most miscellaneous of stews. It imparts not only flavour but potent preservative powers.

All the recipes say the same thing. Peel the cassava. Grate the cassava. Strain the cassava and boil the liquid. That’s it. No additives. No fermentation. No eye of newt. Demonstrating an IQ rivalling that of a colander, I take the bite. Nowhere does the alarm go off — that, if it were truly this easy, people would be making casareep left and right. They wouldn’t even need to make a lot of it. They could make it every time they were making pepperpot. At no point do I recall the poisonous properties said to lurk within the drably clad Machiavellian cassava.

Grating cassava is a tactually gratifying experience. The moist white shavings cascade milkily into the bowl, and reassure you that you have bought the right root, young enough to yield the desired liquid. The constant pressure on your hands is soothed by the silky flakes falling from the grater. It’s like getting a manicure without having to endure condescending beauticians and the irritating smell of chamomile tea. Thence to cheesecloth and straining. Anything that involves straining through cheesecloth is deeply satisfying. It feels so un-mechanical, so Laura Ingalls Wilder. I wring the grated root in damp cheesecloth and my half-cup measure runneth over.

Next, the liquid is boiled until it can — and I quote — “hold its shape”. What shape might that be, I wonder. The suspense is not long. A matter of some three to five minutes and then it is unmistakable. The cassava juice stickifies, a very technical term for coming away from the edges to form a wobbly glob in the middle of the pot. And that’s it. My instructions go no further.

I find myself in the presence of something quite like contact cement. Perhaps casareep, like pepperpot, must age. I phone a Guyanese friend and ask if I should put the dull green mass into the fridge for it to grow into its dense, black-brown syrupy self. She tries to convince me to give it all up and buy some of the bottled stuff.

Another friend reminds me of the toxicity of cassava. From the look of it, if it didn’t start out as poisonous I seem to have done something to make it so. Do I risk death or put up new wallpaper with this concoction? I decide to keep it as a souvenir. It resides in my refrigerator to this day, disconcertingly identical to its original state on emerging from the pot.

I discover eventually that the cassava itself was the root, as it were, of my misfortune. A hard-to-find bitter variety is what I needed. That, and apparently an Arawak ancestor who would have explained that the brown liquid is what was left after the Amerindians extracted what they wanted. Enterprisingly, they bottled and sold these dregs to the coastal folk, who went on to make “pork-knocker pepperpot”, nothing like the Amerindian version, which is more like souse.

I accept defeat, and go in search of the ready-made version.

Pepperpot is a bit like cricket: daunting to the uninitiated, endless in possibilities, and seemingly never-ending. You can put just about anything into it, and with the aid of casareep and enough time it will be not merely edible, but wonderful.

I settle on a classic combination of meats: pig tail, ox tail, beef, and cow heel. The sweetness of the ox tail will offset the briny pig tail; the tender chunks of beef will give the dish body. Now, about cow heel. Who was the first person to decide this was an edible and indeed desirable part of the bovine kill? Obviously a relative of them as discovered tea, coffee, and chocolate; a person of infinite optimism. In goes the cow heel to surrender its gluey . . . glueyness, which gives the dish its texture.

There’s no grandstanding about the preparation of pepperpot. Everything goes into the pot and gets covered with water. Then it cooks. For hours. Days. Months even. Not constantly. After its first cooking of a few hours, it just needs to be brought to a boil every day until either you or it expires.

I worry at first that I have not invested enough time to produce a worthy pepperpot. I have started it a paltry four days before a travel date. I consider asking someone to baby-sit it. They could drop in on an evening and get the stove going while they feed the cats and water the plant. I begin to feel like I’m orphaning my pepperpot. That’s when I discover that all along I’ve been in possession of a slow cooker. Gone the worry of having to take it on and off the stove to prevent the cats from upsetting it. Banished the concern about leaving the gas going and accidentally Sylvia Plathing all of us. My slow cooker works almost round the clock for three days.

Bliss. After near death or redecoration, the end is sweet. Four kinds of meat melting into each other, and dissolving into an almost intoxicatingly sweet gravy. I eat it every day until we are forced to part.

Some dishes are romantic, some nurturing. Pepperpot is a dish of commitment. After four days of prep and cooking, I feel ready to settle down with it. Trudging through the jungle with a pot of this would be an honour. Funny how programmed we are to devote ourselves to whatever is most demanding.

 

Recipe: (Pepperless) pepperpot

With utter disregard for the name of dish, this recipe does not include any of the region’s many fine hot peppers; more conventional recipes do. Pepper intolerance is one of the reasons I needed to learn to make this myself. Absence of the eponymous ingredient notwithstanding, I retain the name because to call it simply “pot” seems even more misleading and, indeed, dangerous.

1 lb cubed beef
1 lb ox tail
1/2 lb pig tail (soaked overnight in water with a dash of bitters)
1/2 lb cow heel
1/2 cup casareep
2 sticks cinnamon
2 cloves
salt and pepper
water

Identify a pot of which you are not inordinately fond, or whose services are not required every day. If disaster befalls you, you will not miss such a pot. If all goes well and you decide to keep the pepperpot going for months, you will not find yourself deprived of your favourite pot.

Boil the cow heels until tender — just about an hour at medium to medium-high heat. Skim the greyish film from the surface. Rinse the soaked pig tails and throw them, along with everything else, into the pot. Set a low heat and leave for as long as patience or schedule permits. Four hours is a good start. Add salt and pepper as or if necessary. Then:

Option 1: For the preservative powers of the casareep to kick in, the dish must be brought to boiling point every day. Leave it in the pot, pop it in the fridge, and take it out for its daily boiling.

Option 2: Transfer the contents to a slow cooker and keep on the lowest heat for a couple of days.

Pepperpot can be served as soon as it’s finished the first time, but it really improves with protracted cooking.

Food with a view: St Lucia’s top ten

Eating is not just about food, it’s also about atmosphere. In St Lucia, the landscape can provide all the atmosphere required. Restaurants cluster in the island’s many beauty spots. How to choose between Bang and Jalousie for a between-the-Pitons view? Almost anywhere in the Soufrière area has something worth looking at. Castries harbour is picturesque from any of its surrounding hills. Marigot is great from any angle. But for almost unbelievable natural atmosphere, it isn’t hard to choose the candidate for the gold award.

1 First place (perhaps in the world) has to go to Dasheene at the Ladera resort, perched high between the Pitons in the cool rainforest. Enjoy wonderful Caribbean fusion cuisine right in the middle of a beautiful world heritage site.

2 The Green Parrot on Morne Fortune has a spectacular view over Castries and the north of the island. The prize-winning local restaurateur and chef is British-trained and serves upmarket British-influenced Caribbean food with lots of cream sauces.

3 The Mandolin at Cara Suites in La Pansée gives the Castries panorama from another angle: city lights on three sides. The food is modern European and traditional St Lucian.

4 From any of the Jalousie Plantation resort’s three restaurants —Bayside, The Pier, and The Plantation — the bulk of Petit Piton is awesome. You are close enough to touch the sheer cliffs, and you can gaze at Gros Piton to the south. Caribbean and Mediterranean cuisines.

5 The Coal Pot’s French food is outrageously good. A spot for sightseers on the Walcott trail, on the Vigie waterfront. The pebbles shining through the water have already escaped into prize-winning poems.

6 For a better view of the harbour and trees full of cattle egrets, try the restaurant at Auberge Seraphine. Good Caribbean food with a twist.

7 The Foxgrove Inn is the pick of the East Coast spots. Interesting European-style food in an idyllic rural setting at Mon Repos, with a long, quiet view across banana and coconut fields to the Atlantic breakers of Praslin Bay.

8 Marigot has several beautiful restaurants. Try Rainforest Hideaway for Pacific fusion cooking, right in the mangrove swamp.

9 The food at Tao at the Le Sport resort near St Lucia’s northern tip is so exquisitely presented, it demands a few moments of silence. Almost upstages the view down the beach, lights on a dark hillside, dreamy moonlit breakers.

10 Jambe de Bois on Pigeon Island is a great place to loll at sunset, with its view of Rodney Bay and south to Castries and beyond. Resolutely British cuisine with great creamy cakes and desserts.

Jane King

 


How to eat corn

Corn can be found, more or less, year round in the Caribbean. It is a strong, deep yellow gold, with large, firm kernels; the tough cousin of the buttery sweetcorn of North America. In Trinidad and Tobago, corn-on-the-cob comes in two varieties: roasted and boiled with herbs. The following instructions are for the consumption of classic streetside “boil corn”.

1 Choose your corn wisely. Do not accept just whatever is proffered by the vendor. Point confidently at one that takes your fancy, and ask for it. Young corn has smaller, softer kernels and a greenish taste. More mature corn has bigger, solid-looking kernels like incisors, and a more corn-like flavour.

2 Unsheathe the corn from its light green wrapper. The husk is meant to be nature’s napkin, but more often than not acts as a channel for conveying liquid directly into your lap.

3 Sip the corn. That is, run your mouth lightly over the surface like a vacuum cleaner to pick up any excess liquid that might otherwise drip upon your person. Sipping also gives you something to do while you wait for the corn to cool to eating temperature.

4 Corn is designed to be eaten methodically. The kernels in neat rows do not suggest random chewing. Start from the top, where the kernels are smallest and softest (and the first to cool enough to bite into), plucking out just a couple with the front teeth and allowing them to pop in the mouth. Then work your way down the length to the base. Rows three to four kernels wide offer a satisfactory mouthful. West Indian corn was not made to be chomped through like a slice of watermelon. The taste experience aside, it sticks horribly in the teeth.

5 After the rows have been consumed, the cob remains to be drained of its juices. This corn has spent many hours boiling with chadon beni and chive, salt and thyme. This is not a cob you want to feed to the pigs. Expert corn eaters will suck most of the seasoned juice out, but leave just enough for a final hurrah.

6 For the finale, chew your way down the cob. Bite off small pieces. After all that savoury goodness, the centre of the cob is a little sweet and mellow.

If you do it right, the experience can be like a full meal with appetizer, main course, and dessert; filling enough to satisfy, but leaving you with just enough longing for the next one.

Jamie Eliot


Fasting slowly

Sometimes patterns of eating and drinking aren’t just matters of hunger or taste — but of the soul. Jamie Eliot on Ramadan, the annual month-long fast undertaken by Muslims here in the Caribbean and around the world

In preparation for writing this piece, the author decided to undertake the challenging-but-uplifting dawn-to-dusk fast of Ramadan. For one whole day.

5.00 am Before the fast begins, the faithful take suhoor. This, I have been warned, is not an opportunity for the scarfing of all that will be missed during the day. The point of suhoor is to strengthen you for the fast ahead. A sensible, energy-giving meal. Cereal is good; it fortifies you (as all the cereal commercials say), but is not wonderful enough for you to think of it fondly as the day proceeds.

In Muslim countries, life is scheduled to accommodate the demands of prayer and fasting during the month of Ramadan. Restaurants open late in the day and stay open all night. In the Caribbean, the Islamic community must commit to fasting while still meeting the regular scheduled rigours of school, work, and traffic, without the aid of caffeine, food, or even water.

10.00 am Doing very well; can’t imagine what all the fuss is about. Getting back into bed immediately after suhoor was a good idea. (Though this is not really an option for most practising Muslims.)

12.00 pm Hmmm. Don’t think I’ll leave the house after all. It is hot, and my lips feel like they’re sticking together.

2.00 pm Must avoid television and tempting food ads. Must not read books with any reference to food. Sitting in a bath is torture of the “water, water everywhere, etc” variety.

2.23 pm Cereal is the most beautiful word I’ve ever heard.

2.25 pm The Caribbean is packed with public holidays, but the best-known Muslim observance is Eid-ul-Fitr. And even so, this is a holiday only in Guyana, Suriname, and Trinidad and Tobago. It is in preparation for Eid that the Ramadan fast is performed. Believers commemorate this as the period over which the Prophet Mohammed received the text of the Koran. By this time I find myself lamenting that shorthand had not been invented. I am obviously not ready for conversion.

Sunset. No longer conscious of time. Iftaar, the breaking of the fast, is usually light. Dates, coffee, pies, samosas will take the edge off of hunger. For many living in this part of the world, iftaar takes place on the drive from the office. You can’t — or shouldn’t — eat too much as soon as the fast is broken. Yoghurt is a digestive aid, and can come in handy here. Almost immediately after iftaar come the evening prayers, so there’s usually not enough time for a full meal anyway. Dinner can happen any time after that.

There are few Ramadan- or Eid-specific foods. Dates were the preference of the Prophet, and many Muslims retain the tradition. The range of curries and appetizers found in the average roti shop are standard at Eid dinners. Indian sweets (hallwah to Muslims and meethai to Hindus) like barfi, gulab jamoon, kurma, and ras malai are also served. Trinidad’s most Eid-significant food is probably sawine, a kind of sweet milky soup filled with raisins and vermicelli. This seems to have arrived here with indentured Indians, and has cultural rather than religious significance.

10.00 pm Post-dinner. I am full of admiration. And people do this for how long?


The Ramadan fast lasts a month. If you miss a day, it can be made up for outside of the month, but fasting is not allowed on the day of Eid-ul-Fitr, because it is a day of celebration. The author agrees that there is a lot to celebrate.

 


Rum fun

Nothing says Caribbean like a colourful drink with a tiny umbrella. Unkindly, one might call them visual clichés, like the pyramids, Stonehenge, Niagara Falls. The postcard fantasy of these shores is not the lure of history or the call of adventure, but a vision of simple luxuries: bright, warm days, an unhurried life, balmy nights.

But clichés, visual or otherwise, can only achieve their status through popularity. Rum punch is one of the region’s favourite drinks, and every family has its own special concoction. And as far as family recipes go, you can’t get more trustworthy than one from Angostura. The makers of some of the Caribbean’s most beloved rums and the inimitable Angostura bitters, the Trinidadian distillers offer a few exotic twists to this island staple. A gorgeous mix of tropical fruit and fine rum, Angostura Caribbean Club Rum Punch Liqueur comes in mango, pineapple, passion fruit, as well as original and traditional blends.

Forget the postcards and the happy snaps — take home a couple of these, and really show your friends what they were missing.

Horace Morris