Cooking in cyberspace

Franka Philip enters the blogosphere in search of Caribbean cuisine

Indian sweets from Chennette’s blog: gulab jamoon (left) and barfi. Photograph by Shirley BahadurPelau, a traditional Caribbean dish. Photograph by Shirley Bahadur

If you’re a real foodie, your life tends to be dominated by things culinary. That means you’ll probably have lots and lots of cookbooks, cooking gadgets for every purpose, expensive knives and even aprons with funny logos.

But there are some of us who take our love of food to a higher level by putting this appreciation of all things gastronomic on the Internet for the world to see. We’re the food bloggers, who spend too much of our spare time cooking, photographing and writing about food on our own bit of Internet real estate.

There are many reasons why people write blogs: to rant, to find people with shared interests, to be popular or simply to stave off boredom. When blogging became popular a few years ago, a number of my friends began writing about their lives. Sometimes I’d blanch at the intimate details they were willing to share about personal matters but at the same time, I admired and envied their efforts. At various points I’ve tried the “Dear Diary” thing, but always gave up because it was difficult to record the minutiae of my life, even it was for my own consumption.

So how did someone like me end up writing a food blog? It started with a flippant comment by an English television executive that Caribbean food “wasn’t anything to write home about”. She said this in response to an idea I pitched for a television programme about our food.

Obviously, I got damn vexed. Who was this fas’ and out-of- place woman to dismiss so easily such a valid part of Caribbean culture?
Once the red mist cleared, I thought about her comments objectively and grudgingly conceded that, depending on her experience of Caribbean food, she might actually have a point.

It wasn’t all bad, though, because the few people who read my pitch felt that the idea had legs, so after a great deal of thought, I decided to use my television programme idea as the basis for a future cookbook. But that kind of writing takes a great deal of discipline, so I started my blog to get to grips with writing as a regular habit, and not just something I did because of my day job. I got the blog—Can Cook, Must Cook—up and running in February 2006, and after writing the first few posts, I knew it would become a big part of my life.
By their very nature, blogs encourage in-teractivity. I’ve had comments from people all over the world and I was surprised to find that so many people were interested in the Caribbean.

There’s also the added bonus of discovering a small but active community of Caribbean food bloggers, who are all driven by a passion for the food and culture of our region.

Most of us Caribbean food bloggers have no professional cooking experience, but rate ourselves as professional tasters with superior knowledge of good, authentic Caribbean food. When we began blogging about the food of our region, it wasn’t meant to be anything too serious; after all, we chose calypso-style noms de plume like Chennette, Trinigourmet and Trinifood.

I think the seriousness of what we were doing became crystal clear once we started getting responses, particularly from all over the Caribbean diaspora; it was obvious that our oddball meanderings about food had touched a nerve.

Chennette, a Trinidadian attorney based in Guyana, started her blog, The Lifespan of A Chennette, in September 2005. She did it after being pestered by her sister who felt that the epic e-mails she wrote to her family about her travels were worth sharing with a wider audience. On her blog, Chennette, who comes from a traditional Muslim-Trinidadian background, offers recipes for Indo-Trinidadian delicacies like maleeda (a sweet made as an offering during the Muslim festival of Hosay), barfi (a sweet made from powdered milk that’s commonly eaten in Hindu festivals) and gulab jamoon (a sweet, spiced fried dough) on her blog.

She says, “My sister put together the blog for me and said, here, use it. It was a personal idea. I didn’t know how many people would end up reading it.”

One of the regular readers of Chennette’s blog is Cynthia Nelson, a Guyanese journalist who lives and works in Barbados. Her blog, Tastes Like Home, is an extension of the food column she writes for the Stabroek News.

“My blog is a meeting point for fellow Guyanese to swap stories about home and food,” she said. “But I’ve found that though some people comment on the blog, a lot more people prefer to contact me via e-mail; maybe Caribbean people prefer the one-on-one contact that e-mail offers.”

Nelson feels that Carib-bean food bloggers have a very important place in contemporary Caribbean culture, since many of us are trying to record a part of our lives that has traditionally been defined by others.

“Our history has been told by outsiders who benefit, and we need to correct that,” Nelson said. “Now we have the means to spread the culture more easily.

“I’m trying to capture the stuff that was lost. I was looking for a recipe for pepperpot the other day, and I found the recipe—but I couldn’t find anything about the Amerindian origins anywhere on the Internet.”
It’s a point of view that’s also held by Sarina, a multimedia consultant who blogs as the Trinigourmet. She believes that food blogs present an opportunity for us to assert an important aspect of our Caribbean-ness.

“I feel strongly about ownership. We need to create a dialogue and a sense of parameters,” she said. “Every iconic recipe has building blocks, and even though food evolves, those building blocks remain. So for the Caribbean, we who live in this context need to determine what the parameters of our recipes are.”

Bloggers are also making use of other Internet tools to enhance the presence of Caribbean food on the World Wide Web. Ardent photographers like Chennette have posted photos of Caribbean dishes on the photo-sharing site Flickr and are linking to these photos from their blogs.

Media-savvy food bloggers are taking full advantage of what the Internet has to offer and we’ve moved on from writing purely for fun to consciously working to preserve our cooking traditions and promote the new developments in Caribbean food.

Ours is an emerging cuisine, and the region hasn’t yet produced the Thomas Kellers, Charlie Trotters, Gordon Ramsays or a Julia Child who will write about and properly explain the unique nuances of our cuisine, so it is up to us—a bunch of upstart young foodies—to get the ball rolling.

BARFI Recipe (from Chennette’s food blog)

Ingredients
500 gm full-cream powdered milk
1 6 oz (170 gm) tin Nestlé’s cream/heavy whipping cream
10 oz granulated white sugar
1 tsp finely minced ginger
1 pinch each of ground cardamom, cinnamon and clove
1/3 cup water
Candy sprinkles to your liking

Method
1. Mix milk powder and cream just enough to combine. Let stand for 10 minutes. Rub the cream into the milk powder until it is the consistency of fine breadcrumbs.

2. In a big heavy pot, bring sugar, ginger and water to a boil. Add the spices.

3. Add the milk mixture to the pot and stir. Keep stirring until the mixture comes together in one clump and leaves the side of the pot as you turn. (This may be a little hard on the arms at this point, but it is important for it not to be too soft and crumbly.)

4. Spread the mixture into a greased cookie sheet and smooth the top. Add sprinkles.

5. Cut into squares before it is completely cool.

Caribbean food blog links