Brain food

Franka Philip takes time off from slaving over a hot stove to read about Caribbean cuisine

Succulent curry shrimp. Photograph by Shirley Bahadur

Caribbean cuisine—at least to those of us who know and love it—is a reflection of the vivacious, saucy and seductive nature of the people who live in this archipelago. We take our food very seriously, and when friends from different Caribbean countries speak about food, it often turns into banter about whose national dish is the best.

However, as great as we feel our cuisine might be, there’s some way to go before it gains recognition at the table of world cuisine. There are a lot of reasons for that sad state of affairs, including the paucity of excellent books about Caribbean food.

The thing is, there are lots of cookbooks around—just look at the Amazon website and you’ll find them. But, unfortunately, not many of them can stand in the same category as internationally celebrated books like Simon Hopkinson’s Roast Chicken and Other Stories, Nigella Lawson’s How to Eat, or Thomas Keller’s French Laundry Cookbook.

At the end of 2007, however, I came across the best Caribbean cookbook I’ve ever seen, Creole, by Guadeloupean chef Babette de Rozières.

Creole is not the typical jerk-chicken-and-ackee cookbook but a successful exploration of some of the region’s strongest ethnic and cultural influences through the food.

De Rozières, owner of the popular La Table de Babette in Paris, has compiled an amazing collection of Caribbean-inspired dishes. The 120-page fish chapter, for example, is so comprehensive that it could have been a book on its own.

I gushed about it in my food blog, Can Cook, Must Cook: “It’s a fantastic book, buy it… Creole is an absolute revelation and I can’t remember the last time I got so excited about a book at first sight. It’s got to be one of the best cookbooks published this year.”

Creole is also a beautiful-looking book and that’s not surprising, because it is produced by the venerable art publishers Phaidon. To say that Creole is Caribbean food porn is no exaggeration, and in fact, it sets a new standard to which our cookbook writers can aspire.

In the last few months, I’ve been checking out a range of books about Caribbean cuisine. Some of them are regular cookbooks, while the others are books about Caribbean food culture.

In Food Culture in the Caribbean, Lynn Marie Houston draws heavily on the region’s history to illustrate how the cuisine has developed. This is a well-researched and scholarly book that manages to be both accessible and quite enjoyable.

It also helps that Houston, an American, has familial ties to the Caribbean, because it seems to have enabled her to easily explain cultural concepts without sounding patronising or condescending.

Houston hits the right chords early on when she captures the essence of Caribbean food culture. “One aspect of Caribbean food that distinguishes it and that links it to its indigenous and African influences, as well as its history of slavery and indentured servitude, is the idea of ‘making do.’ Making do implies using whatever is on hand or whatever can be found and using everything that is available. It is a way of operating in the Caribbean, in particular it seems by women, that can be seen as a creative, even subversive strategy.”

One only has to look at the way the Maroons in Jamaica created jerk chicken, or how the East Indians in Trinidad and Guyana created a unique strand of Indian cookery based on a limited range of ingredients, to see how correct Houston is.

She also gives examples of how British and French colonists have shaped our cuisine, like pointing out that the Barbadian dish jug-jug is based on the Scottish delicacy haggis. Haggis is a sausage made from sheep offal (heart, liver and lungs), oatmeal, onions and spices. Houston points out that in the Bajan version, “The oats are replaced by cornmeal and the mixture is not made into a sausage but served as a one-pot meal.”

The most useful section of the book is the “Typical Meals” chapter in which she describes and categorises classic Caribbean dishes. She does this according to region, ie, English-speaking, Dutch, Spanish and French, then lists the dishes typical to each country.

Food Culture in the Caribbean is part of the Food Culture Around the World series, which includes Mexico, Japan, Italy and Spain. If the Caribbean edition is an indication of the standard of the series, then they’re clearly worth checking out.

Another food culture book on the market is Home Cooking in the Global Village: Caribbean Food from Buccaneers to Ecotourists, by anthropologist Richard Wilk.

Wilk uses Belize as a case study to illustrate that globalisation has been operating in the region for more than 300 years. In this scholarly work, he successfully tells the story of a time when “shipping allowed people to import many foods, and exotic goods became a fashionable and desirable commodity.”

By the late 19th century, Wilk says, “it became normal for people to sit down to a meal where all of the ingredients came from places across the ocean.”

The American anthropology lecturer has been visiting Belize since the 1970s, and has a deep understanding of the nation’s culture. He never comes across as a detached foreigner looking at Belizean society, but as a foreigner who has grown to love the country.

Wilk points out that when he first arrived in Belize, he wanted to try some local specialities, but Belizeans held their local cuisine in such low esteem that at his first dinner with a local family, they offered him what they believed were the best things they had to offer: “canned corned beef, imported white bread, and warm 7-Up.”

Now, after years of socio-economic development and cultural change, brought about by a number of factors, including tourism and American cable TV, Belize is more comfortable about itself and its cuisine is no longer something to look down on.

Home Cooking in the Global Village is an anthropology text but it’s a good read and, though it focuses on Belize, much of it could easily be applicable to any Caribbean nation.

As good as the Wilk and the Houston books were, there’s nothing to get a foodie purring like good cookbooks with challenging recipes and sexy pictures. But even where there aren’t sexy photos, you’re always excited about the thought of preparing something that sounds absolutely mouthwatering.

This is the case with Rosamund Grant’s Caribbean and African Cookery. I particularly enjoyed this book, and had to agree with Maya Angelou, who wrote in the foreword, “When Rosamund Grant invites us to join her Caribbean feasts we can almost hear reggae, sitar and Spanish music in the background.”

For many years, Guyanese-born Grant has been one of the champions of Caribbean food in Britain, where she’s been a restaurateur, writer, teacher and TV chef.

Caribbean and African Cookery reflects Grant’s own passion for her African heritage, and throughout the book, there are recipes like Sese Plantains, Egusi Spinach and Prawn Palava that reflect this passion.

Grant also includes recipes derived from explorations into other food traditions, like a recipe for vegetarian black pudding that’s based on the art of sushi-making.

Caribbean and African Cookery is a thoroughly enjoyable book that should be in every Caribbean kitchen.

Fine Haitian Cuisine might sound like an oxymoron to those who believe that violence and poverty is all there is to Haiti. Unfortunately, not enough is said about Haitian culture and, by extension, its cuisine.

I had very little knowledge of Haitian cuisine until I picked up Mona Cassion Ménager’s book. She is a doctor on a quest to remain connected with her roots and true to her profession. Fine Haitian Cuisine is written in a somewhat clinical fashion, but at 450 pages, it is quite thorough. Ménager builds the book in a logical fashion, starting with what appear to be the building blocks of Haitian cuisine—special condiments and sauces like Creole Sauce, Pikliz and Sauce Ti Malice—and ending with a comprehensive glossary.

Fine Haitian Cuisine is not a bad effort, but could do with better photos and a more interesting layout. It’s definitely too pricey at US$45, but might be worth every cent to Haitians or those keenly interested in the cuisine of our French-speaking cousins.

 

Reading list

  • Creole: Babette de Rozières (Phaidon)
  • Home Cooking in the Global Village: From Buccaneers to Ecotourists: Richard Wilk (Berg Publishers)
  • Food Culture in the Caribbean: Lynn Marie Houston (Greenwood Press)
  • Caribbean and African Cookery: Rosamund Grant (Grub Street)
  • Fine Haitian Cuisine: Mona Cassion Ménager (Educa Vision)