When the Sun is out and the mercury is rising, we bring out the barbecued fish and accompanying salsas (usually mango or pineapple), the jerk chicken, fritters of any persuasion (usually saltfish) and the rice ‘n’ peas. Our stalwart ‘core’ Caribbean familiars that we love so much, bringing out the tropics to celebrate those rare British moments of sun-drenched weather.
But what happens when the Sun decides to go away, when bare legs need to be ‘tighted’ and ‘jeaned’, or as a friend put it, “where does Caribbean go when Summer is over?”
Well firstly, for me, Caribbean food isn’t only about those pack-a-punch-in-flavour marinades, spice rubs and sauces, like the beloved jerk, adobo and sofritos (that have evolved from our rich, vibrant and multi-cultural history), but also simply about the inspiration that commonplace, everyday Caribbean ingredients may give me to pull together an everyday creation, like watermelon for a simple salad, avocado to create a spiced avocado gazpacho, crab used to make a savoury biscotti, coconut oil to pour over blackened coconut prawns.
Away from these more Summery creations, but in the same vein, the abundance of different vegetables (some as familiar as aubergine, pumpkin, sweet potato, corn and broccoli) can create some perfect ‘internal-heating’ foods for when the temperature drops. Think of a hearty corn soup, fortified with lentils, coconut milk and carrot, (a famous Trinidad street food for post-partying, like a healthier Caribbean version of the ‘stumbling-back-home-bleary-eyed-and-slightly-sozzled’ British kebab, no joke!) a warming and spicy pumpkin and chickpea curry (UK is a curry-loving nation, so extending our affection to Caribbean curries is an easy step), the aubergine, roasted and mashed with garlic and coriander, to make a choka, served with warm flat bread, roti, and the sweet potato, roasted with orange zest and ginger and served with your favourite hunk of meat. See, simple but heart-warming creations from a beauteous range of versatile veg.
But there are also specific Caribbean dishes that have ‘Comfort Food’ written all over them: Pepperpot – originally from Guyana and traditionally using any available meat (usually pig’s tail, or cow heel) and made with ‘cassareep’ (a thick, molasses-like liquid from the root of bitter cassava), to which different islands over time have added their own flair and flavour to it. I cook mine with lamb and I add aubergine and potato and flavour it with the usual cinnamon as well as orange zest, to make a one-pot, meaty cuddle-per-spoonful (it reminds me a little of a tropical-inspired Lancashire Hot Pot);
Callaloo – another hearty one-pot, like a thick soup/stew combo, made from callaloo leaves (I use spinach when I’m in the UK) simmered with okra, coconut milk, herbs, scotch bonnet and salted meat;
Pelau – a rice-based dish, brimming with beans, vegetables, chicken and pig tail (I use ham hock often) and flavoured with caramelised sugar, eaten with hot pepper sauce (scotch bonnet-based)…
I could go on listing all the deliciously warming dishes like a seductive M&S advert, but I think you get the picture (and I am getting hungrier by the minute writing this!).
How did we end up with such a rainbow of spirit-lifting dishes in such hot climate? Without going into a full-on history lesson, the Caribbean, it’s people and it’s food has come to be the way it is because of it’s colourful history: the influx of a wealth of races; the indigenous tribes, Europeans, Africans, Indians and Chinese. At the time when the sugar plantation system across the Caribbean was in full swing and the slave trade was heavily relied upon to support it, the African slaves were given a small bit of land to grow their own crops, like sweet potato and yam (these foods are now generically called ‘ground provisions’, because, well, we take them out of the ground!), they were also given measly rations of salted meat and general leftovers from the plantation owners. Due to the extreme physical demands and little free time it was important that the slaves were able to get high-calorie food and with only an iron pot, a wooden spoon and a pestle and mortar, all the ingredients were cooked up together to make incredibly thick (thickened usually by the ground provisions and okra) ‘one-pot’ meals. As the ground provisions and leftovers could be bland, these one-pot dishes would be heavily seasoned with an array of herbs and spices, or the meats were marinated, to enhance flavours. Even after the abolition of slavery, this way of cooking still influenced the new cultures and races that came into the Caribbean, but they of course gave the recipes their own twist, and so created new ‘comfort-food’ dishes, like Pelau, which is inspired by Middle Eastern, polow.
So you see, Caribbean food really isn’t just for Summer at all, but hosts a wide array of dishes that are simply perfect for this nippier weather, as well as ingredients, some that you may know and the some that you mayn’t, to create your own Caribbean-inspired Winter warmers! Maybe the next time you go looking for the perfect toad-in-the-hole, or shepherd’s pie recipe, perhaps consider how Callaloo (see recipes) could cosy you up.