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For the love of food
Pining for a distinctive flavour like roucou used to flavour stews, Guyanese-born but Barbados resident broadcast journalist/food writer Cynthia Nelson decided to pen Tastes Like Home. It’s part Caribbean cookbook/part memoir. When she moved to Barbados in 1988, Nelson remembers the nostalgia which propelled her toward markets and supermarkets in search of much sought after foods. Previously, she had labelled them “taboo” or flatly refused to taste them.
Nelson said: “When I moved to Barbados (St Michael’s) I found bodi (snake beans) and carailli were not widely available. It was tough to find those items. I was missing those ingredients...not so much the dish. I was missing a unique taste, a sauce, a seasoning that went into making the dish.” She added: “I missed the cascadura. I could not find seim. Seim crawled over fences at home (Georgetown). I didn’t see jackfruit or jamun. I missed those vegetables and fruits that were unique to a particular place.”
Switching to taboo foods
Before her epiphany to write, concoct, collect and cook authentic recipes, Nelson had to content herself with local Bajan cuisine. As the land of the Kaiteur Falls grew distant and she settled in the land of the Harrison Caves, Nelson said: “It wasn’t Guyana. Barbados had become a merged space. I had to immerse myself in the culture. I fell in love with Bajan fish cakes. It was like manna.” To compound it, Nelson missed the cornucopia of fruits and the abundance of vegetables sold in Guyanese markets. Eventually, her taste buds grew to love taboo foods. Nelson said: “Taboo foods became loved. Because I couldn’t get some of the things I had turned up my nose at, when I did get it I grew to love it.” Pumpkin, a staple at Halloween celebrations, was one such vegetable.
Another was salted fish cooked with tomatoes, sweet peppers and onions. It often accompanies a pot of ground provisions like dasheen, candied yams and green bananas. Topi tambu, an all-time favourite among root crops, was scarce. “I picked up the saltfish and I had no idea what I was going to do with it. It reminded me of home and my family. I never liked saltfish. I started cooking saltfish. I started enjoying saltfish,” said Nelson. Sparrow’s Ode To Saltfish sprung to mind—“When you out to eat all saltfish sweet.” During her visits back home, Nelson even found she had an affinity with Bourda Market. She had often recoiled at the babel. Weaving her way through the stalls, female vendors menacingly dangled native fruits like gru gru beff and gri gri. Surprised at her new-found epicurean delights, Nelson opined: “Sometimes it takes being away to appreciate what you did not as a kid.” Her suitcase was stacked with black pudding, grey snapper and anchar. Like Jamaican poet Claude Mc Kay’s FlameHeart, she had begun to appreciate “the time when the purple apples (caimites) come to juice/and the pimento’s flowering and fruiting.”
Relying upon her research and writing skills which she had honed as a journalist, Nelson set about compiling recipes. They aimed to reinforce and nourish “Caribbeanness.” Again, Nelson reiterated it was her nostalgia for native Guyanese food which led to Tastes Like Home. She would even telephone her mother Barbara Caesar and aunty Betty Singh for advice on cooking “soul foods.” Nelson said: “Mommy liked a variety of sauces. Aunty Betty was into roasts and pies. Aunty fetched banana leaves and made gooseberry syrup. She was into the local Creole cooking... African cuisine and Indian dishes.”
The groundwork had begun in earnest.
“I jotted down the foods and selected recipes. I started a blog. People in the diaspora connected with the food memoir. They started to e-mail me asking, ‘Do you have a place where you have everything?’ “I started writing a column in the Stabroek News. When I got the offer to write the book it just seemed as if everything came together. So that’s how it came about.” She admitted there were culinary challenges. She got butterflies in her stomach when she brewed her maiden jug of mauby. “I was scared. I was hoping the mauby would not be a disaster. Did I put too much anise? I would be standing an hour and a half making a dish like Married Man’s Pork...seasoned with sweet basil and thyme, and silently hoping it would come out right.”
Nelson noted Tastes Like Home gives glimpses into her life growing up in the Caribbean. As she shares the vignettes, she said: “There are certain foods I associate with certain memories. You can look and see the recipes and the situations I am describing. People in the Caribbean can connect.” Nelson also examines some of the “food mores” that are peculiar to the Caribbean people. For example, the practice of setting pepper sauce and mango chow in the sun to cure. Another penchant was making a concoction of seasonings like Spanish thyme—freshly culled from a backyard garden. Chicken breasts were often marinated overnight before it was popped into the oven.
Nelson said: “I have always found homemade seasonings give a dish its signature taste.” One of the underlying themes in Tastes Like Home is the desire for Caribbean people to eat local. Nelson said: “It fits right in with my platform about eating what you produce and having an appreciation for your indigenous foods and recipes. You would not find gourmet or run-of-the mill foods. I have pepper pot from the Amerindian community. The casareep is indigenous. It’s presented in a way that is unique and special.” When Nelson’s not making June Plum juice, she busies herself teaching broadcast journalism at the Barbados Community College. “Cooking and food photography are my hobbies. It doesn’t seem like work because I enjoy it. But it does take up a lot of time and requires great effort.”
About the book
The book is divided into Food Memoir and Recipes. The glossary explains words like chunkay—adding meat or fish to a hot pan which already contains spices. Colour photographs accompany rotis, cou cou and dhals. Trinis savour okras in callaloo. Nelson presents it in mettagee—a national dish of Guyana—which is cooked in coconut milk. Foodies flipping the pages would be enticed by a smorgasbord of delights like kalounjie (bitter stuffed gourd). It’s dotted with guava cheese and pots of highly fragrant and aromatic bay leaf and cinnamon tea recipes. Foreword writer Prof Vibert Cambridge, School of Media Arts and Studies, Ohio University, paid kudos to Nelson’s gift to the kitchens of Caribbean people.Cambridge said: “Nelson has made a case that Caribbean cuisine helps to maintain linkages between Caribbean people in the diaspora and their home societies. It also helps to win new friends for the Caribbean. You will be connected with the extended Caribbean family and the joy of preparing and sharing a meal.”
• Tastes Like Home can be purchased at Nigel R Khan Paper Based and Mohammed’s Bookstores.