Flavours of the Caribbean
The arrival of the Cariwest Festival in Edmonton last summer made me think back to one of our favourite snack stops during my high school days in the early 1980s: the Caribe Soul Shack (I think that’s what it was called) on Whyte Avenue, where they served Jamaican meat patties from a small oven in the back room. The festival’s food offerings also evoked memories of university, when we ate countless meals of curry goat, chicken, and shrimp, channa aloo (chickpeas and potato), with roti and kuchla (a spicy mango condiment) at the home of Sam and Janet Jaikaran, parents of one of my best friends, who immigrated to Canada from Trinidad in 1967.
Food is an integral part of any celebration for most cultures, and I began to ponder the diversity of ethnic heritages that contribute to Caribbean culture and cuisine. Comprised of a multitude of islands in the Caribbean Sea and the surrounding coasts, the Caribbean (or West Indies, as it is also known) draws its culinary influences from a number of cultural backgrounds.
Trinidad, Jamaica, Guyana, Barbados, Bahamas, Bermuda, Grenada, the Cayman Islands, and Turks and Caicos are just some of the familiar names we know to be part of the Caribbean. But the cultural influences are from India, Africa, France, Spain, Portugal, China, Denmark and the Netherlands (among others) as well as from the many native peoples.
To gain some culinary insights on Caribbean cuisine, I paid the Jaikarans a visit (it was also an easy excuse to enjoy some of Janet’s delicious island fare). Coincidentally, they happened to have relatives visiting from Trinidad. Food is so clearly an important part of Trinidadian life (as it is for so many cultures) — as was evidenced by the lively and passionate discussion that ensued.
I love speaking about food with people who love food. Food is so much more than just nourishment for the body, it’s nourishment for the soul. You can see the love as their eyes get big and light up when describing the memories evoked from their favourite dishes with a vividness that left me in a constant state of salivation.
Curry goat, curry duck, roti, dhalpurie (roti stuffed with seasoned ground peas), callaloo (a soup with crab and dasheen leaves — although spinach can be substituted), saltfish and doubles (a quesadilla-like snack with seasoned chickpeas between two pieces of fried dough) are all delicious staples of Trinidadian cuisine. The curries are East Indian–influenced with the use of spices such as coriander, turmeric and cumin, but when I asked for a recipe, I got the same response and look of disbelief that I get from most preparers of ethnic cuisine, including my mom: “You add a little of this, some of that, and just the right amount of the other thing. We don’t cook with a recipe, we cook by feeling and taste.”
I did convince Janet to “make up” a recipe for curry goat. She emphasized that the recipe is just a guideline and that people should adjust the seasoning according to their own taste. Janet also wanted to dispel the common notion that all Caribbean cuisine is spicy hot. “The spices are about flavour, not heat.”
This view was reinforced by Safron Bambury, owner of Safron’s Caribbean Delight in Edmonton. When I asked Safron if there was one thing he would like to convey to people about Caribbean food, he immediately replied that “it’s not about the heat, it’s about the flavour.”
Originally from Jamaica, Safron opened his namesake twenty-seat restaurant almost a year and a half ago. One of the most popular dishes on his menu is his deliciously moist, tender, pull-away-from-the-bone-without-an-effort jerk chicken. Jerk is a method of slow cooking meat that has been dry-rubbed with spices, over coal or wood. The seasoning is comprised of a number of ingredients and varies depending on who is preparing it, but the principal elements are allspice (Jamaican pimento), Scotch bonnet peppers, scallions, nutmeg and thyme.
Another misconception about Caribbean food is that you can’t pair it with wine. This myth stems directly from the Caribbean-food-is-too-spicy-hot myth. The following are some of my favourite dishes from the islands with wine pairings to match. Remember: it’s not just about the heat, it really is about the flavour.
FX Pichler Grüner Veltliner Klostersatz Federspiel 2005, Wachau, Austria ($34)
Rich, ripe and beautiful with deep mouth-filling flavours of peach, apricot, mineral and spice that are fresh, full and powerful. The long, long finish shows white pepper and more spice. Has the structure and intensity not only to stand up to the spice in the jerk chicken, but to shine through and be the perfect partner.
Domaine Tempier Classique 2005, Bandol, Provence, France ($48)
Elegant, intense and seductive with aromas and flavours of plums, blackberries, cherries and blueberries. Muscular, but possesses a creamy texture, fresh acidity and a long, elegant finish of mineral, spice and hints of mocha. Perfect with the tender oxtail (braised beef tail).
Bruno Paillard Brut Rosé Première Cuvée NV, Champagne, France ($95)
Graceful and lovely, full of berries and spice notes enveloped in a rich texture, with a lively acidity. Very stylish with a long delicious and vibrant finish. Champagne and French fries are a natural match … so is this.
Pierre Sparr Gewürztraminer Reserve 2005, Alsace, France ($26.99)
A lovely expression of Gewürztraminer, showing honey, lychee and spice notes on a firm, but easygoing structure. Finishes with citrus peel. Soft and silky, but with enough intensity and backbone to play off the flavourful jerk spices and meaty pork.
Averill Creek Pinot Noir 2006, Vancouver Island, BC ($40)
Plum, cherry and earth aromas with hints of game, pleasant acidity, subtle herbal notes and a lean, silky edge. Duck and Pinot Noir have always made good bedfellows and the addition of the curry doesn’t detract from the relationship, it just adds another dimension.
Quintay Clava Sauvignon Blanc 2007, Casablanca Valley, Chile ($14.99)
Doubles are a snack food common in Trinidad. The wine is lively and bright with zesty citrus flavours with hints of tropical fruit and mineral. The acidity is great enough to hold up to the spice of the chickpeas as well as the fried dough.
Curry Goat & Roti
Col d’Orcia Rosso degli Spezieri IGT 2003, Tuscany, Italy ($21.99)
A delicious, balanced wine with loads of berry, earth and dried-herb aromas and flavours. Medium-bodied, with medium, firm tannins and a succulent finish. Wonderful with the tender and flavourful goat with just enough of bright acidity on the finish to add another dimension to the blend of spices.
Pazo de Señoráns Albariño 2006, Rías Baixas, Galicia, Spain ($35)
Expressive and focused with vibrant pear, peach, grapefruit flavours and a mouth-watering acidity. Graceful and elegant with a depth of flavour and a crisp, clean and lingering mineral finish. A refreshing and delightful match with this soup of crab and dasheen leaves.