By Stephanie Ramlogan
In 2018 I moved from Trinidad and came to Crown Heights, Brooklyn, a neighbourhood with plenty Caribbean influence. The small stretch of Nostrand Avenue in my immediate surroundings had at least three roti shops I knew about, and all of them sold doubles too. There were West Indian groceries stocked with Crix and Chubby. The Korean shops carried Tiki and Caramel by the cash register as well as shadon beni and Solo in the fridge. I could get most things I needed. Between Latino, Indian and African neighbours, you could find breadfruit, hot pepper, saltfish, dasheen bush, roasted geera, eddoes, plantain, Maggi cubes, Carnation evaporated milk, house, land and a tantee. Now I am in Flatbush; an area recently named “Little Caribbean”. You can well imagine the bounty!
Many things might be labelled differently from how we know it in Trinidad, but they are the same thing. Shadon Beni, as I have come to know, has countless names from Recao to Culantro to Sawtooth Coriander. Some herbs aren’t as strong in flavour here as they are when grown in Trini soil, but it just means you have to use more of them. Cooking Trini food in foreign is experimental, you see. You will have to guesstimate and measure by instinct and memory, comparing the flavours to what you can remember it tastes like back home.
I am lucky to have so much available to me in Brooklyn, and I know in other parts, you might have to work with more substitutions than I do. That is completely okay. Don’t get caught up in the comparisons. Like the Caribbean itself, our food is innovative, and Caribbean diaspora cooking is no different. Does my dhal taste exactly like my grandmother’s? I doubt. My grandmother wasn’t cooking with the snow on her mind. But I do know when I make it, the smell of my apartment reminds me of her house in Cunupia. And my dhal is spicy, and smooth and a rich deep yellow, warming me up from toe tip all the way to my ears in the winter. Trini cooking is personal. And while I will share with you my own recipes and tips for sweetening your hand to taste like home, the magic ingredient is your soul, and your story. All of we who living in foreign have a unique story that brought us to these new lands, straddling two (or more) cultures, and belonging to all.
Trini style Callaloo is the one thing I haven’t found at any Caribbean restaurants in New York. There is a lot of the Jamaican style variety, which is very different. With the Trinbagonian version, dasheen bush leaves are cooked with ochroes and pumpkin, in coconut milk and crab stock, until they melt into a chunky, slimy soup. Some people blend it into a puree, but not I. It destroys the harmonious mélange of individual textures and flavours. It is traditionally swizzled by hand, but my mix-up Caribbean-American millennial method is a gently pulsed version, loosening up the bigger pieces with an immersion blender, and leaving the overall consistency quite hearty. If I can’t see any ochro seeds, I don’t want it!
Callaloo is most popular for Sunday lunch, served with macaroni pie, red beans and stew chicken. On its own, it can be enjoyed in a bowl with a spoon.
A bundle of chopped Dasheen Bush (also called Callaloo bush)
If you can find the real dasheen bush leaves, you get through.
If not, don’t fret. It have other things you could use:
or one pack of Frozen Spinach
or 2-3 bags of Baby Spinach
5-6 Medium Ochroes
If you can’t find ochroes, use half of a small, young eggplant, diced, without the skin
½ cup cubed pumpkin
*use butternut squash if pumpkin isn’t available
1 large onion, diced
5-6 cloves of garlic, chopped
3-5 pimento peppers, chopped (optional)
1 whole Hot scotch Bonnet Pepper
(There really is no substitute for this one unfortunately. But the recipe works without it too.)
1 Maggi Crab Season the pot packet
If you can’t get this (let’s face it, this scarce even in Trinidad):
¼ lb piece of boiled and rinsed saltfish
or a few whole small crabs, or just claws (of course actual crab is the best overall, but not something I always have on hand)
or one can of crab meat
or a chunk of parmesan cheese rind (yes, I’m serious)
or for a vegan variety, a couple sheets of nori (seaweed)
1 can of Coconut Milk
*The advantage of living in foreign is to have canned unprocessed coconut milk available in more places than the Caribbean groceries provide. Of Course in Trinidad you have more dried coconuts available to make your milk from scratch, which is the best. But when using the canned versions, look for ones that have only water and coconut as the ingredients. Trader Joe’s, Thai Kitchen and Brad Organics carry these varieties.
You can of course use coconut milk powder as well.
I must give a disclaimer now, that I am an intuitive cook. Measurements, timing and precision are not part of my personal method, but I will try my best to provide some order to the potion making.
In a deep, heavy bottomed pot, sautee the onions, pimentos, garlic, pumpkin and ochroes in some coconut oil until fragrant.
If using crab meat or salt fish, add now, and sautee for about a minute again
Add coconut milk, and the hot pepper and bring to a gentle boil
Add dasheen bush or spinach and combine with the milk and other ingredients, mixing with a big, pot spoon. You may need to increase the heat a little. Add a bit of salt, and your crab flavour packet. Even if you’re not using a crab packet, add your substitution of choice now. Bring everything to a simmer and cover the pot, mixing it at intervals to see that the spinach is wilting, and that there is enough liquid just covering it.
When the spinach is completely soft, and the pumpkin has melted (this could take about 25 mins) remove from the heat and pulse the Callaloo gently so as to break up bigger spinach leaves, but not to blend into a puree. Be careful not to blend the hot pepper. The consistency should be creamy, but chunky, with the ochro/ okra seeds well intact.
I like to return the pot to a low heat, uncovered, for any excess water to evaporate, continuing to mix until the colour and consistency is the way I like it. This is totally a matter of preference. I like deep green, thick callaloo, with some unblended bhagi leaf pieces throughout.