OF LATE, I’ve been running through all my DVDs of No Reservations. Admittedly, it’s a bit spine-chilling to hear the late Anthony Bourdain make cavalier (and in retrospect, prescient) references to “hanging myself in a shower stall” in those old episodes.
Still, I was once again charmed by his genuine reverence for simple dishes of the working class; meals born out of crushing privations and enduring penury.
Whether foods were wrested from the impoverished soils of Provence, or coaxed out of the craggy earth of Grecian provinces, Bourdain always spoke of “lack” and ingenuity being the forebears of distinctive flavours. Poor people become adept at making the best of what they have, extracting the sublime out of simplicity.
In TT, our current food culture is dominated by the more-is-better ethos; more meat, more decadence, more money. The remnants of our traditional dishes are bombarded with the one-note influences of excessive cheese, salt and oil. The foodie culture gleefully appropriated from other jurisdictions celebrates the idea of more and bigger and, oh, did I say more already?
There are some exceptions. Baidawi Assing who has a successful online presence championing local foods, often with a twist, occasionally posts pictures of simplicity itself: a cup of dhal. Except there’s nothing simple about dhal.
My late mother-in-law came from circumstances more humble than I can possibly describe. What she was able to do with dhal was nothing short of dark magic. She reduced the split peas into a liquid state so full of flavour you could eat it with rice and nothing else. While mine’s comes out like gruel unfit for the inmates at Carrera Island, her dhal was a silken dhal-ness in suspension with dark flecks of cumin seeds adding a distinctive flavour.
It was her way to command complex tastes out of the ordinary. In her experienced hands an eggplant or aubergine was transformed into bhaigan (baingan?). Stay with me here; only when the eggplant is roasted whole over an open flame does it take on an entirely new personality. Roasting imparts a smokiness which, combined with other seasoning, elevates a humble vegetable (strictly speaking, a fruit) into something more. Something better.
Let’s face it, the thought of vegetables rarely triggers a Pavlovian response in people. Yet, several traditionally-prepared vegetarian dishes in this country can each hold their own in the flavour department. These flavours originate in a determination to turn struggle into triumph.
When I was growing up my father often bought chataigne, or bread nut as it’s called elsewhere. My father, it seems, only knew about boiling the large seeds in salted water and eating them as a snack. He’d refer to them facetiously as flatulence pills. Only, he didn’t use the word flatulence.
Boiled chataigne seeds had a taste I always imagined would seem quite impressive to a horse or some other large ruminant. It was only years later when I ate chataigne at an Indian wedding did I discover that the seeds actually play second fiddle to the flesh.
When cooked with fresh coconut milk and the right spices and seasonings, the flesh of the chatiagne is soft and has a taste which is, in my opinion, even closer to crab than some of the most expensive fake crab on the market. The creators of that rendition of chataigne understood the need for putting creative thought into the plain and unassuming.
Back in the days before you could pay for a house with oxtail, my friend’s mother use to have a tradition every Saturday of preparing several large pots of oxtail soup. When last have you heard of children who are not in an orphanage lining up for soup? That’s how it was every Saturday at my friend’s house.
The intermittent hiss of the pressure cooker, the chopping of seasonings, the smell of the hot pepper dancing on the boil. Chadon beni, thyme, onions, pimento peppers, potatoes, carrots, dumplings; simple things coalesced to deliver complex flavours and evoke feelings bordering on delirium.
Sadly, I never again in my life had oxtail soup quite like Jean Shepard’s recipe. The real Trini cooking, the tastes Anthony Bourdain would have enjoyed, are products of an inventiveness only scarcity and thrift can inspire. These flavours and techniques are gradually being lost to time and the changing appetites that money purchases.
Like so much of what made us unique, our culture, architecture – it’s all buried beneath a bland, borrowed identity.
So much nostalgic simplicity in a well-made cup of dhal, a bhaigan choka, an oxtail soup. The complex tastes of who we are, or were.