The word curry has different meanings. In the English language, curry can refer to “an attempt to gain favor or approval from someone through flattery” – hence the saying, “to curry favor”. The word curry is more popularly used to describe a blend of spices that traces its origins to the Asian continent.
Curry is ubiquitous throughout the cuisines of South Asia, especially India, Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Vietnam. Unseasoned cooks subscribe to the popular misconception that curry is a single spice. In fact, there is no true spice called curry; it is a blend of spices which vary from one region of the world to the next.
Curry recipes in India can change from household to household and run the gamut from mild to searingly hot and spicy. Curry can be yellow or red or green, depending on the herbs and spices used in the blend. Common ingredients in curry powder include: coriander seeds, fenugreek seeds, cumin, fennel seed, mustard seed, poppy seed, chili pepper and turmeric. The powdered turmeric root gives curry that distinctive yellow hue which most westerners are accustomed to seeing.
The word curry resides on a deeper and more personal level in my West Indian psyche. To speak of curry is to think of roti with split peas and dahl… A birthday party… the fair… the local cook shop. The smell of curry-spiced meat sizzling in a Dutch pot takes me home to my island heritage.
Curry is a 13 year old boy living on a cattle farm in Jamaica, workers in water boots chatting around a makeshift campfire. Curry is cooking and eating in the bush, with a banana leaf as my plate. Curry is boiled flour dumplings as large as a hand around topped the “watchman,” a small dollop of chicken back seasoned with said curry. Curry is more than just a mixture of spices; it’s a harmonious blend of ethnic cuisines in the global melting pot of food.Curry means goat. Local, from the butcher, cooked slowly until it falls off the bone, eaten with fried plantains, a raw salad of shredded cabbage, carrots, sliced tomato, and steaming hot white rice. In the eyes of the butcher, the ram goat above is a prime candidate for the stew pot. Quick work with a knife will dispatch the animal to curry heaven, where greener grass and sweeter drinking water awaits. For the rest of us mortals, goat meat is easily found in supermarkets that serve ethnic neighborhoods, especially those with a strong Hispanic, African or Caribbean population.
For this recipe, a pound of goat meat bought from the supermarket will be sufficient to bring joy to you the cook and your diners. Season the meat with a teaspoon of salt, garlic powder, and black pepper. Add two generous tablespoons of curry powder, preferably Jamaican or Trinidadian curry.
If you can find it in your supermarket, add three or four seeds of whole allspice and a generous sprig of thyme. To this mixture, peel and cut two carrots into rounds as well as one large white onion (diced). If you are truly daring, procure a habañero pepper – set it aside for now.
Mix all ingredients together and let sit for about 30 minutes in the refrigerator. In the meantime, find a sturdy pot suitable for stewing and add an ounce of vegetable oil. When it is really hot, add the goat meat (only) and sear for two or three minutes. This gives some color to the meat and “sets the curry”. There is nothing worse than eating uncooked curry; it is a surefire way to spend hours in the bathroom bemoaning your unlucky fate.
Add 6 cups of water to the vegetables, making sure to give it a good swirl to catch all the spices. Add this to the goat in the stew pot, reduce the flame, and let your meal simmer. Add the whole habañero (while the goat cooks, the habañero will imbue the stew with a rich flavor without over spicing the dish).
Let simmer for 2 hours, stirring occasionally until the meat pulls off the bone. Serve with white rice or other foods of your choice.
Sous Chef, I know you. Your life has changed. For a split second, the room stands still and in that one brief moment, I look down.
“There’s an asparagus peel on my shoe.” It’s an errant thought and I mentally swat it away and force myself to breathe. My executive chef points and my eyes follow the motion of his hands and see the embossed folder lying on his desk. It’s there on paper – the title, I mean – all neatly printed in bold font. I sign my name and he says ,“Congratulations, proud, good job, yada yada yada,” and all I’m thinking is “I need a drink.”
It came so quickly, Sous Chef … I know you can never be truly ready. I’ve spent years preparing for this one moment.
I’ve worked hard, then forced myself to work harder. I’ve endured the insults and absorbed the pain. I remember one night when I was working the grill. It was just before service, and we had more than a hundred reservations on the books. It didn’t help that our executive chef was anal about every little detail; we were all tense and our fear was palpable.
He strode over to my station and took a black truffle the size of a ducks’ egg and told me to shave some for service. I was nervous: the truffle slicer was razor sharp, and I sliced my palm open. I ran to the back with a kitchen rag wound tightly around my bleeding palm. Another cook had a few waterproof Band-Aids, and together we pasted them on, then used masking tape to bind my wound. We stuffed my aching hand into two latex gloves, and I went back to my station.
I’ve never called in sick, never told my chef no, never complained. I’ve kept my knives sharp and my uniform clean. I’ve seen each challenge as an opportunity. I’ve nurtured my passion for cooking even at my darkest hour. Perhaps most importantly, I’ve never burned a bridge; I’ve always made sure my next job was in a better kitchen.
Sous Chef, I know you realize the dream was the easiest part of this journey. It’s easy to imagine all the perks of the position: finally your name on a jacket, on the menu, the beautiful food, the adoration, the careers of cooks you’ll influence. What I didn’t see was the great responsibility that comes with the position. Suddenly, I’m expected to have all the answers. Now I’m the adult in the room; it’s my job to make the tough calls – and whether that pill is good or bad, I have to swallow all my choices. It’s a sobering thought to realize there’s no one else to turn to. I can’t kick the can down the road anymore; Sous Chef you are the can.
Sous Chef, I know you’ve been at work since six. The day is done, the cooks have gone, but there’s still work to do. Can’t go home till payroll’s finished. There’s inventory, and the produce and meat order. Gotta think about specials for tomorrow; did I order everything I need.? My inbox is overflowing and I sift through all my email and respond to as many as I can. I’m connected, I’m always thinking about work: my computer, my phone, my thoughts. I take it all in, sort it in my mind, and go in search of another cup of “the devils brew”. It’s either coffee or Red Bull, and I’ll probably drink large amounts of both throughout the day.
Sous Chef, I know you finally begin to see the dedication it takes: the sacrifice, the strength of will to pull it all together even when everything seems to be going to hell. Thing is, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m comfortable with my vices, I love what I do, I’m not afraid of the responsibility, working in my kitchen is my adrenaline rush. I live for it.
Seedlings from the ackee tree were brought from West Africa along with slaves in the early 1700’s. Every Jamaican knows that ackee can be poisonous; never pick the fruit before the pods fully open on the tree.
I’ve never been poisoned by ackee. Growing up, I was a willful child, but I did pay attention when my grandmother was teaching me how to prepare it. We would sit on the verandah with the basket between us, filled to the brim with bright orange pods. As she plucked the ripe ackee arils from the pod, I would use a small knife to remove the shiny black seed.
Grandma loved to gossip, and as we worked she would tell stories of people who had been poisoned by ackee. She would always end by pointing a finger, warning, “Jomo, don’t forget to tek out the red membrane; is poison, yuh know.” Eventually the creamy yellow arils would fill the plastic container on my knees, and we would head to the kitchen to boil them.
Ackee, breadfruit, and salted codfish are all transplants that traveled along slave routes in the heyday of European colonialism. Both plants adapted well to Jamaican soil and flourished in our tropical climate. As for salted codfish, it was a staple of any oceangoing fleet of that time –especially the British colonists who settled the Caribbean.
Establishing vast sugarcane plantations, colonists bought slaves from West Africa to work the land. The slaves were forced to adapt to their new surroundings and gradually learned to incorporate local fruits, ground provisions and vegetables into their cook pots. Ackee & Saltfish (recipe below) has become intertwined in Jamaican food lore and culture.
My grandmother’s house has a huge breadfruit tree in the backyard. Growing up I’ve climbed that tree many times, scrambling from branch to branch, shouting and laughing in play with my brother. The breadfruit tree was center stage of our imaginary world, filled with swashbuckling pirates and rocket ships blasting off into space. We were explorers and space cowboys, born to be wild.
Despite the unwanted attention, our rough treatment and branch tearing, the tree bore fruit. Back then, I was too young to appreciate eating food picked from my own backyard and would have much preferred a bowl of Fruit Loops. My finicky eating habits didn’t faze Grandma; I was forced to eat breadfruit boiled in chicken foot soup on Saturdays. On Sunday mornings, I’d eat Ackee & Saltfish withroasted breadfruit, each slice smeared with warm butter or deep fried and sprinkled with salt.
Captain Bligh brought breadfruit saplings from Tahiti to Jamaica in 1793. Originally it was meant to feed slaves, but they did not like the sweet taste. For many years breadfruit trees grew wild, and the fruit was used to feed hogs. Eventually the fruit was incorporated into local diets, and breadfruit has become a staple protein food ever since.Weighing between two and six pounds, breadfruit can grow as large as volleyballs. Between May and August, the tree produces copious amounts of the bright green fruit.
My mom, who owns a small bakery in Port Maria, St. Mary, will tell you that there are two times of the year when bread does not sell well. Breadfruit season (May- August), and mango season ( May to July). It’s easy to understand why: mango, ackee, and breadfruit trees are common sights in both urban and rural Jamaican yards. Those without a tree need not worry; friends and neighbors are always willing to share whatever extra their households cannot consume.
An ackee or breadfruit tree laden with fruit is a sight to behold. It grows in your backyard, it grows wild, and it’s everywhere. With nature’s bounty on display and free, who wants to pay for bread? Most Jamaicans would rather eat juicy ripe mangoes for lunch and delicious roast or fried breadfruit for dinner.
These two breadfruit recipes were adapted from The Hotel Mocking Bird Hill blog. Recipes and posts by Barbara Walker provide an insightful look into Jamaican cuisine.
Stuffed Roasted Breadfruit
Take one medium breadfruit and score around the stem, pulling the stem out of the breadfruit.
Fill the cavity in the breadfruit with Ackee and Salt Fish (recipe below), or spinach and feta, sundried tomatoes (diced) and feta cheese.
You then take the heart of the breadfruit that you have cut out with the stem and cut it leaving only enough to cover the top of the stuffed cavity. Brush the breadfruit with olive oil and bake in 350 degree pre-heated oven for 35 -45 minutes or until a skewer or knife inserted into the breadfruit comes out clean.
Peel the roasted breadfruit and then split it in half, using the halved breadfruit as bowls for the filling. Slice like potato wedges and serve with a mixed green salad.
Breadfruit FuFu (recipe)
(For anyone who likes Hawaiian Poi using Taro – this is very similar)
Using a coal stove or BBQ, roast the breadfruit at medium heat, until a skewer or knife inserted into the centre, comes out clean. The breadfruit must be turned often during roasting.
If using an oven, lightly brush the breadfruit with coconut oil and bake at 350 degrees for 35 -45 minutes, or until a knife or skewer inserted into the breadfruit comes out clean.
Peel the roasted breadfruit and remove its core. Cut in small cubes and place cubes in mortar. Pound with a pestle until it becomes like a soft dough (you can use an electric mixer fitted with a dough hook).
Break into small pieces and add to soup or stews.
Note: After roasting and peeling the breadfruit it is ready to be used as an aside in sliced form. As the breadfruit cools, it becomes quite dense so, a good option at this point is to fry the slices and use as a side dish.
I’ve made ackee and saltfish several times since I’ve migrated to the United States. All the ingredients can be bought at the farmers’ market or in the Caribbean food section of a Wal-Mart, Publix or Kroger supermarket.
I use canned ackees, and when I’m finished I make a plate and eat breakfast without much fanfare, in solitary silence. I know in my heart that it will never taste the same, but it’s my way of reconnecting with my culture – a Jamaican chef cooking regional American cuisine.
I cannot reproduce the creaking of the wooden floor, or the stillness of a household in slumber. My hands look nothing like my grandmothers, dicing onions, tomatoes and scotch bonnet pepper. In my apartment, the hood vent above the stove siphons off the aroma of coconut oil and the stew of tomatoes, onions, peppers and thyme, bubbling in fat.
And where is the smell of breadfruit roasting in a coal pot? These intrinsic memories from my past are impossible to duplicate in an apartment with electric burners and air-conditioned “atmosphere.”
Instead, I’ll wait for Jamaica. I’ll go home to my grandmother, in her small house close to the sea. The car turns down the narrow lane leading to her house, and then stops at her gate. There, I’ll look forward to my first meal; I will eat whatever she chooses to cook. I can see her sitting on the verandah, waiting for me. There is a smile on her face, and I tumble out the car and rush to hug her. I’m remembering Ackee & Saltfish with roast breadfruit as it’s supposed to be. Breakfast from my childhood.
Ackee & Saltfish
½ lb salted codfish (saltfish)
1 lb fresh ackee (cleaned and deveined)
½ small Spanish onion (julienne)
1 scotch bonnet pepper (leave the pepper whole, for more heat slice the pepper into rounds, discard the seeds)
2 Roma tomatoes (diced)
4 sprigs of thyme
Black pepper to taste
¼ cup of good coconut oil
You can let the codfish soak in water overnight, but I always forget, so this is what I do: in a pot of cold water bring the codfish to a boil. Drain the water and repeat the process two more times. Taste the codfish; it should be salty, but not too much. Two birds with one stone: now the codfish has been cooked and the excess salt has been removed.
Remove the bones from the codfish, take the skin off if there is any, and flake the fish into small pieces. Not too small but not too large either –imagine stripping paint from a wall.
This is not a canned ackee recipe, so wait until you have the opportunity to use fresh ackees. Now it’s time to clean and cook the ackee. Use a small knife to cut off the black seeds, and then use your fingers to remove the red membrane lining the belly of each aril. Clean them well. Remember the red membranes are toxic, so have a care. Cook the ackees in a pot of salted boiling water, until firm but tender, about 8 minutes. Drain and set aside.
In a hot sauté pan add coconut oil. Make sure the pan is hot, then add the onions, let sizzle for a minute. Add the diced tomatoes, scotch bonnet pepper and thyme and let cook for another minute. Add the saltfish and stir together. Finally add the ackee, toss gently until heated through. Finish with a pinch of black pepper. And it is done!