Malcolm Jolley enjoys some simple Barbados delicacies.
I thought I’d had coconut until I had one from the back of a truck in a parking lot in the Parish of St. George, Barbados. I was on the island a few weeks ago to attend this year’s Barbados Food & Rum Festival. I know: tough job, spending a few days in the Caribbean sun, eating fresh food cooked by the country’s best chefs, and washing it down with rum cocktails made by the stars of the emerging Bajan mixologist scene. Click here to see how it all went down.) But all that hard work can be tiring, so I was pleased to have a free day before going home to explore the island beyond the festival venues. Plans were made, and I found myself in a van in the middle of Barbados with Marissa Bronfman, a fellow Canadian delegate to the festival and the reason for the coconut revelation.
Marissa is a powerhouse of a young lady, who’s returned to Toronto after living for some years in Mumbai. A committed vegan, she started and ran an animal-free food business in India, Bowl Bar, and keeps an eye on the finer points vegan lifestyle at her new venture fashion, travel, and luxury lifestyle focused Moxie Media. On our way to the north east part of the island, it was Marissa who insisted we keep an eye out for roadside coconut vendors, explaining that one of the things she missed most about India was fresh coconut water sold this way.
It was Sunday, and the truck we spotted had set itself up across the way from a church, waiting for the congregation to come out. Two men stood on a pile of green skinned coconuts, which they sold for (I think – I have no receipt) a dollar a fruit. Marissa did the ordering, and she asked for two “with the jelly”, or something to that effect. That puzzled me. Soon one of the men was lopping the ends of two smallish coconuts and inserted straws into the holes he had made in them, while I paid the other. We drank the coconut water, which was deliciously refreshing and helped clear any residual fogginess from the night before’s rum. When the water was drunk, I thought we were done, but Marissa handed her coconut back to the gentleman who wielded the machete. He promptly cut it right in half. Then he skinned off a bit of the tough rind around the fruit and stuck it inside one of the halves. Marissa took it back and used the rind as a spoon to scoop out what looked like a white jelly. I followed suit.
Outside of the tropics, the coconuts we get are either old or dried out or both. A young fresh coconut, though, will have the most amazing jelly-like flesh, whose taste is more mild and complex than the drier older kind. It was a delightful first encounter with this remarkable food. For the rest of the trip, I spotted roadside coconut stands throughout the island. If you go, don’t miss out on them, as I would surely have.
On the subject of gelatinous surprises, the other great gastronomic discovery for me in Barbados was cou-cou. Cou-cou and flying fish (see my post on that delicacy here) is said to be the Barbadian national dish. Descriptions of cou-cou generally just say it’s a corn meal based side dish with okra. Having read about the dish before the trip, I had imagined a sort of island version of polenta with some vegetable bits in it. What I was served at Cutters Deli*, near The Crane Resort and its famous beach, was something much more refined. Cou-cou is the amalgamation of okra and cornmeal, which creates a firm but silky texture. Okra, with its characteristic viscosity, is sliced up and cooked in water and strained. Then, the okra-water is used to cook the cornmeal, after which the okra slices are reintroduced along with (of course) butter.
The cou-cou I ate was dressed in a curry sauce, made yellow with Bajan hot sauce. The hot sauce in Barbados is typically yellow, not just from Scotch bonnet peppers, but also from turmeric and prepared American-style mustard (which is yellow from turmeric itself). It gave the creamy and mild cou-cou an elevating twang and pleasing taste of place.
*Cutters has reputedly the best rum punch in Barbados, more on that in my next post on Bajan rum.