Many of the world’s great stews were born of poverty. Just as famous dishes like ratatouille, feijoada and gazpacho were created by peasants who had to find ways to transform unglamorous ingredients into delicious meals, the iconic one-pot meals of the Caribbean are similarly colored by the hard necessities of a life in bondage – long, hot, hard days working in the fields relieved only by a hardy evening meal around a communal cooking pot.
These meals persist in various forms throughout the Caribbean islands, where they are seen less as a reminder of impoverishment than an expression of cultural traditions carefully preserved through centuries of slavery, emancipation, and independence.
Travelers to the Caribbean are far more likely to find jerk chicken on restaurant menus and at their resort buffets than they are classic dishes like pepper pot, goat water, and oil down. But these traditional stews remain staples for weekend family dinners and holiday meals for local families, as well as among the Caribbean diaspora.
“People all over the world talk about what they’re putting into the pepper pot at Christmas,” says Washington State University professor Candice Goucher, author of Congotay! Congotay! A Global History of Caribbean Food. “Recipes were tweaked based on what was locally available,” said Goucher.
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The Guyanese pepper pot prepared by Goucher’s family is a meat-and-vegetable stew built around boiled bitter cassava, a versatile South American starchy root vegetable that was a staple of the indigenous Tiano people, the original inhabitants on many Caribbean islands. In Jamaica, the pepper pot is made with callalo (a kale-like vegetable transplanted from Africa) and fiery local Scotch Bonnet peppers.
Along with herbs, plantains, yams and other “ground provisions,” classic pepper pot ingredients were originally grown on small plots of land where slaves were permitted by plantation owners to grow their own food. Bush meat (which could mean anything from lizards to monkeys), offal left over from the masters’ table, and the occasional purloined goat also made their way into the cookpot.
The melting pot of Caribbean cuisine is evident in Jamaica and Trinidad’s “rundown” – a stew made with local fish, coconut milk (introduced by indentured servants from India and East Asia) and yams from Africa. Grenada’s national dish, oil down, incorporates the salted meat originally carried aboard European ships with ground provisions like callalo and breadfruit in a coconut milk base. “You’re eating the first globalized cuisine, where all of the continents meet up,” says Goucher.
One-pot meals are also part of maritime tradition, but Caribbean stews have their roots in West Africa – a pepper pot recipe can be found in the Anansi folklore stories that slaves brought over from Africa to the Caribbean, notes Goucher. Some one-pot dishes were even viewed as honoring Yemana, the ocean goddess of West Africa. “These meals are really important to the survival of African culture,” says Goucher.
Callalo soup is simple to prepare and perhaps the most accessible of Caribbean one-pot meals to newcomers. “You’ll find it in mom and pop restaurants all over the Caribbean,” says St. Croix born chef Digby Stridiron, executive chef of Charleston, S.C.’s new Parcel 32 restaurant, where the menu blends West Indian and Lowcountry influences. Moderately adventurous eaters also will enjoy rundown and oil down; the head-to-tail goat water and sweetbread-based souse are acquired tastes, although both are reputed to impart virility to diners. “Ain’t nothing more West Indian than souse,” says Stridiron.