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What's Cooking in the Carribean

Harvey Steiman
Posted: September 13, 2000

What's Cooking in the Caribbean

Editor at large Harvey Steiman chills out with the locals at Carenage's Café Havana and goes searching for a bowl of goat water in Charlotte Amalie in this installment of our occasional series of postcards from Wine Spectator's globe-trotting wine tasters.

"This is carnival time," said Claude James, sous chef at Caneel Bay resort's Equator restaurant, responding to my query about Caribbean dishes. "Its all there at the food fair."

Claude had whipped up an island specialty for a first course, offering delicate little silver dollar-size crab pancakes, barely 1/4 inch thick, with a sauce of sweet island pumpkin and chilies. Now he was sitting and reminiscing about his 35 years at Caneel Bay, having been with the property since its opening.

"No," he was saying. "No way I could serve that to any guest when we opened. All they wanted was two martinis, a steak, a potato and choice of vegetables. Island food? No one cared."

Claude was born on St. John, where Caneel Bay commands the prime resort location. He is proud of the island cooking he grew up eating, and he is gratified that a larger percentage of the guests today want to sample some of them. But I doubt if anyone would order goat water. An inelegant name for a delicious dish, it was one of the things I was most looking forward to tasting ever since Claude described it.

"Its goat meat cut into chunks and made into a stew with a little potato and a lot of spices," he said. "Its not thickened, but its really substantial."

When Claude mentioned that they would have goat water at several of the stands at the food fair the next morning, my response was swift. "Youll have to be my guide," I said. "Help me find the best food." With a smile, Claude accepted. After a 45-minute ferry ride from Caneel Bay to Charlotte Amalie, capital of the U.S. Virgin Islands, we were standing at the edge of the towns main square. Food stands tented with canvas against the broiling midday tropical sun lined the square and spilled into adjoining blocks. A swirl of humanity clustered around the booths.

Claude peered into every booth. We passed up about a block and half of food. The heady smells of meat stews, steamed lobsters and bubbling callalou (an island green that cooks up like spinach but tastes more like chard) wafted through the steamy air, at which point I was glad I had eaten that second croissant at breakfast. Claude was being choosy. I asked him what he was looking for. "Heat," he said. "A lot of these steam trays don't have any heat under the food. It would be cold."

Also, we were having trouble finding goat water. We found mutton stew, pork stew, roasted and fried chicken, barbecued pork, even barbecued tofu. We drank a fresh ginger beer, stinging with a ginger bite and sweet at the same time. At another stand, Conch in butter sauce was tender and had a subliminal spicy bite to the buttery juices.

We tried johnny cakes, fried bread with just enough cornmeal to add an interesting texture, and dipped them into a thick bowl of callalou stew with a wonderful, deep flavor. (A small fish head emerged from the emerald mixture. Thats where the great flavor was coming from.) The johnny cakes were huge, about 4 inches across, like a giant cruller. "Thats the biggest johnny cake I ever saw," marveled Claude. It was $1.

Finally, I spied a hand lettered menu that had goat water listed on it. There was an $8 size and a $4 size. After the johnny cake experience, I elected the $4 size. The Caribbean woman ladled the steaming brown mixture from a 20-quart aluminum pot into a pint container. This would be plenty, especially after the appetizer of conch and johnny cakes. Claude, a vegetarian, got himself a serving of barbecued tofu and we set off to locate a cool spot to enjoy our haul.

We found a breezy arcade with empty tables and opened the stew. It was worth the wait. The meat was juicy and meltingly tender, mild in flavor, and the juices were as rich and aromatic as a classic jus, mingling allspice, cinnamon and nutmeg flavors with the meat, onions and potatoes. The unthickened texture was just right for the tropics. Only the necessity of finding a taxi to get me to the airport for a flight kept me from braving the sun and crowds for more.

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On the Carenage, Grenada

Morning traffic inched past the Café Havana on the Carenage, St. Georges, Grenada. The heat of the day was oozing past the open front door. "You have a coconut?" asked the man in the checked shirt. "Sure, mon," said the man in a mustard yellow shirt and green vest behind the bar. "Cold coconut," he sang as he lifted a whole green coconut from the Coca Cola cooler. Someone had already carved away the top portion of the hard green outer shell, and now the bartender finished the job with a machete, creating a round hole in the top. He poked a straw into the hole and handed the coconut to the customer.

"You have another one of those?" I asked. "Sure, mon," said Alvin, the bartender, who repeated the deed for me. The cold, thin coconut juice, with its subliminal sweetness, quenched the thirst of a hot morning about as well as anything could. The customer, who said he had moved to New York from Haiti 30 years ago, smiled in approval. He asked Alvin to hack the now-empty shell in half, the better to eat the thin layer of white in the young coconut. Alvin obliged. "You are lucky," he smiled. "Most of these have no meat." He peered into the top of my coconut. "Noting dere," he shrugged. Ah well, for $1, it was worth it.

The natural coconut drink is not listed on the Havanas silver-framed cocktail list, which included "blue bananas" and "sunset passion." "De locals know," Alvin said. "Dey like it wit a little rum," and he pointed to a lineup of bottles holding such local rums as Westerhall Grenada, Jack Iron Carriacou (a neighboring island), So Strong Carriacou, and Old Oak White.

The taxi drivers on the Carenage have a whiff of desperation about them, approaching every non-local pedestrian with an offer of a taxi ride. I watched 20 cabs line up with no takers all morning. When no cruise ship is in port, St. Georges is a quiet place.

At the Nutmeg Café, I have a fish roti and a mauby juice. The roti consists of fish cubes, onions and potatoes in a curry sauce with some authority, wrapped in what was a dead ringer for a flour tortilla. Mauby, a drink made from a sassafrass-like tropical bark, made a bracing drink about the color of ginger ale, but seasoned liberally with nutmeg.

Grenadian water is justly renowned for its cleanliness and sweet taste. Spice Island Beach Inn fills insulated pitchers with chilled tap water, every bit as refreshing as an overpriced plastic bottle of imported water. Neither, however, is quite as good on a hot day as coconut juice.

--Harvey Steiman

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