Once again, we hopped across the ocean to the Caribbean… back to the land of peas and rice, fish, and coconut. I am starting notice some reoccurring foods in the Caribbean islands, and I’m curious if we will eventually run out of Caribbean staples and go for the lesser-known foods.
Anyway… I learned a few things while researching the food of Barbados:
- The national dish of Barbados is flying fish with cou cou. Flying fish have wing-like fins that allow them to glide over the water for short distances, and they seem to be a big deal in terms of both cuisine and culture.
- People of Barbados are referred to as Bajans. Having recently watched Star Trek DS9, we had a really hard time not saying “Bajoran” instead of “Bajan” and started referring to this as our Bajoran meal.
- Rihanna is from Barbados.
I was nervous about choosing the national dish of flying fish and cou cou, due to A) a strong suspicion that they don’t sell flying fish in Iowa, B) fear of a repeat of our Angolan funge disaster (cou cou is the cornmeal version of funge, with the addition of okra), and C) Our general bad luck with fish-based cooking. I was all set to make macaroni pie, which is similar to macaroni and cheese, and coconut bread, but I couldn’t decide on a main course. So, flying fish and cou cou it was.
- Flying fish and cou cou: as described above the cou cou is similar to funge (or polenta), but made with cornmeal and okra. The flying fish can be steamed or fried.
- Coconut bread: This recipe seems to be a favorite throughout the Caribbean, as this is not the first reference I have seen to it. The recipe reminds me of other sweet breads, such as zucchini bread or banana bread, but instead it uses coconut flakes. Most recipes also include raisins.
The first step was actually to make the Bajan seasoning. We were hoping to find a jar of it at the grocery store but had no luck. We also didn’t have time to drive across town to the international grocery store and check there. So we followed this recipe (scaled to 1/4 of the original recipe, since we only needed a few tablespoons). This was a mix of hot pepper, onion, green onion, garlic, Worcestershire sauce, vinegar, and a whole bunch of spices and herbs. Since fresh herbs aren’t exactly in season around here, we used a lot of dried herbs instead. For the small quantity we needed, we couldn’t talk ourselves into spending the $10-15 on all of the fresh herbs. Anyway, the ingredients were all measured and roughly chopped, then blended in the food processor. This smelled pretty good, and it still made a LOT, so we’re going to save the rest for grilling in the summer. We made this a day in advance.
Next was the the cou cou. This stuff takes patience. The cornmeal was soaked in water for a while as I prepared the okra, onions, garlic, etc (I used frozen okra since we already had it in the freezer, and I rarely see fresh okra at the grocery store). I saw many of the cou cou recipes refer generically to “herbs” as an ingredient, so I decided to just throw in a bit of the Bajan seasoning that we prepared. If it were summer and we had a garden overflowing with herbs, I might have approached this differently.
I set these aside and dumped in the soaked cornmeal. As advised, I added in some of the gooey liquid from cooking the okra. I stirred very diligently for the first 5-10 minutes, adding water/okra goo regularly. After a while, I let it sit for 10-15 minutes, then came back to give it a good stir, then repeated this process. It ended up having 1.5-2 hours of cooking time total. I kept adding water throughout, since it seemed like the cornmeal was pretty gritty. I’m really not sure that I ever achieved the right consistency–it wasn’t as smooth as the pictures I saw looked–but it eventually got to be pretty thick and relatively smooth. So I mixed in the okra and called it good.
I attempted to arrange it into the pretty mounds of cou cou that I saw pictures of… it didn’t quite turn out that way, but it was at least a lot closer to the expected finished product than the funge was a couple months ago.
For the flying fish, we substituted mahi mahi. I have read that this fish is eaten in Barbados, so it seemed like a reasonable substitute. I thought that most of the flavor would come from the seasonings and vegetables, so it wouldn’t detract too much from the authentic experience.
The recipes I read all suggested rolling the fish filets up like a sausage. However, the fish we bought was frozen, and it turned out that a day in the fridge was nowhere near long enough to thaw it out. So we bit the bullet and put in the microwave on the thaw setting. Naturally, it started to cook during that time, and Tyler declared there was no way it would roll up without falling apart. So that didn’t happen. However, we did follow the instructions to marinate it in lime juice, then rub in Bajan seasoning. In the mean time, the onion, garlic, tomatoes, etc. started simmering in the stove. Again, we substituted dried herbs for fresh on this step.
Next the fish and green peppers were added, and then it cooked for fifteen minutes or so.
Bajan Coconut Sweet Bread (recipe)
I found a lot of variation in coconut bread recipes, but I eventually settled on this one. It was pretty straightforward, so I didn’t take a lot of pictures. The one change I made was to use shortening instead of lard. Anyway, the combination of melted butter/shortening, brown sugar, nutmeg, and cinnamon smelled wonderful. Once the eggs, water, vanilla, flower, baking powder, grated coconut, and raisins were added, this was incredibly thick batter. Like, scoop it into the pan with a spoon thick. It was perfectly done at the end of the 50-60 minutes of baking time.
Better than expected! At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I was really nervous about repeating the funge incident and every other fish-based meal we have cooked for this project.
The cou cou actually was not bad. I don’t think we got the consistency quite right, but it had some flavor, the okra added some nice variety, and it was a nice starchy side to go with the fish. And the fish was actually not a failure! It recovered from the microwave-thawing experience fairly well, and the flavor was really good. I definitely enjoyed the Bajan seasoning and look forward to repurposing that for future meals. I’m even growing to appreciate green peppers, something I never thought would happen.
Speaking of thing I never thought would happen, I made a dessert that was based around coconut and raisins! And I enjoyed it! What?!?! Although it was a little more dry and crumbly than I would like for a sweet bread, the flavor was very good. I saw many references to Bajan people enjoying this with a cup of tea in the morning, so you better believe that’s how I started the day on Saturday. And it was great.
Overall, I would call the meal a success. I wouldn’t go out of my way to make cou cou again, but I enjoyed trying it. I would definitely use the Bajan seasoning on fish again, and I would definitely make coconut bread again. I am tempted to make one of the other coconut bread recipes–many of the others used milk or sweetened condensed milk–and see how that effects the texture and flavor.
Next we are off to Belarus!