There is so much to love about Caribbean cuisine. The flavors, the variety, the spice! I was curious to hear a perspective on Caribbean cuisine and how those who enjoy it might do so in a healthier way. Check out my interview with Cynthia Nelson, author of “Tastes Like Home: My Caribbean Cookbook” (available on Amazon.com!) who is also from Guyana. Cynthia gives her take on some fave dishes & then dishes about ways to eat Caribbean food with your health in mind!
1. Thank you for doing this interview! Can you tell us a little bit about yourself!
I was born and raised in the only English-speaking country in South America – Guyana. Guyana is a multi-cultural society and you will see that reflected in the food I make. Guyanese trace their heritage to every corner of the world, but especially Africa, India, China, Portugal, and to the indigenous populations for whom the region has always been home. I’ve been living in Barbados now for more than a decade and so when I speak of home these days, I do not only refer to Guyana as home but also Barbados as both places contribute in different and significant ways to who I am.
I am a trained media practitioner and teach Broadcast Journalism, but as a food writer, I write a weekly newspaper column, Tastes Like Home which is published in print and online at www.stabroeknews.com. Apart from my column, I also write freelance for a variety of publications regionally and internationally. I am a regular contributor to Caribbean Belle (Trinidad) and City Style & Living (Canada). I also Contribute to U Magazine (a new Health Magazine produced and published in Trinidad & Tobago. I’m a Contributing Writer Christian Science Monitor – Culture (Food) and to About.com, a New York Times owned-company. I write for – Latin Caribbean Food.
2. Tell us about Tastes Like Home (www.tasteslikehome.org).
The food scene in Guyana is diverse and very different from that in Barbados and food was the main thing that I missed about being away from home. Sure I missed my family but I did not separate the two because the food was very much a part of my daily familial gathering. For me, food is more than what is on my plate; it is about the atmosphere, the people… My weekly newspaper column was created with the focus of chronicling the tastes of home that I missed. I started the blog to tie-in with my column and to give readers an opportunity for interaction. I also see it as a way to introduce people to Caribbean food and to emphasize that we are more than a garnish – some of you know what I mean, more than the slice of pineapple that sits on the rim of a glass, the slivers of mango that adorn a plate or the shreds of coconut sprinkled over something.
Over the years, Tastes Like Home has evolved and grown as I too have evolved and grown; so too has the food scene here in Barbados. Today, I can find 90-percent of the ingredients and produce that can create a taste of Guyana that I was missing 12 years ago. I have incorporated the tastes of Barbados as a part of my tastes like home. Thanks also to phenomenal food bloggers who cook and write tirelessly, my cooking repertoire has and continues to grow exponentially. Today, Tastes Like Home has become the food I make and serve in my home, from various cuisines and influences. It’s homemade, it tastes like home.
3. How has your Guyanese background influenced your cooking?
My Guyanese background has given me a great love, respect and appreciation for cuisines from all over the world. Guyana is a multi-cultural society and much of the food in Guyana, as in the other parts of the Caribbean is diverse and made up of various cuisines – Indian, African, Chinese etc.
4. What’s one of your favorite/popular recipes from your cookbook and why?
My favourite varies and that is often dependent on what I am in the mood to eat! But, if I had to pick a dish that can always satisfy me, it would be curried fish made fresh and hot. When it comes to popularity, and I am basing this on the response and questions I get about the recipe, it would have to be Dhal Puri – a roti stuffed with ground spiced split pea. The fish curry is my favourite because for me it is always a great way to end the week.
When I think of Friday afternoon meals, it is always curried fish. One can go to the market and buy the fish from the vendors who in turn bought it from the fisher-folk just back from the sea. The fish is so fresh, the skin glistens, sometimes the fish is still breathing, it is that fresh. Currying the fish with aromatic spices and fresh herbs creates a sauce to be ladled over freshly cooked white rice and accompanied by some hot West Indian pepper sauce, for me is a real taste of home.
As to the popularity of the Dhal Puri – I think that it is because it is one of those things people grew up eating outside of the home but re-creating it at home is not as easy. Often the texture never seems to come out right. The dough when rolled never seems to be thin enough. The thing is that any roti-making is something that takes time to master. The more often you do it, the better you would become at perfecting the art.
5. Many Caribbean people who enjoy traditional foods also struggle with diabetes and heart disease. In your view, are there certain Caribbean dishes that are healthier than others? Which ones and why?
Well, I would say that it is not only Caribbean people that enjoy traditional foods and struggle with diabetes and heart disease. That is a world-wide problem except for a few places in the world, but while their issue might not be diabetes and heart diseases, it is some other type of diet or lifestyle related disease. Also, the world over, there are some foods that are healthier than others so that is not an exception to the Caribbean.
Each Caribbean country places various emphasis on certain food groups depending on availability – what is naturally grown or imported. Added to that, the cuisine or style of food in each Caribbean country is also dependant on the direct cuisine influence of a country. For example, the influence of Indian and Chinese cuisines are huge in Guyana. A large part of the diets in those cuisines is vegetables, as such vegetables and rice are a major part of Guyana’s cuisines. In the Eastern Caribbean islands – Grenada, Dominica, St. Lucia, St. Vincent etc. African cuisine is prominent in the variety of ways in which ground provisions (plantains, cassava, sweet potatoes etc) are used.
6. For those traditional Caribbean foods that are less healthy, what do you think can be done to make them healthier? (eg. ingredient substitutions, methods of cooking, etc)?
Let me state my position on food. I believe that people should eat every thing in moderation. No food is bad food. Food becomes bad when we abuse and misuse it. Macaroni Pie is not the most healthy dish to eat but having a piece of macaroni pie once or twice a month is not a bad thing. Fried chicken is not the most healthy food, so I won’t recommend having it daily or weekly but again once a month is not going to kill you. I could go on with a long list but I think you get my point. Say you like chicken, you don’t always have to fry it, you can stew it or bake it instead.
The point is that there is so much variety and there are so many ways to prepare food that you don’t have to stick to eating the same thing all the time prepared in not the most calorie-friendly way. Eat everything in moderation. Eat widely. Eat a variety. Mix things up!
*** Do you enjoy Caribbean food? (I know I do!!) What are your favorite Caribbean dishes? Do you have any personal tricks for making these dishes healthier for you? *** -CFC
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