Anyone who has eaten many plates of blackened, mangy-looking jerk chicken might get the impression that Caribbean cooking is fairly limited. The cuisine of most of the English-speaking islands is often lumped under the umbrella of stews, dumplings and pineapple-strewn desserts.
But Suzanne and Michelle Rousseau say there’s much more to island cooking. They’re sisters and cooks based in Jamaica, and their cookbook Caribbean Potluck introduces a new way of thinking about food from their homeland.
As Suzanne tells host Audie Cornish on All Things Considered, “We have a plethora of flavors and ingredients that we underutilize, and because we have prepared them for so long in very traditional ways, the world outside of Jamaica has not explored the abundance of Caribbean ingredients and flavors.”
This means the sisters’ recipes pack a few surprises you might not expect out of Jamaica — dishes like callaloo and ricotta ravioli, or banana and coconut crème brûlée. And when they do turn to jerk chicken, that old standby, they thrust it into unknown territories like lasagna and spring rolls.
In all this experimentation, though, the style of the islands still dominates.
“There is a thread that flows through all of the foods of the region,” Michelle says. “That would be not only based on the foods that we cook with, but just the quality of life, the approach to living, the approach to food and the role that that plays in the culture and society and in family structure.”
These flavors, both of food and of life, have their roots in the islands’ mixed history. In the distinctive combinations of savory and sweet, echoes of the region’s colonial past remain.
“How come we eat the foods that we do?” Suzanne says. “It speaks to the story of a combination of a slave history that all the islands share and a colonial history that was French or British or Spanish.”
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