From as far back as I can remember, I have always been intrigued by flavors and food. I am utterly fascinated by the alchemy which occurs in the kitchen, when different spices are blended together producing an amalgamation of wonderful tastes. Sheer magic occurs in the cooking process which imparts the most delicious flavors into the dish and then onto the palate. In my house, the busiest and most active spaces are the kitchen and dining room areas. These connecting rooms are the heart and nerve center of the home, where meals are cooked and memories are made. An Italian friend once remarked that Italian and Chinese cultures were very similar, in that food and family shared a very common importance. This is so true, as in both of these cultures, food is lovingly prepared and served with great pride. The desire to welcome and nurture is revered in these societies. For special occasions, the meal is often prepared by several family members, each doing a particular dish. Sitting together and sharing a meal with several generations of the family, conversing and enjoying the time together is of great value. This has always been the way I was raised and the way in which I in turn raise my family in Haiti.
I grew up in a family with several generations of great cooks and have been raised to appreciate the value of food. As a child, I would watch closely as my mother prepped and cooked dinner. One of my favorites was caramelized ginger chicken. She would cut up a whole chicken, season it with a blend of garlic, thyme,chives, soy and ginger and leave it to marinate. I adored the tantalizing aroma which filled the kitchen, as the chicken pieces and the aromatics came into contact with the golden brown sugar and sealed in the most awesome flavors. Coconut milk was then added and it was all cooked down into a delicious stew. The caramel gave the rich golden color, and just a slight hint of sweet. The dish was just perfectly balanced.
Carmelized Ginger Chicken Stew
Although my mother often stated that she did not like to cook, and would rather be reading books than being in the kitchen; her food was always delicious. My childhood friends have shared fond memories of my mom’s homemade pizzas, meat patties, pine tarts and cakes which she would make when they would come over. She was also well known for her lovely afternoon tea parties and dinner parties at our home. My parents entertained very often, so I grew up learning so many useful things which today are useful and instinctive to me when I host friends at my home.
Christmas Day Buffet in Haiti
I learned from an early age that it was imperative to season foods well, as this imparted a great deal of flavor to the dish. Even a quick 15 minute marinade of meats is an effective flavor enhancer. I distinctly remember my first trip to England when I was 8 years old. London was a fascinating and wonderful place, but it was also the first time in my life that I had ever tasted bland food. Even at that young age, my palate had been so accustomed to spices and flavors, that I was horrified to learn that the beautiful golden roast beef which was being served was totally devoid of seasoning. I remember being told that there was salt and black pepper on the table to be added if I liked. It was then I realized that not all cuisines were the same, and that I was rather fortunate to have delicious food at my home.
Seasoned beef tenderloin roast
Beef tenderloin roast
I remember fondly learning about preparing Indian dishes from Nazmoon, a woman who worked with our family and sometimes helped my mom with the cooking. She would make delicious curries and roti and would let me help by basting the roti with ghee as it puffed up to perfection on the hot tawa. My small, tender hands could not as yet clap the piping hot flat bread, but I was certainly learning the process and would become very proficient in years to come. I also watched carefully as she fried the fragrant curry spices and masala; a most important step in curry making, prior to adding the meat. The familiar pungent aroma filled the air with deliciousness and I was excited about the food that was being prepared for dinner.
Chicken curry with naan and channa
My grandmother Celeste had a catering business and made lots of fancy pastries and finger foods for special occasions. I was always eager to go help her along with my mother when she needed extra help for big orders. My task would be to help make little bouchée cases from shortcrust pastry. Each delicate pastry shell one had to be filled with a bit of dried rice before baking, so that the empty pastry would not ‘bubble up’ during the baking time. The uncooked rice had to be carefully removed afterwards with great attention to avoid breaking the tender pastry cases. These would then be filled with curried shrimp or chicken. They were also used for sweet tarts with homemade fruit jellies. The eclairs and savory choux puffs were to die for and in my memory, her choux pastry was impeccable. Chinese cakes made with sweetened bean paste and a peanut butter filled cookie were also among my grandmother’s specialties. Although she was not Chinese, my grandmother perfected this special flaky pastry combining two types of dough referred to as “rich & poor”, which she was taught by my grandfather who was from China. When I think of her today, I am thankful to have had her in my life and I learned the value of hard work and perseverance. She was an important figure in my life and someone I loved dearly.A tea tray with meat patties and pineapple tarts
I also have fond memories of my paternal grandmother Marion, who was also a great cook. Every Wednesday afternoon after catechism classes at Our Lady of Fatima RC Church, my siblings Karen, Robert and I would walk over to my Grandparent’s house in Bourda. My grandmother would always have a lovely little meal for us. Often it was crispy fried Banga Mary fish and bakes or the most incredible fresh water shrimp fritters, studded with scallions and flecks of wiri wiri peppers. Sometimes she would make a Chinese ginger soup with poached chicken, clear noodles and shiitake mushrooms; especially if she knew that my dad was coming to pick us up. I never had the joy of learning to cook with her, as I was younger then, but the memories of the flavors and the delicious food made with love have always remained with me. I know that she taught my dad to cook and therefore I consider that I learned from her techniques.
My dad Gus was also an influential cooking figure in my life. His kitchen attitude was “go big or go home” and his meals always consisted of several dishes at a sitting. There was absolutely no free counter space nor were there any clean pots left in the cupboard when he was in action. Dad solicited help from everyone he could locate as sous chefs, choppers of vegetable and dish washers… he was also a masterful delegator. Dad had perfected the art of making roasts and they were very delicious. He also loved crab and was also a legendary crab soup maker. He often invited friends over when this was on the menu and the biggest pot I have ever seen in my life would be taken out from storage. He would also cook other crab dishes such as Chinese style ginger scallion or the finger-licking delicious crab curry. My mom, often preferred to stay away from the kitchen during these cooking bouts. I miss Dad’s cooking now as he has retired from the kitchen.
When I left Guyana and went to University in the USA, I was able to really experiment on my own and extend my cooking range. I learned quite a few things from a great cook and family friend, Aunt Sybil. She was a master bread maker and also had a great repertoire of Guyanese-Chinese recipes. When I had my own kitchen, I was finally able to truly develop my culinary style in my own space. I made up my own recipes and began amassing a cookbook collection which I read and enjoyed immensely. I had been so fortunate to have been assisting and cooking alongside so many fine cooks at different stages of my life. I was finally able to use some these experiences and flavors to compile my own recipes. I kept writing down my ingredients and techniques which I meticulously filed in numerous folders and recipe boxes.
Fresh herbs from my garden
Meeting new people and having many international friends at college, also meant learning about new foods. The other Asian cuisines of Japan, Thailand and Korea brought an additional insight on flavors which I had not known. It was a fascinating time of discovery and I learned about new ways to use familiar spices and also tried different ingredients like lemongrass, miso, cilantro, gochujang and fish sauce. I was honing in on the unmistakable power of umami. The flavors of Cuba, Peru, Mexico and Nicaragua were also very much a part of the food scene in Florida. Latin flavors are not spicy hot as most might think, but are rather robust spicy in flavor. The Latin American sofrito combines aromatics like garlic, onion, sweet peppers and tomatoes to add depth and taste to Criolla food. The use of annatto or achiote for color as well as bay leaves, cumin, oregano and all spice is common. Mediterranean and Italian cuisines were also ones which I loved; so my repertoire and knowledge of foods was also influenced by this area. I learned to make all types of new pasta dishes and sauces which were tasty and relatively quick to prepare. I loved the new exciting flavors of this region and embraced wonderful ingredients such as olives, rosemary, basil and the fragrant spices of Harissa and Ras el Hanout.
Mediterranean style lemon-garlic roast chicken with rosemary and sage
Fusilli with veal and pork meatballs in a spicy marinara sauce.
Isn’t it marvelous that although world cuisines vary, we can find similarities of our favorite foods with small variations all around the world. It is also amazing how different cultures may use the same ingredients which yield results which are totally dissimilar. That’s the beauty of our world and the way in which different heritages uniquely define themselves. What a pleasure it is to discover new things. It is fun to learn to appreciate the traditional ways, as well as using them in unique ways in our own recipes. My DNA is comprised of a blend of cultures and I am most grateful for all of the wonderful aspects and diversity which I benefit from being multi ethnic. My Guyanese Girl Haitian Soul curiosity enables me to easily cross over cultural divides and to create a myriad of delicious foods which I cannot deny, brings me great satisfaction and happiness.
A collection of things which depict my mixed heritage