Antigua and Barbuda
Well, it finally happened: I couldn’t find an ingredient.
You see, I had originally planned to make a representative Antiguan dish called Pepperpot – it was supposed to be a rich stew made with spinach, a piggy’s tail or snout, salted beef, and a number of tropical ingredients. Over a couple of weeks, I managed to find green papaya, white yam (aka nyame), chocho (aka chayote), snout… almost everything I needed. The sticking point? “Eddo leaves”. They are also known as taro leaves, alternately colocasia esculenta or the genus Xanthosoma and, in only half of the Caribbean, callaloo. Why only half? Well, the other half of the Caribbean uses the same name, callaloo, for the amaranth leaf, which has a texture that mimics that of spinach, whereas eddo leaf is much hardier and spiny, like a fern. The leaves are huge and the recipe called for four of them.
I had recalled seeing canned callaloo at an Associated supermarket on 116th Street in Harlem, but when I got there and looked at the can, it was clearly amaranth. NOT what I needed. I feared being stuck on the letter “A” forever, and I sadly couldn’t squeeze in a trip to Flatbush, Brooklyn (which has a massive Caribbean community) to dig much deeper. The old Antiguan adage, “too much callaloo make peppah-pot stew bitter,” had inverted itself. The desolate bitterness I felt was one of lack, not overabundance. Et tu, eddo?
After backing up and beginning my research anew, I came across another Antiguan specialty that tickled my fancy much more than pepperpot had. (NB: Come to found out, pepperpot came to Antigua by way of Guyana, where it is also heralded as a national dish and does NOT feature eddo leaf, so I have a feeling we haven’t seen the last of this stew.) I decided to try my hand at ducana, a fascinating type of tamale/dumpling/quickbread made from spices, coconut and “sweet potato” (which is another term that has lost all meaning for me) and steamed in a banana/plantain leaf, served alongside its classic counterpart, saltfish (aka salt cod; baccalà; bacalao…), which is briefly stewed with tomato and peppers. I found a lovely recipe for this meal on a home-cooking blog written by a very talented Antiguan lady, Cordy’s Corner, and I have to say that I hope she adds many more recipes in the future.
The first step, again, was sourcing: Trade Fair supermarket had coconut, which was promptly drilled, drained, shattered, and then grated (thanks for wielding that hammer, Carter!).
But what to do about that vaguely classified “sweet potato”… The tuber adept among us will know that there are hundreds of varieties of sweet potatoes, all with different colors and sugar levels. I, of course, wanted to match the one that would be native to Antigua – the pictures from Cordy’s blog showed the cooked ducana to have a cream- or beige-colored hue, so those bright-orange American sweet ‘taters were a no-go. I spent a little time on some horticultural websites and figured out that the dominant “sweet potato” in Antigua’s part of the Caribbean is known in the U.S. as the starchy and semi-sweet ipomoea batata, or boniato.
Lucky for me, Trade Fair had this too, as well as the hojas de banana that I would need for steaming.
After grating the coconut and potato and then pureeing them in a blender with the reserved coconut water, I mixed them with flour, raisins and spices to make a dense batter. All the while, a nice chunk of salt cod (which I had soaked in water the night before) boiled on the stove. After an hour, I cooled and shredded it.
The rest of the prep is basic – I plopped a heavy dollop of ducana batter on sections of the washed and moistened leaves, folded them several times to make envelope-sized packets, and stacked them in a big colander that rested over a pot of boiling water, plugging any voids with a wet towel. I covered the colander and left them to steam for 40 minutes. While that steamed, I sliced and sauteed onions, peppers and a habanero, added the fish, and tossed in a can of tomato “sauce”. (I consider myself a pretty culturally connected Italian-American, so this part actually made me shudder a bit.)
A quick stew and we’re there.
This meal tasted like a dream. I was so, so satisfied that it had been pulled from the ashes of that aborted pepperpot, and in fact preferred the ducana for their uniqueness as much as for their sweetness, which paired ethereally with the salt of the cod and the heat of the habanero. Antigua just made it onto my list of places to visit for their food.
Now you go:
Adapted from a recipe at the Cordy’s Corner blog
2 coconuts, drained, hulled and grated, water reserved
2 cups peeled and grated boniato or batata
2 cups of white sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp grated nutmeg
1 tbsp of vanilla extract
1 cup of raisins
1 ½ cups of flour (more if needed)
Grate coconut flesh and boniato. In a blender, combine with the reserved coconut water and blend until pureed.
Mix all the ingredients in a bowl in the order they appear in the ingredients. The batter should be on the drier side, like cookie dough.
Cut several 10×12 pieces of banana leaf and wash gently but thoroughly. Lay one leaf flat on work surface, and deposit one or two full ladles of batter in the center of the leaf. Fold the narrow side first, then the long sides over to make a tight packet. Repeat, layering the filled packets in a steamer basket.
Steam over boiling water for 40 minutes, until the packets feel firm. If some are still soft, steam them for longer.
Unwrap and serve while hot.
1 lb. salted cod fish, soaked overnight
1 Medium onion, sliced into rings
1 red bell pepper
2 cloves garlic
1 8oz can tomato sauce
2 tbsp white vinegar
½ cup vegetable or canola oil
1 tbsp butter
¼ tsp black pepper
1 habanero chili, seeded and minced
Boil fish in water for 45 minutes. Drain, cool under cold water, then break apart flesh and set aside.
Saute’ onion, peppers and garlic, stirring until onions are translucent.
Add tomato sauce, fish, vinegar, and butter to the pan then a sprinkle of black pepper. Simmer for 10 minutes, until heated through.
Serve with ducana, and alongside steamed, buttered spinach.