West Indian Beach Picnic
As idyllic as they may seem, I have always thought of picnics as laborious undertakings that were not worth the trouble. It was not until one day I was back home in Barbados and spotted a couple on a picnic that I changed my mind. It was midday on the West ‘Platinum’ Coast, and the sticky yet balmy May weather was present and teased of rain. The young couple were clearly in love. The floral mat on the sand was probably all his doing, very likely stolen from his mother’s kitchen. There was champagne on ice and a dozen fresh long-stemmed roses that were struggling to stand up to the salt spray. They had chocolate coconut strawberries and what looked like a vegetable lasagna. Four loving eyes and the sunset they created at noon made me realize that picnics could be simple and lovely, especially if made with love.
When we think of picnics we usually think of mayonnaise-based lunches packed into paper bags. But when you are going to the beach bring something fresh and light and reminiscent of the seaside. My rule is as follows: make something that would not cause you to regret that you did not eat at the beachside restaurants. The aromas coming from these establishments tease and tempt, so make sure your fare reigns supreme. Remember you may want to frolic in the water afterwards, so avoid heavy meals that would make you feel over-full and tired.
I was introduced to sushi in the year 2001. I was in Paris, at Charles de Gaulle International Airport. I had an early flight so I’d slept there. I met a chatty Malaysian medical student studying in London. She pulled a folded take-out box out of her handbag and started chowing down on some sushi rolls. “Try it,” she said as she pushed loaded chopsticks on my firmly pursed lips. The aroma was tempting, but I did not know the food – or her — so I did not eat.
Later, after I moved to the French/Dutch Caribbean island of Saint Martin/Sint Maarten, I was introduced to trendy sushi bars, flavorful seaweed salads, and the clean taste of edamame. There were sweet potato sushi rolls, and vegan rolls stuffed with sweet mangoes and mildly seasoned rice, with chewy nori seaweed tying everything together.
I wondered, what if sushi were made with Caribbean veggies and fruit? What about combining crunchy high-calcium baby okras, soft sweet boiled ripe plantain, crisp apple-flavored christophenes, and creamy Jamaican ackees? Why not make tempura tofu with freshly grated coconut in the batter, seasoned with Scotch bonnet peppers and served with firm fresh mangoes?
Picnics require thirst-quenching beverages. And don’t overlook cocktails on the beach! There is something about drinking sweet boozy concoctions in the salt spray that gets you a bit happier. The tamarind trees that grow in the West Indies are not as sweet as the Asian variety but range from slightly-sweet to tears-in-your-eyes sour. Tamarinds are usually made into syrups or candies for children and adults alike. Tamarinds also make excellent beverages with wholesome, sweet, rich flavor — the pulpy flesh mixed with water has a tart kick. Combine the pulp and water with rum, brown sugar simple syrup, fresh orange juice, cinnamon, star anise and a splash of lime and you have the makings of a party. Transport in a thermos or Mason jar. Do not forget to bring an insulated bag of ice and the knowledge that sweet flavors + liquor = tipsy on the sand.
You would think that in a dry hot climate the desserts would be saucy and cold. Some are, but many are dry spiced cakes that are the order of the day. These dry cakes came out of the British-influenced tradition of a sweet treat at tea time. Over time the cakes made their way into small village shops and into Caribbean food culture, sometimes consumed with juice instead of tea. “Lead Pipe” is the love child of Italian biscotti and West Indian coconut bread. It is dry and rich, and spiced in a way that the flavor sneaks up on you after the first bite. Lead Pipe, while sweet, is often eaten with a slice of cheddar cheese in the middle. They are called lead pipes because they are small and heavy, reminiscent of the old lead pipe networks on the island.
In the age of globalization, where isolated nations’ connections to other cultures were once mainly by books or television, we now have the internet and social media. Ideas about food are changing rapidly and many classics are being rewritten. My style of World Caribbean cuisine includes changing ideas of island fare, repurposing underused ingredients and putting them to work in international recipes. West Indians have embraced the new food movement, mixing the old with the new and the unknown with the classics. The way we look at food is changing, even for the classic and much-loved picnic.