The National Dish – Caribbean Callaloo
I have to start out by confessing that I chose to cook callaloo because the word itself is very fun to say. It sounds like a meal out of a Dr. Seuss book, and personally I haven’t eaten very many meals that are quite so nominally delightful. Secondly, my husband and I got an invitation in the mail to a wedding in the Caribbean, so I had the cuisine on my mind. Lastly, and I hate to admit this, I don’t typically like Caribbean food, or at least not the Caribbean food I’ve eaten before. As someone who loves tasting and experiencing a wide variety of cuisines, I decided to comb the Internet for a national dish from the islands that looked and sounded tasty. I assume my dislike of Caribbean foods stems from growing up in the Midwest and not having the proper exposure. Jerk chicken seasoning from a packet is probably the extent of my Caribbean culinary experience and, to me, jerk is a muddled and overwhelming flavor profile. Or, again, at least the jerk seasoning I’ve eaten before.
So, when I stumbled on callaloo, which is technically the national dish of Trinidad and Tobago – but served all over the Caribbean – I was intrigued because the seasoning seemed toned down and more focused on just a few flavors. Callaloo is both the name of the dish itself and also the main leafy component. It’s a leaf vegetable, also known as amaranth leaf, that’s grown on the islands. I found giant bags of callaloo at the international grocery store. If you can’t locate any, try looking for dasheen (taro leaf), water spinach or, in a pinch, just plain spinach will suffice. There are hundreds of different recipes and varieties of the dish callaloo. Some are served with sweet potato, pumpkin, taro, pork or crab, and some of the recipes are more stripped-down and basic. It’s often served with saltfish, a traditional Jamaican dish consisting of cod that has been preserved and dried in salt. The cod is soaked in water in order to remove most of the salt flavor and re-hydrate it before cooking. Sounds a little wet and salty to me, not typically how I prefer my seafood, but the dishes roots stem back to when the islands were being colonized, so who am I to argue with three hundred years of tradition?
So when I narrowed down the callaloo recipes in order to prepare the dish at home, I stuck with the more traditional Trinidadian style. The only herb or spice used in Trinidadian callaloo is fresh thyme sprigs – warm, musky and earthy – thrown in with sautéed onions and garlic cooked in butter. After that everything else is added: chopped callaloo leaves, okra, red pepper, coconut milk and water. Once that mixture is piping hot and the callaloo has cooked down for about ten minutes, a whole scotch bonnet or equally-hot pepper is added. I couldn’t find a scotch bonnet, so I used habanero. I had never cooked with a pepper like that before, tossing it in whole for the flavor and then removing it before eating. It added delicious flavor, and a subtle heat. I will definitely try that method again when sautéing the onions and garlic for a dish like chili or tortilla soup. Also, after pre-boiling crab legs, I shredded the meat, salted and peppered it and then set it aside to be added right before serving. The whole dish is blended, topped with the shredded crab meat and served over rice.
- 1 onion, chopped
- 3-4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
- 10 okra pods, sliced, with stems removed
- 1 red pepper, chopped
- 1 whole scotch bonnet, habanero or jalapeño
- 4 whole thyme sprigs (remove stems before puréeing)
- 1 large bunch of callaloo, dasheen or spinach, trimmed
- 3 tablespoons butter
- 3-4 cups water
- 1 can coconut milk
- 2 large crab legs, boiled
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Boiled rice, for serving
- Melt the butter in a large sauté pan on medium-high heat.
- Add the onions and cook for a few minutes.
- Add garlic and thyme and sauté a bit longer – just until you can smell the garlic.
- Throw in the chopped callaloo leaves, salt and pepper, okra and red pepper. Cook for one minute, stirring occasionally.
- Pour in the coconut milk and water.
- Turn heat to medium and cook down for about 10 minutes.
- While the callaloo is cooking, shred the crab meat, add salt and pepper and set aside.
- Toss in the whole pepper and cook for another five minutes.
- Turn off the heat and adjust the seasoning.
- Serve over rice, topped with shredded crab meat.
The callaloo leaf itself has a complex, bright, peppery and slightly fruity flavor that goes so well with the earthy thyme and creamy coconut milk. If you are already a champion of Caribbean food and haven’t tried callaloo then I recommend it. If you are like me and have misgivings about island cuisine, hit up your local international grocery store, trim some thyme from your herb garden, grab your stockpot, throw in some crab legs and give callaloo a try. Everyone I’ve talked to who has visited the Caribbean has told the same stories of Rasta markets with bubbling pots of traditional homemade cuisine, eating callaloo served by little old Jamaican ladies while they watched the sunset over the endless blue horizon. I found callaloo to be delicious in my own kitchen at home, but I can only imagine how much better it would taste with reggae music playing softly in the background while watching waves crash against a white sandy beach.