I recently had an interesting conversation with some friends from the Caribbean. Like me, they we born there but have settled in the midwest. Topic of conversation: our increased desire for West Indian food. Now that we are living abroad, it seems that our appetite for the foods we knew while on the islands have increased. It is a common phenomenon experienced among West Indian expats: local foods just seem to taste better after a period of abstinence. We have also developed a deeper appreciation for the history behind most of those foods, especially what is quintessentially country food: food eaten in rural areas and made from ingredients grown and, in some cases, raised not too far away.
What we found ironic is that, while we long for those foods, some dishes are being overlooked by the people still living there. The reason for this, we surmise, is a double edged sword: rapid modernization. As the Caribbean islands are getting more global exposure and are becoming wealthier, local traditions are taking a back seat to new and exciting foreign goods and customs. The economic growth taking place is delightful. Too bad, though, that some things have to give. Could we not have the best of both worlds? Only time will tell.
One dish that I longed for recently is cumin potatoes, known locally in Trinidad and Tobago as geera potatoes or geera aloo- "geera" being the hindi translation for cumin and "aloo" hindi for potatoes. Besides the medley of robust, deliciously piquant flavors, such as cumin, garlic and hot peppers, the best aspect of this dish is that its preparation is versatile. It can be made with any type of potato that you happen to have on hand. If you don't have potatoes, then use celery root, turnips, or even cauliflower. Many mornings, my sister and I had this with roti ( an Indian flatbread) as breakfast but I now serve it as a dinner food, as part of an entree or a side dish.
Cumin (Geera) Potatoes
Serves four to five
3 large potatoes, cubed
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1/2 cup diced onion
2 cloves garlic, minced finely
2 chopped jalepeno peppers (optional*)
3 tbsp whole cumin seeds
1 cup fresh or frozen green peas
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1. Boil the potatoes in enough water to cover them by two inches. This might take 15 to 20 minutes over medium high heat. Drain and set aside.
2. In a large skillet set over medium heat, add the oil. To the hot oil, add diced onion, minced garlic, pepper, and cumin seeds. Saute for about ten to fifteen minutes, uncovered. You really want the onions to slightly caramelize and soften, and the cumin seeds to roasted at the same time. This is the only way to get that intense cumin flavor and aroma.
3. Add the boiled potatoes, stir well, cover and cook for a further 10 minutes stirring a couple times. Add the peas, cover and cook for four to five more minutes until the peas have heated through. Serve sprinkled with chopped, fresh cilantro.
*Scotch bonnet peppers are my choice for this recipe- the hotter the better- but they are uncommon in most grocery stores. If you can find it and want to, by all means, go ahead and replace the jalepenos but, remember, scotch bonnets are some of the most fiery peppers available. My advice would be to use disposable gloves when handling them. For less heat, use only the flesh of the pepper, not the seeds. Alternatively, you can omit the peppers altogether for a milder but nonetheless exotic dish.