Cuckoo for Cou-Cou
Barbadian cuisine might be the most playful and good-natured in the world. This occurred to us as we chowed down on "ground provisions"a rollicking mix of boiled tubers and roots that serves as a staging platform for any sort of stew or sauce you might throw at it. My posse and I were sitting in Bajan Café, a new spot in Brooklyn's Wingate section, just north of Kings County Hospital. Doubling as a bakery, the café specializes in the food and pastries of Barbados, a former British Caribbean colony where the islanders prefer to be called Bajans. There's only one table, but it's the perfect place to sit and watch the neighborhood's unique mix of populations drift by, principally Afro-Caribbeans, Lubavitcher Hasidim, and African-Americans.
That evening, the ground provisions included yuca, yellow yam, white yam, carrot, and potato. We topped it with some splendid jerk porkbig, spice-coated chunks that packed a slight burn. While the Bajans didn't invent jerking (that distinction belongs to the Jamaicans), they do a great job with pork, which is hard to find in these days Brooklyn, where jerk chicken is way more popular. We also ordered macaroni pie, the island equivalent of mac-and-cheese. Excavated from a deep casserole and crusty with cheddar, Bajan Café's is every bit as good as that found in such Brooklyn soul food spots as Mitchell's and Ruthie's.
You can also choose rice and peas or plain rice as a foil to a steam-table selection that includes stew chicken, goat curry, salt-cod stew, breaded pork chops, oxtails, chicken curry, and fried or stewed kingfish. A whole dinner with a side or two runs from $8 to $10. With it comes a heap of steamed, shredded vegetables and as many ladles of the café's thin and flavorful gravy as you desire. Plenty of snacks are available, too, including the globular salt-cod fritters called fish cakes ($1 each). Back in Barbados, these are sold in grog shops as a stomach-lining prelude to the harsh local rum. Don't bother applying the yellow Scotch Bonnet saucethe fritters are already extensively laced with it.
Naturally, after we'd ordered the jerk pork and ground provisions, we went right for the Bajan national dish: flying fish and cou-cou. While it wasn't listed on the chalkboard menu, we somehow knew they'd have it. Cou-cou is a culinary link between West Africa and the Caribbean, a yellow cornmeal mush made slippery with tidbits of okra. At Bajan Café, a breadfruit rendition is sometimes available, a little lighter in color and texture but every bit as rib-sticking. Either way, the unvarying partner is flying fish, a pair of breaded and fried fillets with a dense rubbery texture, tasting something like brook trout. (The fish don't really fly, but become airborne with a flip of the tail when a predator appears, sailing 100 feet on their distended dorsal fins.)
Bajan baked goods have hilarious names. Pine tarts are made with pineapple rather than conifer, and tennis rolls have no apparent connection (other than whiteness) with the effete game played by Brits during the colonial era. My favorite is lead pipe, a name that refers not just to the long and cylindrical shape of the pastry, but to its absurd weight. And, since they come in pairs ($2), they can also be used as nunchakus.
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