When we finally wrapped our mouths around ducana, it proved worth the wait. Reminiscent of Mexican tamales and Puerto Rican pasteles, ducana are flattened brownish cylinders of grated white sweet potato and coconut steamed in banana leaves. Of the two varieties offered at Cricketer's Café, one is studded with raisins while the other is not, a distinction probably lost on the ducana neophyte. But such subtleties are common in food from Antigua, a small island in the Leeward Lesser Antilles, that, as one website helpfully points out, is 2.5 times the size of Washington, D.C. Inspired by a cornmeal pudding from Ghana called dokono, ducana are served with an oily stew of salt cod, onions, and tomatoes, making one of the island's favorite meals.
While the café's food demonstrates the culinary connection between West Africa and the Caribbean, the decor reflects an enthusiasm for cricket that puts even the English to shame. The menu depicts a batsman tensing for the bowl, while the spotless white walls are paved with pictures of Afro-Caribbean cricket heroes whose names may be unfamiliar to you: Carl Hooper, Desmond Hayes, and Winston Benjamin. The menu includes the sorts of sandwiches found at any corner deli, plus such Pan-Caribbean specialties as curry chicken, jerk pork, oxtails, pepper steak, and fish escovitch, mostly priced at $6 for the small size and $8 for the large. These entrées come with rice and peas or white rice, boiled vegetables, fried green plantains, and a crisp romaine-and-tomato salad that seems rather newfangled in context.
But uniquely Antiguan cooking emerges on Saturdays, including two playfully named soups: goat water and conch water. One weekend we compared a bowl of each side by side. Both are dark broths that can be eaten by themselves or used to moisten rice. Seasoned with thyme, the goat water is rich and tasty, but the conch version is even better. Instead of cutting the beast up fine and concealing it in fritters, or marinating it raw as a ceviche, Antiguans stew conch in giant hunks in a broth as dark as bittersweet chocolate, with a flavor we couldn't quite put our fingers on. But dredging up woody fragments we quickly discovered what it wascloves. Tossed in by the handful, they add a bitter undertaste and an almost anesthetic property to the conch water.
Like ducana and salt fish, the national dish of Antigua is really a combination. One of the dishes is fungi (pronounced "foon-jee"), a cornmeal stodge flecked with lubricating bits of okra. "Like Bajan cou-cou?" I asked the affable proprietor, Lynroy "Tommy" Thomas, after he'd partly explained it to me. "No, more like Italian polenta," he replied, eyes twinkling. Fungi is paired with pepper pot, a thick and changeable stew that cooks all day and is, accordingly, not available until Saturday evening. It had taken me several visits to figure this out, and I hadn't tasted it yet. Though it was only three in the afternoon, the proprietor extracted a serving from the bubbling pot. The green morass was rife with okra, green onions, spinach, pork, beef, and chicken, with a welcome jolt of hot chiles. As I reached the bottom of the containerspooning with gustoI discovered that Mr. Thomas had favored me with an anatomic odditya suckling pig nose, pointing up at me from the bottom of the container, nostrils flaring.
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