Cuckoo for Cou-Cou


Sporting an electric-blue awning, Culpepper’s is a brand-new Bajan café a few blocks south of Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn’s Prospect-Lefferts Gardens, home to Haitians, Jamaicans, Dominicans, Trinidadians, and Barbadians, who call themselves Bajans. The eatery is mainly carryout during the day, with a few stools ranged along a counter strewn with car-service and shipping-agency handbills, but in the evening the doors swing open to reveal a spotless white dining room that’s quickly becoming an island clubhouse, where old friends gossip and business types toting laptops conduct impromptu meetings.

While the British colonial heritage of Barbados is preserved in its architecture and baked goods and the lilting speech of the islanders, much of the food is African at heart. Cou-cou ($8) is a steamed porridge of cornmeal kneaded with butter and flecks of okra that slides easily down the gullet. It’s served with a choice of fish doused with a plenitude of wonderfully thin and aromatic sauce—red-tinged and slightly oily. With chunks of fresh tomato and scads of onions, it’s strikingly different from the ‘‘brown stew” gravy of other Caribbean joints. Though kingfish is a favorite, go for steamed flying fish instead, a real Bajan passion. Dewinged, deboned, extensively marinated, and cut crosswise into thin pieces with the hatched skin adhering, flying fish has firm white flesh and a mild, almost meaty flavor that goes well with the delicate sauce.

Or skip the porridge and order the Jamaican-style rice and peas, which can be topped with oxtails or, even better, curried chicken ($7) in a thin gravy that radiates the flowery scent of scotch bonnet chiles. The menu also includes Trinidadian-style roti, globular salt-cod fish cakes ($1 a pair, and delicious), effete-sounding tennis rolls (the English influence again) often utilized in sandwiches called cutters, and African American–style macaroni and cheese. Adding an island note, the patrons smother it in fish gravy.

Ten blocks north on Nostrand Avenue—we’re in Crown Heights now—is Jerkin Chicken, a narrow carryout with a multinational menu, listing jerks, cowfoot soup, and other island specialties that may be unfamiliar to those born on larger landmasses. I was curious about oil down ($7), which prompted the counter guys to divulge they were from Grenada, not Jamaica—I’d stumbled on their national dish. This Fridays-only tour de force is a farrago of green plantain, cocoyam, corned oxtail, and dense flour dumplings shaped like swollen fingers, simmered for hours in coconut milk. A few pieces of curry chicken are thrown in at the last minute. With only a trickle of concentrated sauce, this ridiculously rich dish needs to be chased with an island drink: white foamy Irish moss ($3), made from seaweed; mauby, concocted of bitter carob bark; or sorrel, a blindingly red hibiscus-flower tea mimicking Kool-Aid.

With a name like Jerkin Chicken, you’d expect the signature product to rock, and it does (half a bird, $5.50). Though the spice coating seems thin, the succulent fowl bursts with jerk flavor, attracting throngs of patrons at peak hours. Even better is jerk pork ($6 per half-pound), a real oddity in this chicken-happy neighborhood: hunks of fatty meat—some surrounding bones you didn’t know a pig had—oozing midnight sauce with a distinctively Grenadian flavor. Antilleans do know how to live large.

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