New York City has long had a large population that can trace its roots to various islands in the Caribbean, and so it’s possible to find restaurants from many of those nations within the city limits. For years, Antigua was no exception: There was a restaurant in Prospect Heights years ago; a bakery once sold Antiguan specialties on Saturdays in the Bronx. But whether it’s a symptom of gentrification or just bad luck, there are currently no restaurants specializing in the fare.
To figure out how to get a taste of it here, we turned to chef James Murphy, the former culinary ambassador for the island nation, who owns Yabba Catering (646-407-0311), a company that specializes in the cuisine of Antigua and Barbuda.
As with much of the Caribbean, the cuisine of Antigua and Barbuda has roots in the slave trade. When the islands were first settled by the British, tobacco was the main cash crop. But when Christopher Codrington brought new sugar technology from Barbados to his settlement Betty’s Hope Estate in 1674, his success inspired other settlers to switch to sugar plantations. More slaves (mostly from Nigeria) were shipped in to work the crops.
The slaves brought their food with them. Fungi, a porridge made from cornmeal that’s somewhat similar to polenta, is a derivative of African fufu. You can find similar dishes all throughout the Caribbean and western coast of Africa. It’s a component in one of Antigua’s national dishes, the pepper pot. A riff on Nigerian egusi (a soup of seeds and leafy greens), the pepper pot includes several varieties of leafy greens (kale, mustard greens, Chinese spinach, etc.) flavored with salted meat or seafood. Peppers, squash, thyme, okra, and onions are also added. The fungi is placed in the center of the plate and the stew-like pepper pot surrounds it. “The slave owners needed a cheap way to feed the slaves,” says Murphy. “It became such a part of the Antiguan diet; it stayed with us because we realized the health properties.”
The greens used to be boiled for hours over coal-fired pots, but with pressure and gas cookers, it now takes about fifteen minutes to simmer and soften the produce. And the goal now is to maintain nutrients. Where salted meat used to be the main protein, now many Antiguans opt for fish and other seafood.
If pepper pot vies for the status of national dish, ducana is its competitor. The dish features grated sweet potato dough that’s wrapped in sea grape leaves, then boiled or baked — it’s kind of the Antiguan version of a tamale. Several variations and additions can be included, such as coconut, cinnamon, brown sugar, and/or raisins. A popular Good Friday specialty, it’s frequently served with salted fish that’s boiled and baked, then cooked in a stew with onions, peppers, and thyme.
Peppers (scotch bonnets and bird peppers) and salted proteins are ubiquitous in Antiguan cuisine. With no refrigeration and scorching-hot temperatures, that was the only way to preserve the food. Salted fish, beef, and pig snouts and tails are frequently used to flavor dishes. And not all dishes are spicy. Murphy says that in Antigua, it’s more about letting the flavors stand out, rather than masking them with spice.
Again, you can’t walk into a restaurant to try it out, but if you’re really curious, Murphy caters events and even small dinner parties through his company. Or you could make the food yourself with these recipes for fungi and pepper pot and ducana.
New York boasts residents from just about every country in the world, and many of them have opened restaurants dedicated to their homeland cuisine. We’re celebrating the resulting diversity of this city’s dining scene by eating around the globe, from A to Z, without leaving the city limits. Every week, we’ll be hunting down a restaurant that represents a different country, from Afghanistan all the way to Zimbabwe and everywhere in between.