Anyone who has eaten many plates of blackened, mangy-looking jerk chicken might get the impression that Caribbean cooking is fairly limited. The cuisine of most of the English-speaking islands is often lumped under the umbrella of stews, dumplings and pineapple-strewn desserts.
But Suzanne and Michelle Rousseau say there's much more to island cooking. They're sisters and cooks based in Jamaica, and their cookbook Caribbean Potluck introduces a new way of thinking about food from their homeland.
As Suzanne tells host Audie Cornish on All Things Considered, "We have a plethora of flavors and ingredients that we underutilize, and because we have prepared them for so long in very traditional ways, the world outside of Jamaica has not explored the abundance of Caribbean ingredients and flavors."
This means the sisters' recipes pack a few surprises you might not expect out of Jamaica — dishes like callaloo and ricotta ravioli, or banana and coconut crème brûlée. And when they do turn to jerk chicken, that old standby, they thrust it into unknown territories like lasagna and spring rolls.
In all this experimentation, though, the style of the islands still dominates.
"There is a thread that flows through all of the foods of the region," Michelle says. "That would be not only based on the foods that we cook with, but just the quality of life, the approach to living, the approach to food and the role that that plays in the culture and society and in family structure."
These flavors, both of food and of life, have their roots in the islands' mixed history. In the distinctive combinations of savory and sweet, echoes of the region's colonial past remain.
"How come we eat the foods that we do?" Suzanne says. "It speaks to the story of a combination of a slave history that all the islands share and a colonial history that was French or British or Spanish."
For instance, why is salted fish so prevalent on island menus? Thank the Europeans, who brought their food with them across the Atlantic. Suzanne explains: "Of course, we never had refrigeration, there was no preservation of meats then, so obviously salting and curing them was a way of preserving them."
Crucial in that same history has been sugar, both how it's produced and how it's consumed — or, as Michelle puts it, "that common culture of being sugar-producing islands. ... There were an availability of limited ingredients that really only changed in methodology of preparation, based on availability of equipment."
Woven together, the savory and the sweet make for a story of the islands the sisters hope to tell in new ways. And, yes, this means moving beyond the jerk.
"[The islands have] been given this bad rap about being only about jerk," Suzanne says. "It's not the truth: Our food can be extremely sexy, it can be extremely healthy, it can be easily done."
Recipe: Whole Roasted Snapper With Grilled Lime And Mojito Oil
4 fresh whole snapper (1 pound each)
4 teaspoons fresh lime juice
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 bunch fresh cilantro, chopped
1 tablespoon peeled and grated fresh ginger
1 tablespoon sea salt
1 bunch fresh thyme sprigs
1 lime, thinly sliced
2 or 3 slivers Scotch bonnet (optional)
Freshly ground black pepper
4 limes and/or lemons, halved
For the Mint Lime Mojito Oil
1 cup loosely packed fresh mint leaves
1/2 cup fresh parsley leaves, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons lime zest
1 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon Scotch bonnet, seeded and minced
1 cup olive oil
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
2 tablespoons capers, chopped (optional)
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
To make the mint lime mojito oil: In a mortar and pestle, muddle the mint and parsley with the garlic, sugar, lime zest, salt and Scotch bonnet. Transfer to a small bowl and add the oil, lime juice, capers, if using, and pepper. Let sit in the refrigerator for a minimum of 6 hours.
Rub each fish with 1 teaspoon lime juice. Mix together the oil, cilantro, ginger and salt in a small bowl. Score the outside of the fish with three cuts on either side and massage the marinade into the skin, the cuts and inside the cavity of the fish. Stuff each cavity with thyme sprigs, lime slices and slivers of Scotch bonnet, if using. Generously sprinkle the outside of the fish with sea salt and pepper and let rest for 1 hour.
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F. Roast the fish for 20 minutes until the skin gets slightly charred.
Place the limes and/or lemons directly on the oven rack, cut sides down, until marked and slightly softened.
Place each fish on a serving plate and drizzle generously with the mojito oil. Garnish with the grilled citrus to squeeze onto the fish to add a kick.
From Caribbean Potluck by Suzanne and Michelle Rousseau. Copyright 2014. Photographs by Ellen Silverman. Excerpted by permission of Kyle Books.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
From NPR News it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And I'm Audie Cornish. Anyone who has ordered a plate of blackened mangy looking jerk chicken may get the sense that Caribbean cooking is fairly limited. And this goes for most of the English-speaking Caribbean. The cuisine is often lumped under an umbrella of stews dumplings and pineapple strewn deserts. But Suzanne and Michelle Rousseau say there's so much more to island cooking. They are cooks and sisters and their new cookbook "Caribbean Potluck" introduces us to a new way of thinking about food from their homeland. Roast snapper with lime and mojito oil, calaloo strudel and banana and coconut creme brulee. Suzanne and Michelle Rousseau join us now to talk about their new book. Welcome to the program, guys.
SUZANNE ROUSSEAU: Thank you for having us. We feel very welcomed.
MICHELLE ROUSSEAU: And it's a a great pleasure to be here.
CORNISH: Well, first I want to say that I liked your chicken, I don't want to knock your chicken. But it's kind of a stereotype, right, of Caribbean food. And we should say, when you do approach jerk chicken, because you don't blow it off, you do things like lasagna, which I have to say, your entire section on pasta kind of blew me away. Pasta is not, to me, a Caribbean thing. What were you trying to do by merging these cuisines?
M. ROUSSEAU: This is Michelle. I think that we've always had a natural love and affinity for Mediterranean cooking. We think there are many aspects to the lifestyle that are very similar to a Caribbean lifestyle. We live and we eat outdoors, there's a celebration around food. There's sort of a zest for life and appreciation and love of beauty and culture and fun and family. And I think at the end of the day, to define Caribbean food as only traditional preparations would be limiting the range of what you can do with the ingredients and what you can do with the cuisine you know?
CORNISH: OK, so one recipe I tried to make was a whole roast snapper with grilled lime in mojito oil. And I grew up eating whole snapper with my mom, everyone kind of makes it a classic meal. The mojito oil was good. But it was a lot to make. It's a lot of ingredients in this thing. What are some of the obstacles for people you think who may be afraid to approach this kind of cooking?
M. ROUSSEAU: I think people want simple cooking, yes.
CORNISH: Because a whole snapper was not easy to deal with, I got to say.
M. ROUSSEAU: Yes.
CORNISH: Or find.
M. ROUSSEAU: Whole snapper would be very difficult to find. But the thing about cooking is that a recipe for us is really a guide. And at the end of the day, that recipe works really well also with a snapper filet or it could be a mahi-mahi filet. You know, the whole point of us doing a lot of those sort of things like the mojito oils and things like that is that they can keep for a while and the recipes are really geared like that, you know, they can be pulled apart and then they can be put back together.
CORNISH: Well, thank you so much. It was really good. I wanted to drink the mojito oil.
CORNISH: I was like, I've got to save this for later. You were both born and raised in Jamaica, but the book is the "Caribbean Potluck." Can you describe some of the threads, some of the themes that you saw, no matter what island you were on, that seemed to come up again and again in the recipes and the cuisine?
S. ROUSSEAU: Suzanne here. Yes, I think one of the things that we found and I think we see all the times is that salt cod or salted fish of any kind shows up in almost every island, whether as a salt fish fritter or an Accra Trinidad cake or a version of a salt fish cake in Barbados or an ackee and salt fish as a breakfast dish in Jamaica - you see that prevalence of salted fish and salted meats, which very much were the things that probably would've been readily available to travel from the colonies over to the islands. Of course we never had refrigeration, so obviously salting them and curing them was a way of preserving them. And so what that sort of did for us was we looked at where do we eat, why do we eat and how come we eat the foods that we do? And it speaks to the story of a combination of a slave history that all the islands share and the colonial history, that whether it was French or British or Spanish, the two aspects combine to make up the menu that we all eat and we all share.
CORNISH: There's also the sugar history reflected as well, right, lots in different variations
M. ROUSSEAU: Yes, absolutely. Michelle here. You have - every island has a sort of a rum that they produce and all the derivatives of sugar. You know, you see our versions of sweets that were, you know, rudimentary, rustic local sweets that would've been made from limited ingredients that really only changed in methodology of preparation based on availability of equipment.
So within the kitchens of the great houses, you may have found a gizzada, which is sort of a pastry crust with a coconut filling inside with sugar. And that would be because they would have had access to ovens, and they would have had access to other things.
But then at the same time, there would've been a more rustic preparation of that, which would have been a coconut drop, which is coconut pieces cooked down in brown sugar over an open flame. And all you really need was a pot and some fire. So across the islands, there are, you know, versions of these sweets and these savory dishes that we all consume every day.
CORNISH: One thing about, I think, this cuisine is everyone sort of has a grandma there who does it - right? - who cooks it well. And when you were trying to make recipes for the book, in some way, were you trying to reflect professionalized cooking coming out of the Caribbean and how that's changed over the years?
S. ROUSSEAU: I think in the recipes we try to tell our story based off of our years in running restaurants and catering. We also try to, I think, respect that there is a place for tradition and that, just as you say, many of our grandmothers and aunts have cooked a certain kind of food which is generally more of a one-pot, heavier meals with lots of starch and lots of gravy. And we've included a variety of different porridges because, as you would well know, I think, Audie, if you grew up in a Jamaican household...
CORNISH: Yes, lots of breakfast porridge. (Laughing).
S. ROUSSEAU: ...Cornmeal porridge, green banana porridge...
M. ROUSSEAU: Love it.
S. ROUSSEAU: ...Peanut porridge, hominy porridge - defines many a child's breakfast throughout Jamaica. And so we've tried to include the things that are - the things that remind us of home and that are special and rustic, but then look also at, how do we create new, more sophisticated, more modern preparations that anybody can appreciate whether or not they are Caribbean or Jamaican?
And I think, as you had said in the beginning of the segment when you introduced us, is that, you know, we've been given this bad rap of only being about jerk - a very dried-up, brown, ordinary food. And it's not the truth. Our food can be extremely sexy. It can be extremely healthy. It can be easily done. And I think we try to show that and, I think, showcase that throughout the book.
But also recognizing that there is still the space for a great Sunday lunch where you have your curry goat or your oxtail or, you know, your suckling pig or your crackling on your pig - because everything has its place. But I think what has happened is while we have become more modern in our lifestyle, in our approach, we have not represented the food in a modern way - but still kept authentic with the ingredients and that flavors. And I think that's what we have tried to do.
CORNISH: Well, Suzanne and Michelle Rousseau, I hope sometime I can crash your house
S. ROUSSEAU: Anytime.
M. ROUSSEAU: You're welcome anytime.
CORNISH: Suzanne and Michelle Rousseau. They're the authors of "Caribbean Potluck." They spoke to us from New York. Thank you so much.
S. ROUSSEAU: Thank you for having us.
M. ROUSSEAU: Thank you for having us.
CORNISH: And if you want to tackle the whole snapper with mojito oil, head over to our food blog, The Salt, at npr.org.
BLOCK: You are listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.