Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Black Cake, Sorrel and New Year's Wishes

For my Creole family, New Year's always involved gumbo, souse, black-eyed peas and turnip greens. I'd have nothing to do with any of these, save the greens because in New Year's lore, the peas represent the coins you'll recieve in the new year and the greens symbolize the dollars and who doesn't want more dollars? Once I discovered the Caribbean New Year's tradition of black cake, and sorrel, I added these delicacies to my New Year's meal. An evoulution of the English plum pudding, black cake is similar to fruit cake only more moist and with ground up fruit.  The fruit is soaked for months in rum, sometimes even a year and the mixed with spices, molasses and brown sugar. It's heavy and fragrant and I confess that I eat it all year round, not just on New Year's.

Sorrell is a spicy, vibrant red drink made from the hand-picked sepal of the sorrell or roselle plant, which is a species of hibiscus. I also drink it all year round. Traditionally, the leaves are mixed with ginger, cinnamon and other spices for a refreshing holiday drink. Any proper  holiday visit to a Caribbean house always involves a slice of black cake and a glass of sorrel or ginger beer. Tasting these treats  almost guarantees a happy and fulfilling new year, which is my wish for all of my readers, even if you don't get a chance to sample black cake and sorrel!

This post is part of Wanderlust and Lipstick's Wanderfood Wednesdays, go  over and check out the other treats from around  the world.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Kicking Back With Kalik

It's the middle of the holiday season and after four straight days ( Christmas Eve, Christmas, birthday, Kwanzaa)  of celebrating, I'm finally relaxing. For me, that means a book, music and a cup of tea.  My relaxation ritual made me remember how I observed the locals unwinding on Eleuthera and Harbour Island. Despite the popularity and common association with tourists, I never saw a native Bahamian touch a Bahama Mama  or Yellow Bird cocktail. Instead, I saw them relaxing at cafes, eating conch fritters and drinking tea, coconut water or Goombay Punch.  Forget Coke or Pepsi, the go to soda in the Bahamas is the  sweet, bubbly, red, Goombay Punch. I've heard the taste described as a pineapple Life Saver and that pretty much sums it up except I think its a lot more refreshing.

Another alternative for a quick break is Goombay Fruit Champagne. It's less sweet than the punch and tastes like cream soda. I saw school children drinking cans of this walking home from school.

The most ubiquitous beverage that I saw locals sipping everywhere, from bars to beaches, was Kalik, the national beer. Pronounced (ca Lick), it's named for the sound that Goombay bells make during Junkanoo. Almost like  they were making a point of cultural pride, whenever I saw Bahamians relaxing, a Kalik was typically nearby. It tastes light and zesty and makes a good relaxation aid. What's your favorite way to relax?

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Junkanoo: A Bahamian Style Holiday Celebration

Christmas in the Bahamas means family, feasting and Junkanoo. A spectacular festival of dancing, music and colorful costumed people, Junkanoo represents the essence of Bahamian culture. Held on Boxing Day (December 26, my B-Day!) and New Year's Day (January 1) from 2AM until dawn,  the celebration features meticulously designed costumes worn by groups of 500-1000. Revelers dress and dance according to a top secret theme revealed only on Junkanoo Day.  Music makes up the most significant and distinctive aspect of Junkanoo.  The ryhthms of goatskin drums (Goombay,) copper cow bells and whistles, accompanied  by a brass section drive the frentic and joyful atmosphere of the festival.

Costumes can take close to a year to complete and typically include an elaborate headress, shoulder and skirt. Most of the designs are created from crepe paper intricately glued to fabric, cardboard or wood.

Groups compete for cash prizes in the categories of  best costume, best music and best overall presentation. The winning costumes are preserved for display in the Junkanoo Museum in Nassau.

No Christmas season celebration is complete without Santa and the jolly Junkanoo participant above delivers a totally Bahamian version of St. Nick.  Happy Holidays to everyone!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Harbour Island Hallmarks

Harbour Island brims with charm on every inch of the three and half mile paradise. Even the roads are quaint because you won't find many cars instead, golf carts represent the  most popular Harbour Island transportation choice. You can rent tiny two seaters or roomy four seaters like the one I'm riding above, to zip around to see the island highlights.

Along the narrow streets you'll see scores of golf carts lining the curbs.

Sometimes, so many of the little carts cram the roads that that they appear to outnumber Harbour Island's population of 2,000 and actually take on human characteristics. To me, the carts above look like a couple in a face off.

The golf carts offer the perfect way to absorb the island's personality and see hallmark's up close. This might look like a cute cottage but it's actually one of Harbour Islands's most popular businesses, Arthur's Bakery.  People crowd the shop to score golden, buttery, coconut bread every morning. They had just sold their last loaf when I arrived at 10AM.

This doesn't look like the American chain's logo because its Harbour Island's own take on a grocery store, complete with fresh conch and sapodillas (close to a custard apple.) . I couldn't figure out what a violin-playing pig has to do with groceries but glimpsing the sign from my golf cart made me laugh.

The vibrant colors of this boutique also called for a golf cart stop. The store is filled with so many clothes, books and trinkets that it did inspire me to dilly dally for a lot longer than I expected.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Cooking Up Conch Salad on Harbour Island

Conch salad  fittingly represents the breezy, easygoing Bahamian lifestyle and you will find the delicacy everywhere on Harbour Island, the tiny island two miles East of Eleuthera. Located along the waterfront, Queen Conch is the Harbour Island headquarters for a daily dose of fresh conch salad.

A conch (konk) is a mollusk that's basically a marine snail.. First the insides are scooped out of the rosy shell.

A special knife is used to scrape the wiggling meat out of the shell, which sometimes hides large pink pearls.

The basic ingredients for a conch salad are tomato, onion, green pepper, lime juice and at Queen Conch, sour orange juice, which is a cross between a lime and an orange.  A special pepper sauce is also added for a zesty kick.

A large knife is used to swiftly cut up all the ingredients before your eyes.

Then the salad is scooped into a plastic container with a spoon. Conch salad is refreshing and mild, it tastes like a chewier verion of ceviche.  Bahamians love conch any kind of way, including conch fritters, cracked conch, conch burgers and conch chowder. The conch is reputed to be an aphrodesiac and is consumed so often that its considered an endagered species throughout the Caribbean. This doesn't stop Harbrour Island natives however, they swear that conch salad is the best way to enjoy their diet staple.
This post is part of Wander Food Wednesdays. Check out the other taste sensations around the world.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Pretty in Pink

One of the first things that I discovered in Eleuthera was that pink shows up on more than just its sandy shores. In fact, I found that the sand wasn't a true pink at all but really specks of pink washed with white, pictured above, under my pink toe nails. Although I dutifully scooped a bottle of the sand for my pink sand collection, I was disappointed that it wasn't a deeper shade of pink. But after a few days, I realized that pink dominates the island's color spectrum and accurately reflects Eleuthera's calm, cheery vibe.

First I was greeted by North Eleuthera's rosy-hued airport.

Then I was drawn in by pops of berry-colored blooms lined by a lavender fence.

Then I spotted a pastel pink church.

And I was tempted to lounge in cotton-candy-colored lawn furniture.

Most significantly, the signature conch shells that dot the beaches and supply the basis for the famed conch salad, add a serene pink glow everywhere you turn. Most of all, the pink symbolizes the gentle, friendly spirit of the Bahamian people, like these smiling school girls.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Next Stop: Eleuthera

I'm headed for a press trip to Eleuthera, (El Loo thra) a Bahamian out island famous for its quiet beauty. Pink sand beaches are another Eleuthera claim to fame and you know how I love pink sand. I'll be delving into the history and culture of this 110 miles long island, which was the first European settlement in the Bahamas. I plan to take in bone fishing, a weekly fish fry jump up and hang out at Elvina's, the legendary beach side bar noted for Lenny Kravitz jam sessions. I'll be gone for the rest of the week but expect dreamy Eleuthera updates by next week.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Taste Trippin' Part Four

It's November in Chicago. This is the time my mind turns to thoughts of island life, not that it doesn't most times but now is when I really focus. So I grabbed a quick excursion to Jamaica. Of course, I'm not talking about a physical jaunt but a gastronomical trip to the South Loop's Utopia International Caribbean Cuisine. Outfitted in rich tapestries and bordeaux velvet sofas, the place doesn't conjure up any images of Jamaica at all. That's because it used to be an upscale tapas lounge. That concept apparently didn't work for them so a few months ago they switched to Jamaican fare. Now, as you'd expect, I'm pretty particular when it comes to Jamaican food. All the jerk chicken joints that populate this city do not necessarily qualify as authentic Jamaican cuisine. I have my criteria and my check list that an eatery must pass before I'll try them but mostly I send my Caribbean friends to scout it out. I called Utopia personally when they opened and they failed my test miserably. I don't go near any Jamaican place where the staff doesn't know what ackee and saltfish is, which happens to be the national dish. At the persistent urging of my friends, I decided to give Utopia another chance. I scheduled an afternoon lunch interview with Chicago-bred actor and comedian Erica Watson (catch her in the film Precious) and hoped for the best.

Bob Marley singing "Kaya" in the background was a very good sign. Erica ordered the jerk catfish shown above,a specialty created by the executive chef "Papa Jay." Accompanied by a generous helping of rice and peas, plantains and hard dough bread, the spread looked like a hearty Jamaican lunch.

I ordered the classic Jamaican dish, brownstew chicken but when I opened the cute ceramic pot, I was surprised to discover ox tail stew, pictured above. Erica and I immediately discerned the difference but the kitchen prep assistant clearly did not. Since I don't eat red meat, a mistaken nibble of the ox tail could have made me sick. The waitress was aghast and assured me that the chef would come out to rectify things. Well, that's exactly what I was waiting for. Before Papa Jay even opened his mouth, I could tell from his artful stride and bemused expression that he was Jamaican. He apologized and explained that none of his assistants knew the difference between the two dishes but he had prepared my chicken and presented a plate of jerk chicken wings in the meantime. He sat down and that's when our Jamaican meal began. You see, a large part of an authentic Caribbean meal is the conversation. And I don't mean small talk. Papa Jay recalled his life in Ocho Rios, how he met his American wife and offered suggestions on potential love interests for Erica.

By the time my brownstew chicken arrived above, we were all good friends, downing glasses of ginger beer and Ting with healthy does of spicy talk and food. By the time we finished 5 hours later, Papa Jay's work shift was over and waiters were setting out tea lights for dinner. I raced home, happy that I had managed a quick Jamaican visit that didn't involve air fare.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Bahia Bounty

I've never been a fan of shopping as a travel activity. Generally, I'm quite allergic to shopping malls, department stores and the special hell that's called warehouse clubs. I don't experience any pleasure from wading through mounds of generic, mass produced merchandise and I despise it even more in another country. If it isn't distinctive and doesn't reflect the nuances of the culture, what's the point? You can probably buy it anywhere. Now an outdoor market, on the other hand, offers the sights and sounds of a particular country as well as the experience of bargaining and bartering. Once in the Dominican Republic, a vendor admired my husband's yellow polo shirt and he exchanged it for an ebony sculpture. Whenever I look at that sculpture, I remember the story of how we gained it.

In Bahia, the vibrant culture shines through everything, including the Mercado Modelo. From the capoeiristas chanting and kicking outside, to the smell of sea and moqueca wafting through the aisles, it was a totally Brazilian experience. The small paintings above reflect the orixas Xango and Oxum, deity of thunder and lightening and beauty and fresh water, respectively. I negotiated and haggled for 30 minutes to get them, they not only represent the importance of the candomble religion in Brazilian culture but also my perseverance!

I really like Oxum and her fly representation of femininity so when I saw this hand-painted shirt in an art gallery, I was thrilled. Then I discovered they didn't take credit cards and left disappointed, only to discover that Claudia, my candomble historian, surprised me with it at the end of my trip. I think of Bahia and Claudia whenever I wear it.

As you've probably noticed, candomble and its orixas play a significant role in Brazilian culture. References of this African based, syncretic religion pop up everywhere,from music to clothing. Brought from Africa over 350 years ago, forms of candomble have sprouted all over the African Diaspora. Ancient Yoruba deities were melded with catholic saints so that uprooted Africans could continue their spiritual practices in the face of persecution. The deities or orixas, all have corresponding saints, colors and days of the week. In candomble, Saint Joan of Arc becomes Oba, the fearless fighter, Saint Lazarus is Omulu, deity of healing and Saint Michael is Logun, deity of polarity.

Everywhere I went in Brazil, in restaurants, airports, shops and bookstores, I observed elements of candomble. T-shirts with images of all the orixas sell in boutiques and corner stores. Restaurants, key chains and bronze statues of Imenja, the mermaid deity of the ocean, appear wherever there is a body of water. Even the all-important soccer teams have their own orixas. Despite candomble being outlawed for much of the 20th century, the religion remains a visible part of Brazilian culture. I bought this t-shirt showcasing the 12 main orixas for my husband and I think of how entrenched they are in Brazilian culture every time he wears it.

These doll magnets represent Iansa, deity of the wind in pink and Nana, deity of swamps and unfathomable wisdom in purple. I snapped them up at Mercado Modelo where these cute magnets and key chains were piled into every stall. They both overlook my kitchen, peering out from my refrigerator, overshadowing all the other magnets.

I collect crystals and stones and I was immediately drawn to the vivid rose hue of this pink quartz. Brazil boasts lots of mines so precious and semi-precious stones sparkle everywhere. I bargained for this quartz at the mercado and now it sits on my desk, reminding me of Brazil's natural beauty. How do you feel about shopping while traveling and what kinds of souvenirs do you look for?

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Browsing through Bahia's Mercado Modelo

I think the term "shop til you drop" was created with Bahia's Mercado Modelo in mind. Over 300 handicraft stalls cram three levels, along with a colorful collection of bars and restaurants. Although the Mercado is filled with authentic Bahian culture, from baianas selling acaraje, to capoeira performed at the entrance, the place was clearly created for tourists. So it you're like me and can't stand to go near any silly tourist traps, don't pass up the Mercado. You'll have to haggle and the sheer number of souvenirs, along with huge crowds and echoing noise is overwhelming but its worth the experience.

The paintings reveal a riot of vivid colors and talent. Most of the vendors aren't aggressive and you can browse without being harassed. I think it helped that I was mistaken for a local Baiana, even though my Portuguese is horrifying. I haggled for two small orixa paintings that now hang triumphantly in my hallway.

For music and instrument fans, there's never ending displays of handcrafted drums, flutes and berimbaus, the traditional stringed instrument played during capoeira. This pile of drums was just one of many creative arrangements that I saw.

Ceremonial masks are also popular at the Mercado. Some were imported from Africa and some were carved in Brazil, in honor of various orixas or deities.

Because the African/Brazilian religion of candomble permeates every aspect of daily Brazilian life, figurines and statues of candomble orixas are found everywhere. Here, Xango, deity of thunder and Yemanja, deity of the sea, tempt art lovers and candomble worshippers alike.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Bom Dia From Brazil

Brazilian creativity is legendary, fresh ideas and innovations just seem to flow with the ease of samba on a sunny day. So you think Brazilians would speak on ordinary public phones? Please. Brazilian phone booths are called orelhao (big ear) because of the function and rounded shape but they hardly resemble anything close to a boring, old phone.

In Bahia, I was excited to see phone booths looking like big, green apples but that wasn't all.

Some perched on corners in the form of gigantic swans.

Others beckoned with the bright petals of the sunflower.

Or the imposing beauty of the rose.

And this duck character, I can't explain who he is, probably the cooler, more stylish (check out the carefully coordinated hat) cousin of Daffy.