Friday, March 20, 2015

Playing With Our Food

Loving the variety of tropical fruits!  Image from here.
One of the employees at the dive shop we use was amazed that we were cooking at home almost every night.  "But, why?" She was confused.  "You are on vacation!  Why are you working at cooking?" Well, partly to save money for diving, I admitted, so she promptly turned us on to several local- knowledge, budget-friendly food options.

Eating local has been an assortment of surprises.  There was one fantastic waterfront seafood place where you stood in line to place your order, saw and approved the piece of fish or seafood that would be cooked for you, and paid by weight.  You ate on paper plates, generally using your fingers though inadequate wimpy plastic forks were available for the fastidious.  But fresh!  How fresh was it?  Well, fishing boats docked in the back, that's why it was waterfront, and offloaded their catch directly into the kitchen.  At our favorite Indonesian place, the vegetables came directly from the owner's backyard garden.  Downtown on weekday mornings we could get a local breakfast of orange juice and "kerrie-kerrie," mildly curried fish with lettuce and tomato on a baguette, for $5.  It took a while to get used to the idea of fish sandwiches for breakfast, but it really set us up for an active day.

One restaurant that we stumbled on ourselves was simply named "Restaurant Vegetariano." That needed no translation, right?  It was tiny -- only six tables.  There was no menu but a blackboard, single words naming the (limited) options for lunch, no descriptions, and no prices.  There was a major language barrier but what the heck, we were at least certain that whatever we ended up with would be vegetarian, so okay for us to eat, right?

We started off a bit on the wrong foot, I'm afraid.  There's a lovely Caribbean courtesy of acknowledging the existence of everyone when you enter a room.  People will say "Good morning" to the bus at large when coming aboard, or to the group of everyone seated ahead of them in a waiting room.  The custom has pretty much disappeared from the big cities but was evident in our little restaurant; I suppose we were perceived as quite arrogant for not greeting everyone the first time we came in, but everyone was nice to us anyway. It turned out that ordering "pampuna" got Dan a plate of roasted cubes of West Indies pumpkin with mushrooms and sauteed sea weed, some kind of crumbly soy meat, and flavorful spices; and rice, some kind of chopped tropical fruit salad, and a sliced avocado on the side.  (sounds odd but it was actually very tasty).  My meal involved red pepper and onion, a different kind of soy meat and a different kind of seaweed, and the same rice and fruits and avocado salad.  We were served a cup of soup for starters and a pot of hot ginger tea (it is winter, after all, even though it was 85 degrees and sunny outside), and afterward a dessert of delicate passionfruit creme.  With the tip it all came to $10 US per person, and was enough food that we had no thought of dinner that day.

With such wonderful and interesting meals and low prices it was hard to justify doing the work ourselves.  But we also enjoyed cooking at home, I explained to my dive-shop friend, because we got to experiment with cooking so many things that aren't available back in the US.  Our fridge had coconut rice and mango and pineapple and pumpkin, and "gerookte zalm," which turned out to be the mildest smoked salmon that I had ever tasted.  Not what we thought we were buying but it was all part of the adventure.  Many years ago our friend Hilda had taught us how to cook cho-cho, a Caribbean squash that looked more like a green apple than a vegetable; this year it was our turn to teach.  She was curious about tofu so we had her over for dinner one day and made a Chinese-style stir fry with tofu and vegetables.  We also made a baked tofu in Caribbean jerk sauce.  Our sauce contained a puree of onion and fresh green chiles, soy sauce and red wine, ginger, garlic, cinnamon, cloves, thyme, and black pepper and a pinch of cane sugar.  The audacity of a guy from Kansas making jerk sauce for a woman from Jamaica where jerk was invented wasn't lost on any of us, but she rated the meal a rousing success.

One of my favorite foods, though, was alphabet letters.  We had alphabet noodles in soup when we were kids, but these letters were made not of wheat noodles but of high-quality Belgian chocolate.  One evening at the Birdhouse, all the residents got together for a potluck dinner and the letters were our contribution for dessert.  We played a silly game where everyone got to eat their initial -- there was Lars, and Natasha, and Karl, and Alyssa, and Dan and Jaye, and fortunately all of those letters were included in the bag we'd bought.  I suppose this was one case where you'd much rather your name was Melvin or Wendy than Ingrid, say, because "M" or "W" contains more chocolate than "I."

The lonely unclaimed leftover letters, U and X and F and Y, didn't last long either!


Some food adventures are more adventurous than others.  This Suriname Roti was a lot of fun once we got over the odd appearance.

 At the end of the vacation when we toted up our receipts we learned that our food spending was exactly on par with our US budget; total groceries plus meals out came to $400/month.  And all the grilled fish plus tropical fruit, plus fresh air and exercise, did wonders for our weight, we each lost about 10 pounds.  A bit more embarrassing to admit was our booze budget -- good thing we had the excuse of being on vacation because it ended up double what we budget for at home!

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