“Can you teach me to make arroz caldo?” I ask my 84-year-old Grandma.
“What? You don’t know how to make that?”
“Aye! I cooked for my family since I was five years old. How old are you now?”
“Aye Nako! If this was the Philippines your husband would have abandoned you.”
“Okay. First, make rice.”
I start opening the fifty-pound rice bag slumped against the wall.
“Do you have a measuring cup?” I ask.
“Never mind, I’ll be the one.”
Grandma scoops a few fistfuls into the rice cooker with her bare hands. She rinses it under the tap a few times, swirling the grains and dumping out white water.
Grandma makes rice with a ratio of one cup of rice to two cups of water. Her rice is soft and sticky, even stickier than Japanese sushi rice. If apples or plums are in season, she’ll chop some up to throw into the rice but since it’s April, the rice is plain.
“Chop the onion,” she says.
“Big or small?”
She ignores me so I chop them kind of medium-sized.
“Now get ginger.”
On the counter are half-empty pouches of Mama Sita’s tamarind paste nestled inside those green plastic baskets that you get at the grocery store when you buy strawberries. There are paper bags of dried leaves that Grandma had collected from the backyard. I rummage around until I find some ginger root.
I peel a thumb-sized hunk of ginger with a knife and chop it up. I put the pieces into a mortar and pestle and squish it.
I don’t want to tell Grandma, but I looked up a recipe beforehand and there is no garlic in arroz caldo. In fact, the recipe specifically says not to use garlic—the reason being that the flavor would interfere with the ginger.
“Grandma, are you sure there’s garlic?”
She stares at me, unsmiling.
“Everything you make in Filipino food has onion and garlic. Start with onion and garlic and you can make anything.”
I open the fridge to hunt for garlic. I see shelves of mason jars labeled with masking tape and my grandma’s careful handwriting. Labels like “squid ink,” “pickled feet,” “pork blood” and “bagoong.” No garlic. I rummage around under the counter and find a bulb next to an unlabeled jar with brown stuff in it.
Grandma turns on the stove and starts brewing a pot of loquat leaves. There’s a loquat tree in the backyard and Grandma says that the tea helps her stomach. The tea comes to a simmer, making the kitchen smell warm and earthy.
I smash up some garlic and throw it in a bowl. Then I take out a couple of fresh chicken quarters.
“You need that smaller,” says Grandma.
I try sawing at the bones and pulling them apart at the joints while Grandma looks over my shoulder, shaking her head and frowning. Eventually, she waves me away. She takes out her machete and with one swift thwack, hacks through the bone. After a few minutes—thwack, thwack, thwack—the chicken is transformed into tasty-looking, manageable bits.
She heats up a pot and throws the chopped onions in with some vegetable oil. I switch the overhead fan on. Grandma was never much for caring if the whole house smelled like onions. If she had a smoke detector, it’d probably always be alarming. Which reminds me.
“Grandma, what happened to that fire extinguisher I bought you?”
“What? That red thing? It was in the way. I put it in my room.”
The onions turn translucent and she throws in the garlic, ginger, and chicken.
“You have to make it brown,” she says.
Grandma then rummages under the counter and takes out a mason jar, the unlabeled one containing the brown substance.
“I brought a bag of neck bones at Manila Market for only two dollars and made adobo.”
I look at the jar with curiosity. So that’s what that stuff is. I see a mound of little bones stained brown, covered with flecks of garlic and onion. Now that’s a dish that really blurs the line between food and non-food.
After forty minutes or so, the arroz caldo is finished. Grandma adds a few shakes of soy sauce and serves us each a bowl. She also takes a side of rice and adobo and pours herself a cup of stewed loquat leaves. We sit down to eat and Grandma starts gnawing on the adobo bones.
“You might break your teeth on that,” I say.
Grandma smiles, displaying a mouthful of perfect, white teeth. Grandma’s teeth look so nice that when she had to get surgery for breaking her arm last year, the nurses assumed they were dentures and tried to take them out of her mouth.
“It’s good to eat bones,” Grandma says. “For calcium.”
I pick up the jar of adobo and study what appears to be segments of spinal column. I put the jar down and turn my attention to my bowl of arrozcaldo, seeing bits of browned chicken seasoned with spicy ginger, garlic, and onions in a savory rice broth. Plumes of fragrant steam are sent into the air.
“Also, Grandma, we really should put the fire extinguisher back in the kitchen.”
I take a bite. Mmm. The garlic didn’t hurt it at all. If anything, it’s even more delicious, adding another layer of flavor to the spicy taste.
“You, your mom, everybody is always telling me what to do,” says Grandma. “But look at me, I’m still alive! Maybe you should learn.”
Maybe she’s right. I take a deep breath and take one of the adobo bones. I take a tentative nibble. The bones are packed with vinegar, soy sauce, and garlic flavor. The acidy of the vinegar had pickled the bone, making them crunchy.Hmmm. They really are quite tasty.
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It is officially that time of year—the holiday season. There’s nothing like Christmas and New Year’s in the West Indies. Between the pepperpot in Guyana and the palm trees decorated in lights in Trinidad, the home food, warm weather and laid-back ambiance makes us wish we could escape the cold and head back to the Caribbean. Most of us, however, cannot “take holiday” and find ourselves hungry for fresh dhal puri and doubles. But, thanks to these Indo-Caribbean food bloggers, we can bring the motherland to our kitchens.
From Diwali mithai specialties to curry chicken, Matthew is creating a name for himself as a young Guyanese food blogger. He makes a great effort to incorporate Hindu holidays and traditions on his Instagram account, in conjunction with the customary foods and sweets associated with these religious events. However, his expertise does not end there, with new and alternative recipes for classic dishes such as curry chicken and bhara, Matthew takes center stage sharing both traditional Guyanese dishes as well as specific religious dishes made for festivals. His most popular YouTube video, with 1.4 million views, features his grandmother and focuses on the best tips to make the softest Guyanese paratha roti. In addition, his YouTube account is home to many videos offering guidance to Indo Caribbean cooking. Find recipes at @mattews.guyanese.cooking
Natasha Laggan of Trini Cooking with Natasha is wildly popular throughout the Caribbean and the U.S. With humble beginnings, Natasha credits her love of food to her family’s business. She speaks of the nostalgia home food provides her as she reminisces memories of her grandmother’s cooking and helping her mother make sandwiches early in the morning. Featured by Forbes, Natasha grew her Facebook following quickly throughout the pandemic by posting old YouTube videos. Today, she has more than 1 million followers on Facebook and over 200K followers on YouTube. She uses her passion for cooking and Trinidadian culture to bring easy-to-follow recipes to viewers. Her following has now reached the West Indian diaspora globally as she has also become a brand ambassador to two well-known food companies. Follow the food expert @trinicookingwithnatasha.
With over 100K followers on YouTube, Ria is quite the expert when it comes to making roti. Her dhal puri, sada roti and paratha roti tutorials have over 1M views! However, her expertise does not stop there. Of the 180 YouTube tutorials, her recipes vary from curry to other Trinidadian favorites like macaroni pie and pigtail soup. Just scrolling through her YouTube page makes your mouth water. From doubles to classic Trinidad bakes like pound cake and sweet bread, she provides precision and anecdotal commentary while guiding you through the familiarity of home food. Check out Ria’s page at @cookingwithria.
Known as Chef Devan, Devan Rajkumar embraces his Guyanese Canadian heritage by creating recipes combining flavors of both the East and West Indies. His love of food has allowed him to expand his role to judge in a popular Canadian cooking show: Food Network Canada’s Fire Masters. His cooking often blends the flavors of multiple cultures but also creates the classic recipes of his motherland. With a multitude of interests, Chef Dev uses his social media platform to connect with followers by sharing various aspects of his life that go beyond cooking. His most recent YouTube video provides a trailer for an upcoming video “Tastes Guyana” which shows him exploring Guyana from the inside, specifically deep parts of the inner country. To learn more about Chef Devan follow @chefdevan.
Reshmi is the chef behind the growing blog, Taste of Trinbago. A Trinidadian native who now resides in Texas, she uses her love of food and Trinidadian culture to share hacks, tips and easy recipes with West Indians throughout the globe. She finds a way to simplify traditional West Indian meals, that we once watched our elders make with curiosity. From holiday specialties like black cake to Diwali delicacies, Reshmi has brought vegetarian and non-veg recipes to followers in an extremely accessible way. She even posts recipe cards on her IG highlights for followers who may need written instructions. Her IG profile is a mix of various West Indian foods while also sharing bits of her life and even her secrets to baby food. Follow her @tasteoftrinbago.
These are just five Indo Caribbean food bloggers sharing their secrets to easy cooking. The once very daunting recipes and food instructions our parents gave have been simplified by most of these bloggers through video, voice over and modernized recipes. We no longer have to estimate a “dash, pinch or tuk” of any masala. We are just days away from Christmas and this is the perfect time to find the best-suited recipe to make that paratha for Santa.