Cookbooks: A Caribbean state of mind

“Tastes Like Home” offers taste, memories of Guyana and the islands, as  Catherine Dehdashti writes in this review for The Star Tribune.

I’ve enjoyed countless Caribbean dishes at dinner parties without ever lifting a single Scotch bonnet pepper. My friend Pauline does it so well, why should I bother?

At least that’s how I felt before I discovered “Tastes Like Home: My Caribbean Cookbook” (Ian Randle Publishers, 335 pages, $34.95), by Cynthia Nelson.

The diverse Caribbean style of cooking was formed from the melding of cultures: African, Indian, European, Chinese and indigenous cuisines in the Caribbean islands and the coastal South American nation of Guyana.

“Our foreparents who came to these shores, whether as masters, servants or slaves, brought with them their food cultures,” writes Nelson, a journalist from Guyana who now lives in Barbados.

One hundred straightforward recipes with photos provide a well-rounded taste of this culinary history. In addition to the recipes, 34 essays reflect on holiday celebrations, Nelson’s memories of family gatherings and her favorite dishes.

One of my favorites of hers was polenta with okra, called cou-cou, which originally called for flying fish in a spicy tomato broth. I brought it to one of Pauline’s dinner parties, confessing I’d used tilapia in place of the flying fish. I also brought curried bottle gourd to the gathering, using one of the gourds I find at Southeast Asian vendors at local farmers markets.

Fried savories and breads are traditional — many are festival foods — so Nelson takes a no-apologies approach in presenting them. Batter-fried cassava balls, with creamy centers of cassava root mashed with savory seasonings, were gone in a hurry at my house. Phulourie, a split-pea fritter made for the Hindu festival of Holi, made a spicy late-night snack served with mango-tamarind chutney.

Several dishes in the book can be prepared quickly, such as yard-long beans and shrimp, easily a new weeknight favorite. Similarly, a pumpkin and shrimp sauté goes well with rice or roti. Other dishes take more time, so I put on some Calypso music and made an afternoon of cooking mettagee (salt cod cooked in fresh-pressed coconut milk with root vegetables and dumplings).

Some dishes require planning ahead, such as a black cake that requires months to soak the fruits in rum. Pauline, always ready with rum-soaked fruit, brought one to my house when I hosted my first Caribbean dinner party. I put it on the dessert table next to the conkies — puddings made from cornmeal, coconut, pumpkin and rum-soaked raisins, steamed in individual packages made of banana leaves.

What tastes like home to Nelson and my friend Pauline was an adventure for me. But it’s one I’ll keep going with the help of Nelson’s cookbook and her blog at

I’ve found a source of sun-splashed inspiration, and now I finally understand why Pauline has so many parties.

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