Though Americans have widely embraced a few Afro-Caribbean dishes like Jamaican jerk chicken and rice and beans, the deeper culinary traditions of African and Caribbean cultures are not as widely known. But the soups, stews and starchy side dishes of those diverse cuisines are delicious and definitely worth exploring.
For James "Shawn" Glanville, the owner of the Savannah's Kitchen food truck and Savannah's Island Bar & Grill in Highlandtown, shopping at Afro-Caribbean markets is a quick way to feel as if he's traveled back to his native Jamaica.
"It's what I remember from home, with the music, and talking to another islander who cooks what I cook," he says.
But even people who have never been to the islands can benefit from a trip to a market that features African and Caribbean ingredients. Shopping these stores is an education led by friendly tour guides. The people behind the market counters are welcoming and easygoing — a bonus, because quite a few of the ingredients on the shelves will be unfamiliar to many shoppers.
Some ingredients, like peanuts in the shell, beans and large bags of rice, are common sights across cultures. Others, like spicy jerk seasonings and curry mixes, bundles of fresh thyme, plantains, coconuts and spicy peppers (including habaneros and Scotch bonnets) are slightly more exotic but still generally recognizable to most American eyes and palates.
But there are also plenty of products that might be new to the average American. Meats, including goat, regular and "burnt" (smoked) cow feet and cow skin, are packed into freezers and refrigerator cases. Seafood in various forms — dried, ground, frozen and fresh — also fill shelves.
In the produce section, the selection of starchy root vegetables might stump some American cooks.
Cassava, one of the more widely carried items, is a woody shrub that comes in bitter and sweet varieties and looks like a wood log. Also called yuca, it is a major staple food in many African and Caribbean countries, and it is used in a variety of ways. Cassava is an ingredient in cakes, liquors and stews and is also used as the starchy element of some laundry products.
Its preparation can be tricky; the plant contains cyanide and should not be consumed raw.
"Cassava is something we use a lot of; we call it sweet potato. You have one you call candied yam. The difference is the texture: candied yam is a little softer than what we call the sweet potato," says Elaine Simon, president of the Caribbean American Carnival Association of Baltimore. "We serve them a lot in traditional dishes. If you cook peas and rice or just plain rice, you would have the rice served with the meat, whether it's curried goat or chicken or jerk chicken or stewed pork. Then you would have two slices of potato and a slice of fried plantain. Sometimes you have a slice of pumpkin."
Cocoyam is a broad term for tropical root vegetables, especially taro. It is sold ground and as part of flour, and is a staple starch in African and Caribbean dishes.
Eddoe is another starchy root vegetable, similar to taro or yam, with a sweet, nutty flavor. It can be prepared many ways, including mashing, baking, roasting or adding to soups.
Other unusual produce items include chayote, a mild, fruity squash often found in Caribbean countries, that can be eaten raw or cooked, and kittely, or African eggplant, which is sold dried or frozen, and used in stews and other dishes.
"Since Americans travel abroad to the Caribbean islands so frequently, there are a lot of needs and desires here in Baltimore for Caribbean food," says Simon.
Some products, like ugba, also called ukpaka, defy categorization. The slightly fermented oil bean seeds are used in Nigerian cuisine, especially salads.
The flour aisle at Afro-Caribbean grocery stores includes an eye-popping variety, with products like elubo, which is made with yam or plantain, and options made from numerous plants, including roasted corn, cassava and the grain millet.
Root vegetables and flours are the main ingredients in several common African and Caribbean foods.
Fufu, a doughy finger food, can be made with fufu flour or from starchy fruits and vegetables like cassava, yams, cocoyams or plantains. It is typically served with soup or sauce for dipping. West African fufu is doughier than Caribbean fufu (also called mofongo in Puerto Rico, where it is fried and mashed with other ingredients, and mangu in the Dominican Republic).
The West African staple kenkey is a another doughy product, this one made with fermented maize or, in the Caribbean, with plantain, sweet potato or cassava. The dough might be served at room temperature, warm or hot, with sauces or alongside meat, fish or poultry.
Soups and stews make up a large portion of African and Caribbean cooking. Shops might carry a few preprepared soups or mixes, including a mix for banku, a corn and cassava-based stew with roots in Ghana, where it might be served with fried or smoked fish and hot peppers. Ekwang, sold in the refrigerated section of some stores, is a Cameroonian stew made with cocoyams and crawfish.
In most shops, the variety of herbs and spices is impressive. Some, like sour sour leaves — another name for African sorrel, or hibiscus flowers — are sold dried or refrigerated and can be used to make tea.
Many of the herbs and spices are most commonly used to season or thicken soups and stews, including ground ogbono seeds — also called dika seeds — which come from a mango-like fruit from Africa, and the legume achi, both used as thickeners.
The beverage aisles of Afro-Caribbean groceries are stocked with fruit juices and coconut water, plus fun sodas, including a handful of unusual flavors, like mauby, a root beer-like drink made with tree bark, that is popular in the Caribbean.
At Baltimore's local shops, listed below, friendly employees shout greetings and offer help to everyone who walks through the door. Don't be shy about asking for advice — they're happy to give it.
"The one-on-one you get from a Caribbean market is invaluable," says Glanville.
All in One International Food Market
6521 Harford Road, Baltimore, 410-444-8240
This shop is small but offers one of the area's widest selection of products. Though the produce is limited, All in One carries many types of meat and fish, including dried and smoked varieties, several types of flour, and numerous spices, as well as a diverse selection of breads and other baked goods.
8040 Liberty Road, Windsor Mill, 410-922-7260
Caribbean Supermarket is the area's largest Afro-Caribbean grocery. From the outdoor produce display to fresh, whole fish on ice in the back, the shop is orderly and clean, with a wide selection of products.
Heritage International Food Store
Brenbrook Plaza Shopping Center, 8727 Liberty Road, Randallstown, 410-655-6600
Don't miss Heritage's well-organized and labeled frozen section, which includes multiple types of fish, goat, beef, tripe, cow feet and skin, mutton and oxtail alongside whole chickens and frozen vegetables.
Island Food Market
5318 Park Heights Ave., Baltimore, 410-664-1818, islandfoodmarket.com
This Baltimore shop is larger than it looks from the outside, with a wide selection of juices and sodas, a meat counter in the back and a small produce section. Island Food Market also carries oversized metal pans, perfect for making rice and beans or stews in large quantities.
Randallstown International Food Market
5316 Old Court Road, Randallstown, 410-496-1501
The selection at Randallstown International Food Market is limited but covers the basics, including hefty bags of rice, multiple types of flour, and a variety of frozen meats and fish. If there's something you can't find, ask the staff — they're friendly, fun and very outgoing.
What to cook
James "Shawn" Glanville, the proprietor of the Savannah's Kitchen food truck (bmorejamaican.com) and Savannah's Island Bar & Grill in Highlandtown, is locally known for his Jamaican jerk chicken and red snapper dishes. He shops Island Food Market on Park Heights Avenue for the spices and peppers that season his dishes.
Here, Glanville shares the recipe for the snapper, which incorporates the sweet and spicy flavors of the island country. With the fish, he serves rice and peas and cabbage.
Savannah's Kitchen's red snapper
Makes 2-3 servings
1 tablespoon allspice berries, ground to a powder
1 tablespoon dried thyme
1 tablespoon mild paprika
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons black pepper, ground coarsely
1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon fresh nutmeg, grated
1/2 Scotch bonnet pepper, chopped (be careful when chopping; these peppers are very hot)
1/4 teaspoon cloves, ground coarsely
1/2 cup olive oil
1 whole red snapper, scaled, gutted and cleaned (about 1 pound total)
1 cup flour
Vegetable oil for frying
In a bowl, combine the allspice, thyme, paprika, 1 teaspoon salt, 1½ teaspoons black pepper, cayenne, nutmeg, Scotch bonnet pepper, cloves and olive oil to make a wet rub for the fish. The rub will be the consistency of a thick paste.
Score the fish on each side, cutting three slits in the body. Liberally season the fish with the paste, including in the slits, on the belly of the fish and the fish head. Let the fish marinate for at least two hours (or overnight).
Put the flour in a bowl or bag and toss the fish to coat. Make sure the entire fish is covered in flour; shake off any excess.
The fish can be either deep-fried or pan-fried. If using a deep fryer, heat vegetable oil to 350 degrees and cook fish for 6 minutes. If pan-frying, heat 2 to 3 tablespoons of vegetable oil in a frying pan over medium-high heat. Place the fish in the frying pan and cook for about 3 minutes on each side.