I came back from a holiday trip to St. Lucia jonesing for fishcakes and dasheen pie, two staples of Caribbean cuisine ubiquitous on the island. After a week of lacing fried salt cod with Scotch bonnet pepper sauce, I needed a local supply.
You may have heard that Brooklyn is now challenging Queens for the title of most diverse county in the nation. Crown Heights lies at the center of Brooklyn’s Caribbean population, home to one of the largest expatriate communities in the US with immigrants from Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Grenada, Haiti, and elsewhere. The borough has seen several waves of immigration, the most foundational in the mid 1960s after restrictions were relaxed. As West Indian immigrants moved in, they bought property and opened shops, building one of the longest-lasting ethnic communities in the city. Last September, the annual West Indian Day Parade along Eastern Parkway was attended by about 3 million people, making it our most popular parade.
Nostrand Avenue, which runs north-south through Crown Heights, is a busy commercial thoroughfare dotted with roti shops and West Indian groceries. In my quest for dasheen (taro root) and salt cod, I took a route north from the Eastern Parkway 2/3/4/5 subway stop.
At 784 Nostrand Food Market, I plucked a two pound dasheen from among the yucca, yautia, yams, and other tubers. Along the wall, mauby bark (from the carob tree) and chaney root (an aphrodisiac) hang alongside curry and nutmeg; either can be steeped and made into a drink. Here you can also buy red palm oil, coconut oil, and Trinidadian cheese, along with dry goods and produce.
At 723 Nostrand, Song’s Fruit and Vegetable sells loose salt cod (boneless or bone-in) by the pound, sorrel concentrate (for drinks), fufu flour, and a large array of produce and West Indian hot sauces. A bowl of fresh Scotch bonnets sits by the register for those who prefer to make their own.
For lunch, pick up a roti at Glenda’s (854 Saint John’s Place), or head further north to Green Mango (1249 Atlantic Avenue) for some of the tastiest curried goat outside of Trinidad. Meat (oxtail, stew beef, jerk chicken, goat) and two sides will set you back about $9; choose from pigeon peas, macaroni pie, stewed callalloo and their other daily specials.
To use your salt cod, soak the fish in several changes of water for at least 24 and up to 48 hours, then follow any basic recipe for fried codfish cakes. I kept it simple with flour, baking powder, milk, egg, and shallots; you may also add potato or onion. The dasheen can be peeled and boiled like a potato (the airier tuber will float, then turn gray). When soft, mash it well and mix it with butter, cheese, and green onions. Form the mixture into patties, dust them with flour, and lightly pan fry them before serving.
Top off your fritters with Baron’s hot sauce, and pour yourself a drink (Chairman’s Reserve rum, available at Nostrand Wines & Liquors, 551 Nostrand). All you’re missing is sunshine.
This post was updated Spring 2012.