They Called it Callaloo

Stuck off the beaten track, but surrounded by the heavy traffic of a congested city, the Grand Market in Virginia Beach, Virginia is not an easy one to pinpoint, even with GPS  tracking technology. But “Sam’s” voice droned “Turn right, then left,” and somehow  I managed to avoid the motorcycle on a kamikaze path to my left and the rusty red pickup truck on my right with a threadbare Confederate flag whipping in the wind, blocking my view.

A space opened up just as I pulled into the parking lot. I wondered if some special event merited all those shoppers, but it turned out that most people seemed to be there for the same reason that I was: the Grand Market sold stuff that no other grocery store did.  Two Korean women glanced at me as I pushed on the door, shaking their heads and pointing to another door. Ah ha, it seems that you simply could not enter through the exit door at all.

The odor as I walked through the door reminded me of something I miss terribly here in the typical grocery store in the United States.  For it is very rare to smell anything in the typical grocery store, unless perhaps when the fish counter experiences an ice leak or the odd rotten orange or onion snuck past the eagle eyes of the produce department.

There, in the Grand Market, I smelled Life. And Death. Foods from all over the world, including durian, lay bunched up on shelves and countertops, plunged into open freezers, where goat meat and all manner of lamb parts could be bought. Hordes of live blue crabs struggled across expanses of ice that must have seemed like glaciers to them and whole fish with the cloudy blank stare of death reclined in still more icy coffins. And in the produce section, I nearly fell to my knees in worship, because  so many leafy vegetables I’d only ever read about my myriad cookbooks were there, mine for the forking over of cash. For the first time in years, I saw callaloo, something I’d bought many times in Haiti. I snatched up a package, smiling so much that several people glanced at me with worried brows.

Almost the size of a Walmart, or so it seemed, at every turn the Grand Market surprised me with more and more thrills, including an almost entire wall garlanded with nothing except bags and bags of dozens of varieties of dried chiles from Mexico. ¡Ay de mi!

Back home, in my own kitchen, I conjured up a version of callaloo that reminded me of my years in Haiti, although I didn’t have fried green plantains on the side. But for about 20 minutes, I was back on the island, thinking about that magical place, filled with the most stalwart souls, who created such marvelous art. Many nights  the sounds of drumming down in the valley below our house reminded us of Haiti’s tragic past, signs of it still in the cooking, French, African, Taino, Spanish.


Note: Greens cooked with smoked meats pop up continuously in old recipe books, from early English cookbooks to those of Italy and France. Adrian Miller, author of Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine One Plate at a Time, confirms that statement (p. 147-49). But if you’d like to read  a bit more on that topic, with more references, do take a moment and read my take on the matter: “A Mess of Pottage and Bite of Bitter Greens.” Although the combination of greens and smoked meat is heavily associated with the cuisines of parts of Africa – where smoked and/or dried fish take pride of place, the combination is indeed universal. Callaloo, by the way, can refer to a number of different greens, as well as a dish consisting of a number of different ingredients, depending upon where the dish is cooked.

Serves 6-8 as a side dish

1 pound callaloo leaves, washed, stemmed and chopped (you may use any other greens of your choice if callaloo is not available), set aside
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil or other oil of your preference
1/2 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
1/2 pound coarsely chopped ham
2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped/mashed
1/2 – 1 whole habanero pepper
2 plum tomatoes, finely chopped
3 sprigs fresh thyme or 1/2 t. dried
1 bay leaf
1 t. paprika
1/2 t. smoked paprika
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
12 ounces chopped okra
2 cups chicken stock

Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed pot until shimmering, add the onion and cook until slightly golden, then stir in the ham and cook until edges of ham are beginning to brown. Quickly add the garlic and the habanero, cook for about 30 seconds, and then stir in the chopped tomatoes. When tomatoes are slightly mushy, add the thyme, bay leaf, paprika, smoked paprika, black pepper, and the okra. Stir to blend together, then add the chicken stock; bring to a boil. Reduce heat to simmer and cover the pot. Cook for about 45 minutes. If the liquid is not thickened, leave off the cover of the pot and let simmer until the liquid coats a spoon. Traditional callaloo is soupier, but this is how I like it. You may add more chicken stock to make it into a soup.

Callaloo (top center), mashed potatoes (fufu substitute), and fried breaded flounder with lime-butter sauce (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

© 2016 C. Bertelsen

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