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Thursday, June 17, 2021

Within the Virgin Islands, Fungi Tells a Story

At Petite Pump Room, a waterfront restaurant in Charlotte Amalie on the island of St. Thomas, lunchtime often finds locals and guests filling the tables and bar, taking within the island’s hills and watching seaplanes take off and land within the harbor from close by St. Croix.

Since 1970, the Petite Pump Room has been a gathering place, providing a menu of native favorites — stewed conch in butter sauce, fried native snapper with a Creole sauce of tomato and bell peppers — alongside typical fare like sandwiches and salads. However the restaurant’s fungi, a facet dish manufactured from scorching cornmeal that’s straightforward to miss, is cherished by these from the islands however stays unfamiliar to most guests. “Numerous them will strive it when you clarify it to them,” mentioned Judy Watson, who owns the restaurant together with her husband, Michael Anthony Watson.

Fungi (pronounced foon-JEE), a cooked yellow cornmeal combination dotted with tender okra and thinned with chunks of butter, is a staple on dinner tables and was as soon as a fixture on restaurant menus throughout the Virgin Islands.

However it’s arduous to search out at newer eating places, leaving establishments like Petite Pump Room, De’ Coal Pot on the east facet of the island and Gladys’ Cafe in Charlotte Amalie to maintain the dish alive on their menus.

Most native Virgin Islanders fondly keep in mind fungi as part of their childhoods, and as a key ingredient of fish and fungi, a typical meal, mentioned Mr. Watson, 59. “We ate it as soon as per week or so rising up, and I’ve all the time loved it,” he mentioned. “I used to beg my older sister to make it for me.”

However the recipe additionally represents an vital piece of Virgin Islands historical past. Fungi’s roots lengthen again to the 18th century when, underneath colonial rule, meals was rationed for enslaved Africans on the islands as a part of a 1755 legislation that required slave house owners to offer enslaved individuals with corn flour or cassava, in addition to salt pork.

In his 1992 ebook, “Slave Society within the Danish West Indies,” the writer and professor Neville A.T. Corridor writes that this quantity would have been two and a half quarts of cassava or cornmeal per week, a small quantity contemplating the arduous labor required throughout harvest season. To fill within the gaps, enslaved Africans grew their very own provisions on land hidden from slave house owners. Okra, a key ingredient in West African cooking delivered to the Caribbean by the trans-Atlantic slave commerce, was probably added to the cornmeal round this time, growing the dish’s dietary worth, including an earthy taste and stretching it right into a meal that might feed many.

Preserving this a part of Virgin Islands historical past is vital for Julius Jackson, the chef and supervisor on the cafe and bakery of My Brother’s Workshop, a nonprofit group that teaches managerial abilities and culinary arts in Charlotte Amalie. “After they make it, they often say their grandparents and the adults of their life eat fungi,” Mr. Jackson mentioned of his college students.

The decline within the dish’s reputation isn’t surprising, because it requires extra preparation than different staples like fried plantains or rice and beans. The method of whipping, or “turning” it, is a time-consuming process that stops lumps and aerates the combination.

However the attraction of fungi is that it makes use of few elements to create a flavorful accompaniment to a stewed or fried protein.

Within the cafe and in Mr. Jackson’s cookbook, “My Fashionable Caribbean Kitchen,” his recipe for fungi is simplified: Cook dinner the okra till tender earlier than whisking in a gradual stream of cornmeal. The objective of his classes on the cafe — and this simplification — is to encourage a brand new era of cooks to make fungi at dwelling.

He serves his fungi in a bowl of kallaloo, a scorching soup made with spinach, pork and seafood, much like the Nigerian dish efo riro. In instructing youthful cooks about recipes like fungi, he hopes as an example what number of Caribbean dishes are linked on to West Africa. “There’s a lot historical past in our meals that tells our story, and I can truly present them that,” Mr. Jackson mentioned.

As extra eating places specializing in international cuisines arrive on the island, conventional dishes have develop into more durable to return by. However that doesn’t imply they need to disappear utterly, mentioned Digby Stridiron, a chef who grew up on St. Croix. “If there’s a restaurant right here that does conventional meals, they need to serve fungi,” he mentioned. “Identical to you see jerk in Jamaica or roti in Trinidad, as a result of that’s what we eat right here.”

Mr. Stridiron is within the means of opening a restaurant on St. Thomas, and believes that one option to protect fungi could also be to modernize it. For his menu, he needs to supply high-quality cornmeal from producers like Anson Mills, in addition to dehydrated okra pods to reinforce the flavour as they’re cooked with the cornmeal.

“The islands are a transitional place the place persons are coming collectively and leaving their mark by meals,” he mentioned. “It’s all the time evolving. As cooks, it’s our accountability to maintain dishes alive and innovate them, whereas attending to the foundation of the dish and never dropping sight of the flavour and the idea.”

Recipes: Fungi | Fried Snapper With Creole Sauce

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