The tiny island nation of Dominica, population 70,000, isn’t blessed with the blinding white sand beaches of many of its Caribbean neighbors. This has spared it from the tourist hordes and deprived it of the income they would have brought in. The narrow roads are potholed and unmarked. Old men pass their evenings playing banjo on dimly lit street corners.
With its stunted tourist economy, and few exports, Dominica is a living laboratory for how a Caribbean culture might evolve with minimal outside influence. Subsistence farms dot the steep volcanic hillsides. While the supermarket shelves of neighboring islands are stocked with imports, Dominica is a place where local food isn’t a buzzword. By and large, it’s the only option, which makes it something of a locavore’s paradise.
One noteworthy exception to the local foods rule-of-thumb is the widespread use, and love, of lentils. It’s actually a Caribbean-wide phenomenon, especially in the English-speaking countries like Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados and of course, Dominica. A legacy of the British and African involvement in the Caribbean, lentils have hung on, in part, because they are one of the cheapest forms of protein on Earth. Being dried and shelf-stable, they can be shipped with a minimum of expense, as there is no rush, and no refrigeration required. They could be imported by sailboat, as they once were, for a virtually carbon-free import, making them about as environmentally friendly as they would be if grown on-site. And being legumes, they require no fertilization. If farmed properly, they can leave the soil better than it was before they were planted.
Tapa, who runs an Airbnb in the tiny village of Castle Bruce, gave me a lentil recipe. He learned it from a Jamaican woman who once rented him a room in London. The recipe calls for two specialty ingredients which can be purchased online, or easily substituted for.
“When she cook,” Tapa reminisced about the Jamaican woman, “you leek ya fingas.”
The recipe calls for two specialty ingredients which can be purchased online, or easily substituted for: Jamaican jerk paste and adobo seasoning powder. The jerk paste is made from thyme, ginger, green onions, garlic and Scotch Bonnet (aka habanero) peppers. But all of these ingredients except the ginger and pepper are already in Tapa’s recipe, so if you don’t have jerk paste, simply add crushed ginger, and as much minced hot pepper as you wish. But note: The Scotch Bonnet pepper, in addition to having legendary heat (it was once widely considered the world’s hottest), also has exceptional and unique flavor. So it can’t properly be replaced by any other type of chile.
A homemade adobo seasoning can be fabricated from: 1/4 cup sweet paprika, 3 tablespoons ground black pepper, 2 tablespoons onion powder, 2 tablespoons dried oregano (preferably Mexican), 2 tablespoons ground cumin, 1 tablespoon chile powder and 2 tablespoon garlic powder.
Tapa’s recipe isn’t identical to that of his esteemed Jamaican mentor’s, he explained. “My cooking have a touch of Jamaican cuisine, but it’s my own initiative, what I do. I use my own discretion, adding and changing things according to how the food tastes.” You should feel free to do the same, as lentils are as forgiving a dish as they are healthy and cheap.
2 pounds lentils
¼ cup olive oil
1 t adobo seasoning
10 whole cloves
5 garlic cloves, crushed
2 t jerk sauce
1 t black pepper
1 t curry
½ t paprika
4 turns ground allspice
3 drops Angustura bitters
3 sprigs fresh thyme
1 stalk celery, minced
3 green onions, chopped
5 sprigs parsley, chopped
Cover the lentils with water. Add all of the ingredients except the thyme, green onion and parsley. Bring to a simmer and keep it there for about 45 minutes with the lid on, adding water as necessary to keep the lentils covered, until they are cooked but not mushy.
“You don’t really want your lentil falling apart. You want a little body in it. As it’s cooking you can take your spoon and turn it over and see what it’s like. When it’s cook, you take all your final seasoning.”
Which is to say, add the green onion, celery and parsley, cook for another 15 minutes. Season with salt and serve.