Words and Photos by Ola Mazzuca
Every day, Chris De La Rosa works in a multicultural office abundant with flavor: His kitchen. Trinidad-born De La Rosa is the man behind CaribbeanPot.com, a food blog he established in Hamilton, Ontario in the spring of 2009, to share the recipes of his youth with his family. “Our culture is one such that our food and recipes are not documented, so I started documenting these recipes for our daughters,” De La Rosa says, of his children, Kieana, Tehya and India, who are currently pursuing college and university. “If they wanted to make jerk or curry chicken, they could go to the website, look it up, and replicate the recipe wherever they are in the world.”
Caribbean Pot, which has become the most widely-read online source of Caribbean recipes, isn’t solely dedicated to De La Rosa’s heritage, but to the Diaspora as a whole. “At one point or another, all these people come to the Caribbean and create this melting pot of flavors that we all learn from and adapt to the Caribbean way,” he says of a food culture that blends traditions from indigenous Caribs and Arawaks; African slaves; Spanish, French, English and Dutch colonizers; and migrants from Asia and the Middle East. “These flavors and traditions have shaped the way you see me cook.”
Now, De La Rosa is bringing Caribbean Pot by the spoonful and slice as a columnist for LargeUp, where he will be sharing recipes, and ideas to educate and engage with Caribbean cuisine. We met up with him as he stocked up on Caribbean-food staples for his kitchen at the always-reliable Charlie’s West Indian Food Mart and Caribbean Cuisine in Mississauga, Ontario.
LargeUp: What inspired Caribbean Pot?
Chris De La Rosa: My daughters, to be honest. We’re based in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, but our kitchen represents the Caribbean. I grew up surrounded by people who can cook. My daughters grew up eating the stuff I ate in the Caribbean, with Canadian food as well. The [running] joke is that if you were to go to the UN, you would eat at their cafeteria, and that is what our kitchen represents.
LU: Have your daughters been working toward your original goal?
CDLR: That is the joke of the century [laughs]. They have not been using it as I thought. I connect with a million people from all over the world on a monthly basis through the website. Do my daughters use the recipes? Well, when Tehya was at Western University and Fanshawe College, she was using it. When Kieana was at Niagara College, she was using it, but they would still pick up the phone, call me, and ask how to do certain things. I’m sure once they start having their own families, they will be cooking more.
“Scotch bonnet peppers are synonymous with Caribbean cuisine. In Canada, you can attempt to grow them in your summer garden, but I always count on Charlie’s for a fresh bunch.”
LU: What’s your professional background?
CDLR: I am an Internet marketing consultant by trade. I have been doing that for almost 19 years, back when you would dial up on the Internet and hear that screeching noise. Prior to that, I worked at one of the premier banquet and convention centres in Hamilton and that’s where the whole food and catering scene began.
As a kid, I would shadow everything my mom would do in the kitchen. I was never professionally trained. You would never see me in a video or pictures with [chef] whites on. I think that would be disrespectful to anyone that has put in their time at culinary school, to earn that white jacket. Now, can I compete with these guys? Definitely. I have years and years of real-life experience, playing with these flavors and food. I’m sure I could ‘handle my stories,’ as we say in the Caribbean, with the best of them. My grandmother was 104 when she died, my other grandmother was 99, and these are the people I shadowed when I was a kid. That’s 200 years of experience right there. My mother is an excellent cook, my father, my aunts, my uncles—they’re very talented when it comes to the kitchen.
When you look at the cultural background [in the Caribbean], there is so much we learn from. We have the indigenous Caribs and Arawaks; the colonizers; the Spanish, the French, the British, the Dutch. Then we have the African slaves. After the slaves were over, we had indentured laborers from India and China, then people from the Middle East coming to the Caribbean and calling it home. At one point or another, all these people come to the Caribbean and create this melting pot of flavors that we all learn from and adapt to the Caribbean way.
“Ahhh, peanut cake brings back nostalgic childhood memories! It’s a type of sweet, nutty brittle made in similar fashion to a coconut sugar cake.”
LU: Growing up in Trinidad, what can you say about your childhood?
CDLR: I look back now and read the newspaper, and feel sorry for the kids today that didn’t have the upbringing that I had; that sort of carefree, fun-loving attitude, without video games. We were out and about. My brothers and sisters and I would help my dad grow the tomatoes, grow the peppers, grow the corn and grow the peas. We were part of it, from the seed in the ground to reaping and harvesting, to the table. We knew where the food came from, and we never complained about anything when my mom prepared it. We ate it and we were thankful for it. Today, we don’t see that.
Childhood in Trinidad was just pure fun. We didn’t want to grow up before our time. We moved here [to Canada] in the late ‘80s, and a thing as simple as finding an avocado was tough. Getting ingredients that I was accustomed to was tough. At first, I lived with my aunt, who had two jobs, so when I came home from school, there was nothing prepared. It was a new cycle—that was part of the drive of learning to cook. I had to re-learn and master certain things. [I had] to look out for my younger cousins, because my aunt was at work. That shaped me from a culinary standpoint. When my dad asked me to help in the garden on Saturday mornings, or when my aunt asked me to season chicken for her before she came home from work…. that shaped who I am today. Now, I am using those skills and influencing one million globally because of that.
LU: What kind of impact has Caribbean Pot had on your audience?
CLDR: I think the nicest email I received was from a couple in Toronto. They emailed me to say that their three-year-old child watches me on YouTube every night before bed — and mimics me! They sent this video clip of this little boy who pretends to be [me] cooking. He puts on the watered-down Trini accent I have now, saying lines like “In the caribbean, we pound the chadon beni…” and he pretends to be me with a mortar and pestle.
What I usually find is people who have traveled through the Caribbean, and want to replicate the dish they enjoyed in Jamaica or Barbados. Young people that never learned when their mom or aunt made a traditional dish, and want to do so now. They are glad they found the recipe to make the dish to bring back an emotion or memory of that time. Some spouses or couples make dishes for each other to remind them of something they enjoyed abroad or back home in Trinidad. These are influences I’m having on people’s lives.
“Guineps, otherwise known as ‘Spanish Lime,’ bring that bright, tangy flavor to the mix. They’re often pickled and preserved into what we Trinbagonians call chenette chow, making for a great summertime treat.”
LU: Tell me about your fondest food memories from Trinidad?
CLDR: Definitely Chicken Pelau. In Trinidad and Tobago, people make pelau with pig tail, salted beef. Now, we find people making vegetarian pelau. For me, it has to be chicken. As kids, we would spend a day on the beach, Maracas or Mayaro, and mom would wake up early [and] make a huge pot of pelau. It’s one of the best dishes to represent Trinidad & Tobago. The entire Caribbean is multicultural. It’s more so in Trinidad and Tobago. If you’ve ever gone to Trinidad you will see that in their faces, complexion, hair, and pelau is a dish that represents us to a tee. It’s rice, peas, meat, coconut milk, stewed down, full of flavor with the herbs and seasonings. I’m talking about it, and it’s taking me back as a child, waking up in the morning, smelling it being prepared.
LU: That was my first introduction to Trinidad. The day I arrived, my friend’s grandmother was making chicken pelau early on a Sunday morning.
CLDR: But it’s about the sides as well. My mom would serve it with sliced cucumber and watercress. You have to have the red pepper sauce to go with it as well. We always had the classic drink, which we called it a “red sweet drink,” which is a soda. We never labeled beverages by flavour, but by colour. That is pure island life right there. Good food, family, the beach and a whole carefree attitude. I wish i could go back to that time, no bills or worries. Just pure niceness, man.
It’s also a representation of cross-cultural influence. We see similar dishes in other cultures: Indian Biryani, African Pilaf, Spanish Paella, Italian Risotto, New Orleans Creole Jambalaya. Every culture has a one-pot dish with everything in there that is associated with family, being at the table together with food. It doesn’t get any better than that. As you work your way through the Caribbean, you find different versions of pelau. In Guyana, they cook it cookup. In Barbados, they call it cooked up rice. in Jamaica, they call it rice and peas. A good pelau recipe can do no wrong.
“Red snapper is a great, versatile fish to cook with. From simple herbs to jerk marinades or escovitch, its texture and flavour inspire kitchen creativity. Every Tuesday, Charlie’s is the place to be for the freshest catch and finest cuts of meat.”
LU: What’s your number one kitchen tip?
CDLR: I was preparing for my second appearance on CTV Canada AM, and I sliced my finger. I had no one home with me to help bandage it, and I ended up with a bandage that covered my entire hand. I looked like a mummy from Egypt. It was because I was using a dull knife. By using dull, inferior equipment, you’re asking for trouble. Just use a sharp knife.
LU: Most underrated ingredient?
CDLR: Herbs, man. I love herbs. They add so much flavor to just about everything. People that turn their noses to vegetarian dishes only do so because they’re not treating it the right way. Even the most obscure vegetarian dishes, if you toss in the right herbs, oh man. We love scallions in the Caribbean. Or basil – you cant go wrong with basil.
“I love corned mutton. It’s a really great go-to ingredient for a quick and easy spiced corned meat dish. I usually stir it up in a hot pan with scotch bonnet and scallions, or you can even mix it with cabbage, seasoned with pimento.”
LU: What direction is Caribbean Pot headed in?
CLDR: I want to showcase how food is tied in to Caribbean culture in its entirety. How food impacts partying, feting. You’ll start seeing us out and about at carnival and fetes. At the end of the day, when we party, we eat.
LU: Corn soup outside the venue.
CLDR: Exactly. We eat before the event, and we eat after. It’s this whole package. When you go to someone’s house, you expect to eat, and you expect people to eat. When I go back home, there’s always five or six people I need to go visit and they all want you to eat. You can only eat so much! I am trying to show people this facet of the culture.
Another element is that I want to show people where the food comes from. I know where a scotch bonnet, cassava, yam comes from. There’s a lot of discussion from Jamaicans vs. Trinis, on what callaloo is. What Trinis call callaloo is different. It’s a variation. I want to introduce people to my family, to show how cool it is to know your history, your culture and food background. When I was a kid, I saw people who were embarrassed to open their traditional lunch boxes at lunchtime. Everyone wanted to have that ham sandwich or fancy box of cereal. No one wanted to open roti and Baigan Choka, or rice and stew fish. I want to remove that stigma to encourage people to be proud of who they are.