This is Highly Recommend, a column dedicated to what people in the food industry are obsessed with eating, drinking, and buying right now.
It’s been nearly six months in quarantine and, admittedly, I didn’t hop onto any of the popular shelter-in-place food trends: no sourdough starter or mini scallion farm for me. What this isolation did ignite, though, was homesickness, and a desire to reconnect to the pantry sights and smells of my Caribbean upbringing. The spices from my local grocery store just wouldn’t do. I needed the real McCoy, the truest representation of being “back home.” After sharing this sentiment with my cousin, a surprise delivery made its way to my doorstep: the Caribbean Pantry Essentials subscription box from Callaloo Box.
This unboxing was better than any reveal from my favorite influencer. Upon opening, I could smell the aromas of spices like ground roasted gerra—commonly known as cumin and the perfect base spice for curries, chili, and slow-cooked beans—and mauby bark, which is used to make a bittersweet iced beverage called Mauby, hailed for its medicinal benefits and often found in a large pitcher inside my grandparents’ refrigerator. I could see the uniquely-pigmented Chief brand curry powder escaping from the plastic packaging, a familiar sight in the kitchens of grandma and aunts.
As I happily stocked my pantry, I imagined all the ways I would use these ingredients: the West Indian version of sofrito called green seasoning, great for marinating meat or poultry; Bertie’s pepper sauce (my scrambled eggs’ BFF); refined coconut oil for frying plantains; and coconut milk powder for thickening rice and peas. Swiss macaroni and tomato ketchup were newer items to me, but my cousin assured me both would come in handy for a macaroni pie, the Caribbean’s version of baked mac & cheese. Other items like Shirley tea biscuits and a slew of seasonings for fish, chicken, and cook-up made their way to my cabinet. Now I was ready for some big cooking projects.
I queued up soca and reggae on my speakers and prepared shrimp curry and chana dhal, an Indo-Caribbean staple in Guyanese households made with split peas, fresh curry leaves, and warming spices like turmeric and cardamom. After finally acquiring the taste for Mauby, I conjured my own rendition, which included a little less cinnamon, a splash more lime juice, and some whiskey. I got back into my cooking ritual—grabbing a large Dutch oven, layering spices, and cooking everything on low heat—and embraced the art of slow cooking, even in this never-ending pandemic time. With a single inhale of everything going on in my kitchen, I was transported back home.
While you can’t buy this particular box, since Callaloo Box’s subscriptions change every month, you can purchase each item on their grocery website. I may not be making my way to islands this year, but my pantry staples tell me otherwise.