Local Harvest by Eliza Magro

Consistent Caribbean Side Dishes

Raw plantains, top, with fried plantain slices below.

Caribbean cuisine is a dynamic mixture of goods, recipes and ideas brought to the islands by Spanish, Dutch, English and French settlers, as well as the Africans. A variety of unique and colorful influences define the cuisine of the islands.

In the early days of colonization in the Caribbean, Europeans and Africans had very different cooking styles and ingredients. ‘The native indians of the islands, who were the first known inhabitants in the Caribbean, shared their knowledge of local fruits and vegetables with Europeans, while the Europeans brought recipes and food products like beef, onions, garlic and wheat to influence and change the local Caribbean cuisine.

Europeans also brought many fruit plants to the islands, which now are considered island fruit, such as breadfruits, limes, mangos, and sugar cane. Mean-while, the African slaves brought with them new crops like okra as well as new cooking styles.

The Americas contributed beans, corn, potatoes and peppers to the mix, continuing to broaden Caribbean cuisine.


Raw okra, top; polenta, right, next to freshly made fungi.

Popular Side Dishes
Fish and fungi is so popular it could be considered the unofficial national dish of the Caribbean. Fish is served steamed, boiled or fried, as well as in pates and soups.

Fungi, a side dish offered at all West Indian restaurants and food carts is unfamiliar to many tourists and visitors, yet is much like a polenta dish. It is a thick cornmeal mush, made from fine milled cornmeal.

Fish and fungi’s roots lead back to the days of slavery. Danish law allowed each slave six quarts of Indian meal and six salt herring per week, so the African women came up with fish and fungi as they cooked for their families.

The trick to fungi is stirring it continually and briskly to avoid lumps and giving the fungi a smooth consistency.

Okra Fungi
10 oz. package frozen cut okra
2 1/2 cups boiling water
1 1/2 cups fine yellow cornmeal
2 Tbls. Butter
Salt and pepper to taste

Like all things everybody has a slightly different method for making fungi, knowing that the biggest problem to avoid is ending up with lumpy cornmeal fungi. Some people boil the water and pour the corn meal directly into the water in a light stream while stirring vigorously to keep it all moving and mixing and then add your okra to cook with it.

Others cook the okra separately first, and then soak 1/4 cup cornmeal in 3/4 cup water in a separate bowl. Then, add that back into the boiling water. Finally add the rest of the dry cornmeal into the larger pot of boiling water. Add your okra and stir. This method of pre-soaking some of the cornmeal is believed to prevent lumps.

Another effective way to prevent lumps is to boil the water, and add the cornmeal to it in a slow steady stream, while stirring the mixture with an electric blender. This is certainly not traditional practice, yet it works very well, and the fungi will be smooth. Add the okra in 2/3 of the way through the process so it can cook into the cornmeal yet also maintain its shape.

Fungi is a tasty side dish here in the Caribbean, and could be spiced up in many ways, however this is traditional style fungi.

Okra is a vegetable thought to be of African origin and can usually be found year round, as well as stored and frozen.

Other typical, customary side dishes that accompany a plate of salt fish here in the islands are rice and peas, fried plantains, yams, sweet potato, cassava, and beans and lentils.

Caribbean Staple
Plantains are native to India, and are grown most widely in tropical climates. At first sight, many people confuse them with bananas. They are starchy rather than sweet and are used as a vegetable in many cuisines, especially those of Latin America and Africa.

Plantains are sometimes re-ferred to as the pasta and potatoes of the Caribbean. They make a tasty side dish and add a starchy sweet flavor between the rice, fish, and fungi.

Fried plantains are easy to make and certainly worth it. Select your plantains carefully; some are much sweeter than others. It is best to use a riper fruit that is mature. A plantain which was able to mature fully on the tree will be sweeter than the young green plantains. Cut the peel and run it under water, this will help make peeling the plantain much easier, as it is quite tough to get off sometimes. Now just cut the plantains, prepare your hot frying oil and fry those plantains.

Tradition is to eat them plain and fried with nothing on them. They are sweet and delicious this way. It is fun as well to spice them up a bit and try cinnamon and sugar on them. Remember to be creative in the kitchen. Respect the traditions while challenging new recipes as well. People also make plantain soup, boiled plantain, which requires the green plantains, baked plantain, and plantain chips.

As we learn more about local cuisine and the dynamic melding of cultures long ago we are able to understand where and why we have these foods in the islands today. Enjoy some okra fungi this week, and give praise to the African women who brought this traditional side dish.