There are not enough accolades to describe the brilliance of Michelle and Suzanne Rousseau, culinary trailblazers. This hardworking sister team are well known chefs, caterers, restaurateurs, intellectuals and the authors of the well respected cookbooks, Caribbean Potluck and Provisions. The latter is dedicated to plant based cookery as well as Caribbean heritage through a feminist perspective, honouring female ancestors, including the empowered matriarchs within their own family tree who contributed to the diversity of Caribbean cuisine. Our founder Jacqui Sinclair recently engaged in a lively conversation with the siblings.
Your sophomore book, Provisions, for me, is the best vegetarian cookbook to come out of the Caribbean, in fact, one of the best vegetarian cookbooks, period. How was the process different from penning 2014’s Caribbean Potluck?
Provisions was a book that required a lot more research (3 years), a lot more time, more focus and we had to dig very deeply into our personal family stories. It was a journey that began early back in 2012 when we were writing Caribbean Potluck – it was then that the seed was first planted. The narrative evolved over time – in many ways, the story told itself – information and relevant historical evidence revealing itself as we went along… Including pertinent details about our great grandmother and her restaurant business
We are particularly enamoured by the homage paid to strong women of generations past. One senses the spirits of your specific ancestors guiding you through this beautiful tome which delicately balances heritage, and yet, freshly appealing for our era. What traditional food culture should we retain and what modern food habits in your view will remain for our descendants?
We think it’s very important to retain the past traditions of how we actually prepare the dishes of old and use traditional equipment like yabbas, coal pots etc. as this forms the basis for the layers of flavour that we achieve in traditional Caribbean food. Nowadays everything is modernized, everything is quick and people are taking the easier route which uses more processed foods and a lot less fresh foods. Nothing can compare to the flavour of rice and peas made with fresh grated coconut milk (for instance) or the layers of flavour in slow-cooked dishes like oxtail. We think the one tradition that will always remain a part of the cultural landscape in Jamaica is the value placed on the Sunday “family meal” … Sunday breakfast being an example of that. In Jamaica breakfast foods play a big part in the weekly family traditions – all Jamaicans love and appreciate the weekly ritual of a Big family Sunday breakfast/brunch with classic dishes like ackee and selfish, plantain, avocado, mackerel run down, green banana, johnnycake, callaloo etc. This is a tradition that will not be going anywhere anytime soon….
Vegetarian diets are no longer scoffed at as a fad, it has become mainstream for millions in the West, something Jains, many Buddhists and Hindus have been doing for centuries in the East and beyond such as our enslaved and indentured African and Indian ancestors in the Caribbean. They commonly ate callaloo, cabbage, ackee or legumes without animal protein for meals and simply ate for survival. What pointers can you give to those transitioning from eating less meat to more plants?
There’s a thing called “crowding out” the diet … so essentially instead of trying to cut down on meat just think of increasing the quantity and range of fresh vegetables that you consume not just the starchy ones. We tend to mainly eat four or five non-starchy vegetables here with regularity (cho cho, cabbage, bok choy, callaloo, pumpkin) but by expanding the types of vegetables that you eat, adding more raw and cooked vegetables and experimenting with different flavours and ways of preparing them, you will naturally incorporate more plant-based items in your diet. To be honest your plate will be so full and colourful that you likely will not even miss the animal proteins…. We already eat large amounts of plant-based foods in the Caribbean anyway so it’s really not hard to do.
Caribbean food on a whole has always been overshadowed by dominant European or Asian cuisines, but now our diverse regional fare is being recognised as unique in its own right. Why do you think this is so, popular culture, tourism or the rise of…I dislike this term…”ethnic cuisine”?
I think there are many reasons why Caribbean food has become more mainstream…. second and third generations of Caribbean people are now so firmly entrenched in other societies outside of the Caribbean and they have a desire to reconnect to their heritage. This desire has driven and supported an expansion of consciousness around Afro Caribbean food pathways. Mainstream diners have also become more experimental – playing with and incorporating flavours of all kinds in their day-to-day diet…. So scotch bonnet, coconut, cilantro, cassava, sweet potato… all of these things have become very trendy because of their health-promoting attributes. This visibility only supports the idea that our food potentially has a broader appeal that goes beyond diaspora communities.
We admire the natural chemistry between you both. Yes, it is obvious you are sisters and close, but there is an extra “je ne sais quoi” element going on as well. What do you believe that is attributed to and what is your professional relationship like?
We are sisters, and we are friends, we genuinely enjoy other’s company and have many shared interests and passions, all of those combine to make a great partnership. We respect each other’s opinions, we have different strengths and talents and then we have common ones, but most of all we trust each other. Our working relationship very much is an echo of our relationship as sisters. Re that “je ne sais quoi” …. We have always created together and over the years we came to realise there was some kind of magic in how that works, we did not stop to really examine it because it always just seemed like we were having fun and there was nothing special in what we were doing – joy, intuition, imagination & love are a big part of the process for us, and we think it is translated in our work so maybe that’s it..
How does it feel being recognised by international press and lauded by prominent food personalities?
Seeing Provisions make the Best Food Book of 2018 lists for the San Francisco Chronicle, The New Yorker & Epicurious was pretty mind-blowing. It’s a vulnerable thing putting your work out into the world, there is no guarantee anyone will even like it so it was a profoundly moving and incredible moment for us both. Recognition always feels wonderful but really and truly what makes us feel most proud of is the recognition of the impact that our ancestors had on the food pathways of so many societies – including North America and Europe. Seeing our great grandmother’s story and name being called out by international journalists made it a full-circle moment as our impetus was to tell her story and the story of all the women like her who had never been acknowledged for their contribution when we set out to write this book. We also were really thrilled that international press is allowing Jamaican and Caribbean food to be seen in a new light, for us that means a long overdue seat at the table for the cuisine and ingredients of this region.
Where can our readers purchase Provisions locally and abroad?
Provisions is available online (Amazon) as well as all major booksellers in the US and Canada. Locally it is available at Sangsters and Kingston Bookshop.
Lastly, going back to the “root” of it, pun very much intended, what are your “go to” ground provisions and can you share a recipe with one of your favourites?
Our favourite “provision” is breadfruit hands down but we are equally HUGE fans of plantain – ripe, green, turned and every other way possible. In the book, we have a wonderful recipe for ripe plantain gratin … ripe plantain, mornay sauce, cheese it’s divine and an incredible side dish.
CHICKPEAS with Cilantro and Coconut
- 1 tablespoon coconut oil
- 2 small red chili peppers (whole)
- 1/2 medium yellow onion, chopped
- 2 Scotch bonnet peppers, coarsely chopped
- 1 tablespoon diced fresh ginger
- 1/2 teaspoon chili powder
- 1/4 teaspoon turmeric
- One 10-ounce can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
- salt to taste
- 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro, some reserved for garnish
- 1/2 “turned” (not quite ripe) mango, peeled and grated
- 1/2 “turned” papaya, peeled and grated
- 2 tablespoons grated dry coconut (unsweetened)
- 4 limes, cut into wedges
- In a sauté pan, heat the coconut oil over medium heat.
- Add the red chili pods, onion, Scotch bonnet pepper, ginger, chili powder, and turmeric.
- Cook for about 2 minutes.
- Add the chickpeas, and sauté until all the ingredients are combined and the chickpeas are well coated with seasonings.
- Reduce the heat to low, and cook for 2 minutes more.
- Season to taste with salt.
- Stir in the cilantro, reserving some for a garnish.
- Serve topped with the grated mango and papaya, coconut, fresh cilantro, and lime wedges.
Excerpted from Provisions: The Roots of Caribbean Cooking—150 Vegetarian Recipes by Michelle Rousseau and Suzanne Rousseau. Copyright ©2018. Available from Da Capo Lifelong Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.