Saint Lucia is the definition of paradise: white sand beaches, billowing palms, waterfront villas. While this helped sway my decision of where to go for a long weekend getaway from NYC, my main purpose was to immerse myself in the island’s culinary culture — including sampling the national dish of Green Fig & Salt Fish (and chocolate) as humanly possible. It was a self-appointed mission I had gladly accepted.
When I first heard the words “Green Fig” and “Salt Fish,” I immediately pictured salted local fish topped with sticky sweet figs. In actuality, Saint Lucia locals refer to green bananas — the island’s largest export — as figs. And they’re not sweet, but boiled with water and salt when green and unripe, either peeled (the purist’s way) or with the skin on.
Explains Jenni Killam, owner of Spices Cooking Studio in Saint Lucia, “Green figs are for us what potatoes are in North America. They’re an important part of the local diet, usually served as part of the main dish or in side dishes or salads. Although, in the case of the Green Fig & Salt Fish it’s part of the main course, either served alongside the fish or mixed together with it, served warm.”
The salt fish in the dish is traditionally salted cod, although today other varieties of fish might be used. Boiled, flaked and sauteed with onions, local peppers, chives, thyme and other herbs and spices, the fish makes a flavorful accompaniment with the somewhat bland boiled figs.
While a visit to the island of Saint Lucia allows me to taste the dish for myself, I’m still confused about how it came to be embedded in the culture. Ms. Killam, whose parents, grandparents and great grandparents all happily cooked Green Fig & Salt Fish for their families — explains to me that the dish actually originated before the mid-19th century when slavery existed, which is true for many of the island’s local specialties.
During this time bananas were over abundant, and dried and salted cod could be inexpensively imported from Nova Scotia, Canada.
“Back in the day, salt fish was among the rations given to the slaves because it was cheap, easy and a good source of protein,” says Ms. Killam. “The slaves ingeniously cooked the salt fish and added their own herbs and spices to make it tasty, which are still used in the dish today.”
The recipe has been handed down through the generations, becoming more embedded into the culture. Saint Lucia locals eat Green Fig & Salt Fish all year, typically on weekends and with a side salad of grated cucumber or lettuce, tomato and avocado. Historically the island had a large Roman Catholic population, which meant no eating meat on Fridays. Saturdays are also a popular day to eat Green Fig & Salt fish, as most families opt for something easy to prepare to save time for completing chores and errands.
While not much has changed with the dish over the years, one thing has: the price.
Ms. Killam laughs, “Today salt fish is no longer considered a poor people’s food because it is no longer cheap to make.”
One particularly special time to enjoy it is during the annual Jounen Kwéyòl (Creole Day) Festival in October. Historically, Saint Lucia was actively fought over by the French and British, with each having claimed ownership several times. There is still a rich French-based Creole culture on the island, and Jounen Kweyole is the official day to celebrate that heritage. During the festival, traditional dishes — including Green Fig & Salt Fish — can be sampled in abundance along with seafoods, sweets and beverages such as cocoa tea and fresh fruit juices.
If you visit outside of this time, a good starting point for your Green Fig & Salt fish exploration is Castries Market. Here you’ll find an array of food stalls selling the meal, each putting their own unique twist on the traditional recipe. Additionally, Green Fig and Salt Fish is a staple menu item at most local restaurants.
I always appreciate a dish more when I’ve learned its background, and as a heaping plate is set in front of me I remember the information I’ve been given, which enhances the experience. It’s definitely not the type of meal I would order at home, and actually not something the average restaurant would serve back in NYC. Not only had I never heard of salt fish before, but to me a banana was something you ate with a bowl of oatmeal for breakfast, not as the base of a savory dinner.
But isn’t that the point of traveling? Being taken away from what you know to expand your knowledge and become a more worldly person?
For me, the answer is “yes.”
With my fork I gingerly break off a bit of banana and some fish, wanting the flavors of both at once. And I’m glad I did, as the firm yet soft texture of the banana and the flaky fish offer the perfect contrast, while enhancements like cilantro and parsley combine for an added layer of surprise. Sauteing the ingredients has allowed the garlic, pepper and onion to seep into the fish for a delightfully bold flavor.
What’s pleasing to me isn’t just the taste of the food, however, it’s the opportunity to explore local heritage through my palate. The dish I’m eating tells the story of Saint Lucia, tracing it’s history from the 1700s. That’s a truly special thing to be savored.
Green Figs & Salt Fish Recipe via Spices Cooking Studio
- 1 lb salt fish
- 8-12 green bananas
- 1/4 c coconut or vegetable oil
- 1 large onion, coarsely chopped
- 1 medium sweet pepper, coarsely chopped
- 4 seasoning peppers, thinly sliced
- 1/4 c chives, finely chopped
- 3 garlic cloves, grated
- 2 tsp fresh thyme
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Parsley for garnish
Preparing the Salt Fish:
1. Rinse the salt fish to remove excess surface salt. Place the salt fish in a saucepan and cover with water. Bring to the boil and simmer for about 15 minutes. Drain water; refill the pot with fresh water and repeat boiling process for another 15 minutes.
2. Drain and set salt fish aside until cool enough to handle. Clean salt fish by removing all skin, scales and bones. Flake the cleaned salt fish and set aside.
3. Put oil in a pan over meduim heat. Add onions, peppers, half the grated garlic and saute until fragrant, about 5 minutes.
4. Add flaked salt fish, 1 tsp thyme and half the green onions to the pan and stir to mix thoroughly.
5. Cover pan and cook for an additional 10 minutes. Uncover pan, add remaining garlic, green onions and thyme and mix well. Turn off the heat, season salt fish with salt and pepper to taste. Cover pot and set aside until ready to serve.
Preparing the Green Figs:
1. Wash the green figs, cut off the two ends, make one slice just through the skin, lengthwise and put in a heat proof bowl. Pour boiling water over the green figs to cover and set aside for about 10 minutes. Drain water and allow the green figs to cool enough to handle. Carefully remove skin from the green figs, using a small knife if needed. Put the peeled green figs in a pot of boiling water; add 1/2 tsp salt and 1tsp vegetable oil. Bring to boil and simmer for about 15 minutes or until tender. Drain and leave to cool enough to handle.
2. Slice each green fig on the diagonal into 3 pieces. Place slices of green figs on individual serving plates and top with a generous portion of the cooked salt fish. Garnish with chopped parsley.
3. Serve with a grated cucumber salad and/or a mixed salad of lettuce, tomato and avocado on the side.
Caribbean Potluck: Modern Recipes from Our Family Kitchen by Suzanne Rousseau
Quick & Easy: Essential West Indian Food Recipes From The Caribbean Islands by Grace Barrington-Shaw
Caribbean Poetry, Folktales and Short Stories by Ophelia Powell Torres
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