At Barbados Food & Rum Festival, a renowned chef shared her secrets for creative, sustainable food (as well as the treat she can't travel without!)
"The smell of happiness is, for me, frying plantain in Barbados."
Shelina Permalloo is a British-Mauritian chef, restaurateur, and cookbook author specializing in Mauritian cuisine. She's known worldwide as the first woman of colour to win BBC's MasterChef competition in 2012, but when I met her, she was thrilled to simply be an attendee of the Barbados Food & Rum Festival (just like me!)
Permalloo first visited Barbados after finishing university (she reports: "There were 16 of us... and the island knew when we arrived!") That initial trip made some lasting impressions, as the large group quickly made friends with locals, got invited home for homemade dinners, and provided the future chef with an abiding love of Barbadian (Bajan) cuisine.
During the Food & Rum Festival's Chef Classics event (an intimate series of cooking demonstrations with celebrity chefs), Chef Shelina shared her thoughts on elevating traditional comfort food, embracing sustainable ingredients, and the special treats she can't live without when she travels.
When she's not cooking in front an audience like the Food & Rum Festival, Chef Shelina specializes in transforming classic Mauritian street cooking (which is heavily influenced by African, French, Chinese, and Indian cuisine) into scrumptious comfort food at her Southampton, England, restaurant Lakaz Maman. She contends that the comforts of home cooking are never far from any diner's mind, arguing: "We are all on the search (for food) that makes us feel comforted when we eat out. We all want to feel happy and at home."
As such, it's no surprise that she chose the classic Barbadian comfort food of flying fish and cou-cou (cornmeal and okra) to infuse with her own twist during the festival.
To say that Barbadians take flying fish and cou-cou seriously would be an understatement. This is the national dish, after all! There was a bit of nervous laughter in the room when Chef Shelina said she'd make a creative version of the beloved meal.
In her adaptation, the fish was "cooked" via the acidity of a lime, passionfruit, and coconut milk marinade. The cou-cou was prepared in advance, cooled, and sliced into small squares before being dipped in cornstarch and deep fried. Slices of deep-fried okra and plantain (an ingredient Chef Shelina absolutely adores) were added to the plate, and the whole dish was finished with bright green cilantro oil and tobiko (flying fish roe).
I wonder what the local crowd thought about their beloved Bajan staple being reimagined. I heard a lot of comments about how colourful the plate was - could this be one of those compliments you offer when you're not sure what to say? I personally enjoyed the combination of passionfruit pulp and the deep-fried cou-cou quite a bit! But regardless of the audience's honest thoughts on the final dish (which we sampled as a small canape), they definitely warmed to Chef Shelina's passion for Bajan cuisine and how she tied together her love of Barbadian ingredients and her vision for more sustainable food.
I asked her for her take on sustainability, under-appreciated ingredients, and culinary frugality. She spoke of the importance of utilizing local ingredients which are in abundance and looking at what is growing all around you. In her native UK, that means often replacing some meat in recipes like shepherd's pie with vegetarian ingredients. In Barbados, that means utilizing products like seafood, breadfruit, and plantains. It's advice that savvy travellers know well, as nothing is so delicious (and affordable!) as embracing locally grown food no matter where you are. As Chef Shelina summarizes: "Respecting the land, respecting the tradition of the cuisine, is what what I really love."
Amidst all the serious talk about culture and cuisine, I had to ask Chef Shelina the question I knew all my blog readers would be keen to learn. What are her favourite travel foods? What are the treats she has to have with her when she flies? She did not disappoint! "I love crisps!" (That's potato chips to you and me in North America...) She went on to say, "I'm a chef that eats. When you see a skinny chef, don't trust them." She also shared that she always visits grocery stores when she travels to find new chip flavours (Same!)
We might not all be able to cook like Chef Shelina Permalloo, but at least we can snack like her!
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