The Bahamas, or, officially, Commonwealth of the Bahamas, has an intriguing cuisine, a blend of a wisp of the native taino traditions with a whopping dose of African influence – given that some 90% of the population are descendants of freed slaves and free Africans brought there by the third influence, the British, after the American Revolution. Setting out to pick a soup, I quickly narrowed it down to four choices. A fish or conch chowder was a possibility, but there was little, if anything, different in the Bahamian version from the Anguillan version prepared for this project a few months ago. A fish boil, which is a flaked grouper and potato soup, was intriguing, and nearly was the direction I went. A chicken souse was something I considered, but in the end felt too simplistic and is less a soup than it is pieces of chicken with a lime-infused broth, and not a lot more. Or, the Pigeon-Pea & Dumpling Soup which won out in the end, both because it’s chilly here and it sounded rich and warming, and because Henry said – “that one”.
The origins combine the two major influences – there’s no question that there’s a base that comes from the classic British pease porridge, also the antecedent of the classic American split pea soup, and combined with some spicing and a take-off on West African fufu done as dumplings (there made with cassava flour rather than wheat flour). Let’s tuck in to the recipe.
First off, no pigeon-peas to be found – I searched the various ethnic markets that I could, and it came down to either using whole, dried green peas, or black-eyed peas. I settled on the latter as the most similar in texture and taste. Soak them overnight, or, boil them on their own for about 20 minutes, then drain and rinse them, before proceeding on to the next step.
Pork ribs and smoked pork (preferably something like a smoked ham hock, but those don’t exist here either, so I went with heavily smoked bacon). Cut the ribs into individual ones, and dice the smoked meat.
Put the meat and peas into a pot, cover with water, bring to a boil (skim off the scum that develops), and simmer, covered, for about two hours – until the peas are cooked through and the meat is tender and ready to fall off the bone. Strain the soup, saving the broth in a second pot or a large bowl. Separate out the ribs.
Meanwhile, prep the vegetables and seasonings – dice up a couple of onions, tomatoes, peeled potatoes, a green bell pepper. Have tomato paste on hand (I used half the jar, about half a cup), salt, pepper, and good amount of dried thyme.
Brown the ribs in a little oil in the original pot (or another, but why…?). I think if I was to make this again, I’d leave the smoked meat in large pieces too, and dice it at this point and brown it along with the ribs, just for more flavor.
Add the vegetables and seasoning to the pot (all but the tomato paste) and cook down for about 10 minutes. Then add the tomato paste and cook another 10. At this point, add the broth back in and simmer together for, wait for it, another 10 minutes to meld the flavors.
Here come the dumplings – really simple – a cup of flour, a ½ cup of milk, a teaspoon of salt, and a ½ teaspoon of ground black pepper. Mix together well.
Make into dumplings. They will expand while cooking, so don’t make them too big. Some of the recipes I saw had them as big as golf balls. I suppose that at that point, after expanding, you’d serve them just one or two to a bowl of soup, kind of like matzo balls, but even denser. Drop them in the now bubbling soup and let them cook for, yes, another 10 minutes.
At which point, add the peas back in and bring it all back up to a nice, hot serving temperature, and ladle into bowls. (So all told, leaving aside the soaking time for the peas, this takes just under 3 hours to make, though 2 hours of it there’s nothing to do but let the peas and meat simmer away.) Serve with hot sauce, preferably something like a habanero or scotch bonnet sauce, on the side to be added to individual tastes.
The bread turned out to be “an issue”. My theory that every culture out there has some sort of savory turnover, empanada, pasty, or something of that sort, has simply turned out to be not true. And I’ve kind of fudged my way through a couple of these in past chapters of this project. At this point, although it will be my first look for the bread components for the future entries, I’m just not going to belabor the idea, especially when there are breads that are clearly cultural icons of a cuisine. The Bahamas just doesn’t have a filled savory bread/pastry like that that I could find – the closest would be a generic West Indian or Jamaican meat patty, which may be available on the islands, but are not part of the patrimony, the heritage of the nation itself.
So… Johnnycake, which we saw a version of also back with Anguilla, though something very different in character and ingredients. Here, it’s a slightly sweet soda bread that’s served at many a meal. Now, I probably wouldn’t, other than for this project, serve it up with the soup above, there’s already so much starch between the beans, potatoes, and dumplings, that it’s not necessary, and while we nibbled at it with the soup, we saved the rest for breakfast next day. It would have, however, and often is, combined well with either the fish boil or the souse.
I made a half batch – we just don’t need a ton of bread around the house, but typically it’s made in a 9″ square or round cake pan. The original quantities were 3 cups flour, 1 Tb baking powder, 1 tsp salt, ¼ cup sugar, ¼ cup cold butter, 2/3 cup milk – mixed, then kneaded to form a soft dough, and left to sit for 10-15 minutes to relax.
Given that I was making a half recipe, I turned out not to have a cake tin that was of a reasonable size, so used a small baking dish, coating it well with butter and then pressing the dough in. Then, straight into a hot oven for about 20 minutes.
And, when nice and golden brown, out of the pan and left to cool.
All in all, we loved the soup, especially with a good sprinkling of hot sauce. The bread was great at breakfast – for both of us, it seems a little too sweet to accompany a dinner dish.