I’ve underestimated rice and peas. During our trip to Barbados we have been offered it as a side dish in every cafe we stopped at. It’s a tasty accompaniment which clearly has a cultural significance in this part of the world like fish and chips does at home. This is basic home cooking here and so everyone’s benchmark is what they ate throughout their childhood.
I’d thought it was self-explanatory until I was talking to the owner of De Shak on Dover Beach. He was advising me to try his rice and peas because he used fresh rather than canned pigeon peas and had a real pride in what he did. If I’m honest I didn’t even know what the pea should be. Recipes for “Jamaican rice and peas” (sorry Barbados you don’t seem to get a look in) suggest mainly kidney beans with only occasional mentions of either red peas or pigeon peas. The target taste and texture combination though has more than a passing reference to carlins, a Northern English traditional accompaniment which was traditionally served on the Sunday before Palm Sunday. I remember my Aunt reciting the order of Easter Sunday’s – Carlin, Palm and Paste Egg. Looking up the recipe for Carlins shows use of pigeon peas so it does have the same food group and with the same cultural ties.
All the recipes begin with soaking the peas and cooking them for over an hour until they are tender. The green and yellow of the pea cooks out over this long period to brownish hues. Most seem to add garlic to the water to begin adding flavour. Some start the process off with some chopped bacon frying – this is almost certainly one of those recipes where pancetta just feels wrong! At this stage some recipes also suggest coconut water or coconut milk. The plan is to build up a base ‘stock’ flavour and add hits of flavour later. The herbs and spices are thyme and cloves. The coconut milk definitely goes in at some point and a scotch bonnet chilli turns up the heat considerably. The final stage involves cooking the long grain rice in the mixture until it is well cooked. The liquid needs to be all into the rice so that all the flavour is preserved and is critical to the dish.
Rice and peas is never going to be the main event, no matter how well you cook it. With its earthiness and dots of heat running through it it is a great accompaniment for some grilled chicken, ribs or fish. If you can add a beautiful beach, some sunshine and crystal clear sea you’ve pretty much nailed the authenticity… If not then carlins may be more your thing.