The day I experienced a Caribbean Christmas was the day I realised that, despite my ancestors’ origins, I rather like temperate climes. For me, Christmas without snow just wasn’t Christmas. There were barely any Christmas trees, and the big-city hustle and bustle was replaced by the lackadaisical swaying of palm trees in the breeze, Christmas carols sung in Spanish, and my grandmother’s careful unpacking and setting up of her nativity scene – something I had never seen before moving to live with her in Trinidad as a 10-year-old.
Growing up in Brooklyn, I was a seasoned and dedicated consumer of Christmas. I watched all the Christmas cartoons and movies, and coveted the many toys that flashed in between the morning animations. By age ten, I had seen enough on television to know that my experiences were very different from the lives that lit up that box. But I still wrote lists of what I wanted my parents to get for me, and prayed that I would wake up one day with a name like Judy and find that my parents didn’t have accents that rendered them incomprehensible to our neighbours.
Still, Christmas in Brooklyn was pretty normal. My father would burst through the front door with a huge Christmas tree slung across his shoulder like game he had hunted for dinner. The smell of pine would gently make its way through our apartment, neutralising the embarrassing odour of my family’s immigrant status – Trinidad’s famous Chief Curry and the stale air from windows closed for fear of “the draft”.
Having a Christmas tree made us more like our American neighbours. It was one of the few times in my life when I could pretend that my family was American, and that I didn’t have to play the role of interpreter between them and gawking strangers. I understood from an early age why my parents, and all others like them who braved this new world, were called not “immigrants,” but “aliens.”
Despite the lack of snow, I learned there were other things to discover about Christmas in Trinidad. There was parang – a Venezuelan-tinged tradition of singing Spanish Christmas songs. There’s the calypso with lyrics that declared, ‘Drink a rum and a ponch de crème, drink a rum, every Christmas morning’. Then there is the food, the black cake filled with dried fruit soaked all year in rum, cherry wine and sherry, that can make you a little tipsy from even one slice. There are the pastelles, minced meat wrapped in cornmeal pockets and steamed in banana leaves. Drinks such as sorrel, made from the sepals of the Roselle – a species of hibiscus native to West Africa – and ponche-de-crème, a rum-infused eggnog. There’s the homemade ginger beer, sweet breads and ‘the lime’ – which in Trinidad is the word used to describe the art of hanging out with your friends and family, enjoying each other’s company, with copious amounts of food, drink and loud music that usually necessitates yelling for all communication.
It’s been a while since I’ve been fortunate enough to have a Caribbean Christmas. Looking back, I see how privileged I am to have had the experience of another culture, so vastly different from the one I had grown to know in Brooklyn. My experience of living in Trinidad opened me up to the idea that different countries may have different ways of doing things, but that no matter where you went, people were pretty much the same.
One of the ways I sometimes combat heavy doses of nostalgia in Copenhagen is by making food. One of the benefits of living so far away from my family is that it has inspired me to cook the meals that I grew up eating. Whether it’s pigeon peas and rice, fried plantains or homemade pepper sauce, having access to these familiar culinary delights is always comforting.
So this Christmas in Denmark, I’m going to indulge in something a little Trinidadian – something that pays tribute to the fact that this heritage is one of the many tools I have available to make myself feel a little bit more at home in my new home country.
Trinidadian Sweet Bread
One of my best culinary experiences while living in Trinidad was having access to coconuts 24/7. I love everything coconut – and in this spirit, I’ll share with you a recipe for something that features the coconut, ‘sweet bread’. Did you know that one of the ways the Bougainvillean people survived almost a decade-long trade embargo launched by Papua New Guinea and the rest of the world was their ingenious use of the coconut? They used it for everything from car fuel to lamp oil.
Sweet Bread is a traditional Trinidadian recipe, flavoured with coconut and fruit.
Time: less than 30 minutes preparation plus 60 minutes cooking time
grated meat of 1 coconut
3 tsp baking powder
1 tsp vanilla extract
60g mixed peel
1 tsp Angostura bitters
75g currants, chopped
Preparation: Preheat oven to 180ºC. Combine sugar and coconut in a bowl. Add a little of the milk for moisture. Add the egg and stir to combine, then add the vanilla extract, bitters and margarine. Stir to combine. Sift the dry ingredients into a separate bowl before adding to the coconut mix. Stir in, and then add the remaining milk so the ingredients come together as a soft dough. Add the fruit and mixed peel, then bring the mixture together. Pour into a greased and floured cake tin, then transfer to oven and bake for 50 to 60 minutes, or until the cake is risen and golden, and a skewer inserted into the centre emerges cleanly. While the cake is still hot, remove it from the tin. Then make a paste of a little sugar and water and use to glaze the top of the cake. Return to the hot oven to cook for three minutes, then remove and set aside on a wire rack to cool completely. M