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Here's to Dominica

Hurricanes, local food and cocoa tea

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* An earlier version of this story confused the countries of Dominica and the Dominican Republic. We have deleted a sidebar listing Dominican restaurants in Charlotte, as those were from the Dominican Republic and not the separate country of Dominica. We regret the negligent editing, which should not be a reflection on the writer's original story, which had no mention of the Dominican Republic.

With so many disasters happening these days, it's tough to keep track. One of the hardest-hit countries, Dominica, which was brutalized by Hurricane Maria, has flown under the radar. This column will be dedicated to the tiny island that my family and I fell in love with last winter.

I'll leave you with directions for making one of the more popular beverages in Dominica: cocoa tea. But first, a little more background on the country and its food scene.

I don't wish, in any way, to dismiss the tragedy in Puerto Rico. But it's worth noting that the death toll in Dominica is 40 times higher on a per-capita basis. There are communities in Dominica that, two weeks later, still have not even been reached, and have received no aid, so the death toll is likely to climb.

The hospital still has no power. Dominican Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit is sleeping on his floor and bathing with a bucket. The agriculture sector, the heart of Dominica's economy, has experienced "100-percent destruction," according to the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency.

Dominica has the highest density of volcanos in the world, and consequently lacks the gleaming white beaches of its neighbors, so tourism plays a minor role in the economy. That's one of the things my family cherished about it, in addition to its status as the ultimate locavore nation. It's been that since before eating local became so trendy.

While stores in the United States make a big deal of labeling local foods, in Dominica the opposite happens: Unless a food is labeled as an import, it is presumed to be local, and shoppers I spoke with assume that paying more for imports that are less fresh, and of unknown provenance, is a bad deal.

Dominican cuisine is based on starchy plant parts called "provisions," and include taro root, manioc root, sweet potatoes, yucca, breadfruit and plantains. These can be stored in a shed without refrigeration, and one hopes that the many small, isolated villages had enough stocked up. Reports indicate that the breadfruit, plantain and banana trees are gone (as are the coconut trees), and the "below ground provisions" are difficult to find and harvest under fields strewn with debris.

Photo by Ari leVaux.
  • Photo by Ari leVaux.

One of the more popular dishes in Dominica is barbecue. Both the practice and the word come from the indigenous Carib Indians, also known as the Kalinago. Dominica is the only nation on earth with land set aside for the original inhabitants of the Caribbean islands. In addition to giving us the word barbecue, we can also thank the Kalinago for the word "buccaneer," based on the same linguistic root, according to Louise Breen in her book Converging Worlds.

"Individuals who had endured more than enough regulation could join hunting settlements on the north coast of Hispaniola. They smoked their beef Kalinago fashion on barbecues (boucon), gaining the nickname 'buccaneers.' These 'brethren of the coast' lived off the wild cattle left behind when the Spaniards abandoned the area and, while including men from all nations, attracted many former indentured servants from the English and French islands. Some progressed to piracy — stealing a canoe, then boarding a coastal schooner, then capturing larger ships. By the mid-1650s buccaneer fleets were attacking Spanish settlements."

Thanks to the Kalinago, the reverence for BBQ is island-wide. Consequently, Dominica resembles one large, mountainous drive-thru BBQ joint. Motorists can pull up to the makeshift smokers — typically fashioned from oil drums — and buy barbecue chicken and pork. At least they could, back when the roads in Dominica were passable. Back when there was food to cook.

One of the common talking points in support of local agriculture is that communities that feed themselves have greater food security, as they are shielded from disruptions elsewhere in the food-distribution chain. But when a hurricane wipes out your agriculture system, imports start to sound pretty good. Clearly, there is place for global movement of food, as there is a case to be made for local food.

For this recipe, I'll focus on the Dominican drink called chocolate tea.

This tea is similar to hot chocolate, but lighter on the cream and heavier on the spices. It also contains cocoa butter, unlike the chocolate powder used to make cocoa from which the cocoa butter has been removed.

The main ingredient in cocoa tea is ground cocoa nibs that are mixed with spices such as nutmeg, cinnamon and Caribbean bay leaves (which grow on trees and are different from the bay leaves common in the U.S.), and pressed into balls or logs called "cocoa stick" or "cocoa balls."

These solid hunks of chocolaty goodness can be found in many islands in the Caribbean, as well as in Caribbean food stores in the United States. A supplier on Amazon is out of stock, but the eBAY vendor qcustomdesign has Dominican cocoa balls for sale.

Adventurous types can grind their own nibs and spices, and make their own. Hopefully, once power and internet and agriculture have been reestablished in Dominica, there will be more options for buying cocoa balls and supporting Dominican chocolate farmers.

In the mean time, find what ingredients you can, and support your Dominican neighbors by brewing up this flavorful beverage.

Cocoa Tea

Ingredients

* 2 cups water

* 1 half-oz cocoa stick, grated

* 1/2 teaspoon vanilla

* 1 cup milk

* sugar to taste

Directions

Bring all of the ingredients except the milk and sugar to a boil, and reduce to simmer. When the grated cocoa stick has dissolved, add the milk and sugar.

As you enjoy this warm beverage, contemplate the plight of the islands from which it came. And if you want to donate directly to Dominica, visit Dominicarelief.org.

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