Every student has their own tricks for making that grocery money stretch. For some, Mr. Noodles is the fuel powering them through long study sessions. For others, it’s free Campus Pizza, thriftily sourced from employer info sessions and club events. Still others (the impressively organized, Pinterest-loving types) pack mason jars full of quinoa salads and spinach to keep them sharp during long days on campus.
Personally, I’m a fan of breakfast foods, and if given the choice, would happily subsist Honey Nut Chex or toast and jam for every meal. However, since moving to Barbados these eating habits have had to undergo some changes.
No, this change wasn’t sparked by an epiphany that at age 22 one should really grow up and learn to cook real food, but rather a bad case of sticker shock. Here, a box of cereal will set you back between $10 and $14 Barbadian dollars. Gluten free bread (a requirement for me, as I’m celiac) is a whopping $30-$40 Barbadian per loaf. Even the jam is pricey.
Now, I have to be honest – while food is genuinely very expensive here, part of the reason that prices seem so high is my poor mental math abilities. When you consider that $2 BBD is worth $1 USD, and $1 USD is worth $1.27 CAD, and it’s all subject to a 2.5% currency conversion fee, plus potential ATM charges, it all works out to more math than I can be expected to accomplish in the canned goods aisle.
My first few trips to the local grocery store went something like this: I cheerfully made a grocery list at home, of all the tasty and nutritious things I might wish to eat that week. Then, I went to the store and gradually checked off each item – not because I had acquired said item, but because I had seen its astronomical price and decided to forgo the purchase. I arrived at the check-out with a bag of rice, some dried beans, a can of pasta sauce, and no idea what I would be eating for dinner that week.
However, things have improved since then. First of all, I learned to adapt my meals to what the locals eat. Chicken and fish are on the menu, beef is off (there’s not enough room to graze cattle on this tiny rock!) Those beans and rice I purchased – transformed into rice and peas, the simple and tasty staple. As for comfort food, Bajans have it covered – macaroni pie, one of their favourite dishes, is essentially baked macaroni with a sprinkle of island spice. How could you go wrong?
Secondly, I found a local market where fresh vegetables abound! It’s called Cheapside Market, and it lives up to its name, price-wise. Now, I’m sure the local farmers running the stalls devise a special price for me based on what they assume a naive-looking tourist is willing to pay, but it’s still cheaper than the grocery stores and often comes with cooking tips, so I’m not complaining. The stalls offer most of the familiar vegetables and others which are utterly unfamiliar, which I am fond of sampling.
My first exotic cooking encounter was plantain. My only past experience with plantain was on a previous trip to Central America, when I mistook the larger, tougher vegetable for its look-alike cousin, the banana (an unpleasant mistake!) Uncooked, it is woody and dry. I was delighted to learn, however, that sliced fried plantain is a deliciously sweet snack, usually eaten on its own or used as an ice cream topping. A vegetable that is so good it passes off as a dessert? Works for me.
My second adventure into tropical vegetable cuisine was cassava (which is also known as yuca and is the source from which tapioca is made). The market-woman I bought it from kindly warned me that cassava is poisonous if not properly cooked. Intensive googling revealed that it contains cyanide in its raw state, and must be boiled or fried well before eating. Once that’s accomplished, however, the starchy root vegetable is amazingly versatile, used across the world to make breads, cakes, chips, puddings, soups, and the bubbles in your bubble tea.
I opted to try yuca frites, a take-off of French fries. After cleaning, peeling, boiling (probably for much longer than necessary), slicing, and frying, I had a plate of delicious, starchy fries. They’re a bit more substantial than their potato counterparts, and no less satisfying. My enjoyment of the meal was only slightly diminished by the fear that I was slowly poisoning myself… but I live to tell the tale, so I consider it a success.
Learning West Indian history by day, learning how not to poison myself in the kitchen by night. See Mom and Dad – I didn’t just come here to surf and tan! It is an educational experience.