Callaloo: An True Taste of the Caribbean With African Roots
How important is Callaloo to Caribbean cooking? So important that it’s actually the national dish of two destinations!
Those would be Trinidad & Tobago plus Dominica! (Dominica? Yeah, theirs used to be mountain chicken, until the main ingredient went functionally extinct.)
What is Callaloo?
Sometimes calaloo, callalloo, calalloo, or kallaloo around the West Indies, callaloo is a side dish made primarily of leafy greens.
Why so vague? Well, because throughout the Caribbean, people tend to make it quite differently.
In Trinidad, our parents grew up making callaloo as a soup from the leaves of the taro plant. A plant we call dasheen. In Grenada and Dominica, you can also find it made of dasheen, though maybe less blended into a soup. Some other islands use water spinach.
Jamaicans also make something that only vaguely resembles the Trinidadian version of the same name but with amaranth. They also add a bunch of other stuff like tomatoes, green onions, scallions, and more. This, they then pair with salt fish. Also great, but not what we’re talking about today.
So, yeah, callaloo is many things to many people through the Caribbean. That said, one thing that unites all the narratives around these different expressions of the dish: African origins.
Because of the centuries-long slave trade forcibly relocating millions of West Africans to the Caribbean, we can trace many of our favorite dishes back to the region. And callaloo is likely the Caribbeanized version of a dish named palaver sauce.
This palaver sauce (sometimes called egusi stew) is enjoyed throughout West Africa. So, countries like Ghana, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria — though, just like in the Caribbean, each country has slightly different versions.
But basically, it’s a rough stew made primarily of egusi (pumpkin) seeds and bitter greens. And just like with callaloo, many add some meat to the mix for a more robust dish.
Callaloo health benefits
Being comprised primarily of leafy greens, callaloo comes with many health benefits. With dasheen, you’re getting four times the calcium of broccoli plus twice the iron.
There’s Vitamin C which supercharges your immune system. Also, B Vitamins that impact energy levels, brain function, and metabolism. And finally, there’s plenty of calcium and, of course, fiber.
How to make Callaloo
So, as I said, there are a lot of ways West Indians make something they call “callaloo.” But for our purposes, thanks to our Trinidadian heritage by way of the Virgin Islands, we’ll be making the Trini version.
Lucky for us all, it’s very easy to make.
In a nutshell, we’re going to boil down our leafy vegetables with coconut milk. Then we add some protein, salt and pepper, and blend to our desired chunkiness. After that, in our house, it’s time to pour is all over a big slice of macaroni pie. Put some rice and beans on your plate plus some meat (oxtail, stew chicken, etc.) and you’ve got Sunday supper!
In the United States, it’s hard to get dasheen at your local grocery. So, you can also make your callaloo with spinach. Get the full callaloo recipe below.
- 12 dasheen leaves or bunch of spinach
- .25 pound salt beef or ham bone (you don’t need to use this if you are a vegetarian)
- .25 pound salt pork (you don’t need to use this if you are a vegetarian)
- 2 cups coconut milk
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 1 green pepper
- 2 crabs
- 8 ochroes
- 2 sprigs of thyme
- 1 onion
- 4 chives
- 1 cup boiling water
- Clean the dasheen leaves, wash and cut up the ochroes, then soak and cut the meat.
- Next, scald and clean the crabs (lump crab meat works well too).
- Put all ingredients into a pot with boiling water and simmer until soft.
- Finally, blend everything with a mixer until somewhat creamy (see image above). Quick tip: add the crab meat last so that it stays chunky.