In the stultifying heat of Paramaribo, Celeste and I needed lunch. It what our first day together in this city that we both happen to love, for no real reason except that everything about it says, “hey, why are you here?” and “welcome.” Everything from umbrella-carrying ladies who couldn’t care less if you are behind or in front of them, to a woman who opened Brazil nuts with a knife and instructed me on how to do the same at a local market. The faraway mercantile store you could die of heat exhaustion to get to, but when you do, you can buy the best hammocks for a good price, and people have come in from the interior of the country to buy their plaid fabrics (used as wraps, shirts, and skirts), their kitchen whatnots, their needle and thread. Long walks in the sunshine, boat trips across the way, warungs (Indonesian food) if you like it, frosty coffee if you’re having a “Rituals” (Caribbean Starbucks clone) moment, and for the most part “creole food.”
Creole food, as I’ve come to understand it, is anything in Suriname, French Guiana and Curaçao (and other countries I’ve never been to) that’s a mix of African and something. It’s saucy, curried, oniony, strong in flavor, usually a little oilier than you might eat at home. In Suriname, it’s what you’re eating if you’re not eating at a Warung, a dumpling place, or a roti shop. Sometimes side dishes of it show up besides bami, or nasi, noodle and rice dishes, a sort of combo. And for the most part, it suits me just fine. The last time I had been in Suriname, it was a different time of year, and I remember clearly that the only vegetables I ever saw were green beans, squash and the occasional pepper. When I was in the interior, I was also served a leafy green that was served really sugary. I asked about the sugar, and they said that non-locals don’t like the bitter flavor, so they serve it with sugar for foreigners. I asked them to leave out the sugar for me the next time, and found it tasty. Bitter and spinachy or maybe dasheen-like, but totally edible.
Which is why when we came to the riverside creole/Indonesian lunch spot in Paramaribo and I ordered a dish that came with a vegetable I didn’t recognize the name of, and was told it was bitter, I said, “bring it.” Or actually, I said, “ok, sounds good to me.”
And the food arrived, and we were hungry, and also possibly dying of thirst and desire for refreshment, so we started off the meal, like you do, with a ginger juice. Highly sweetened, and next to Suriname cherry juice, my favorite thing to drink when I’m in Suriname (and I hope to return).
And then there were the noodles. A bit greasy, totally acceptable, fried plantain on top, and my plate with two vegetables. Traveling as a person who loves vegetables is dicey. Depending on where you go, sometimes you can’t have any, unless you consider Sprite a vegetable (and I generally do not). Here I was, traveling in Suriname and I got to have two, plus the salad. I was thrilled. The spinachy one was spinachy, a heart-shaped leaf, they told me. The second, was a bitter vegetable called “antroewa” or jiló (maybe in Portuguese, or a local language), and it looked a lot like an eggplant. “This is the bitter one,” the waiter said, when he set the plate down, with all the artistry of a person setting down a fragile vase.
So I dug in, a forkful, and I put it on my mouth.
Oh. My. God.
Bitter is not the word. Bitter is when your tongue says, oh, this is slightly medicinal. Think, a baby aspirin, maybe a grapefruit skin. This was a full on attack, the bitterness turned up to eleven, a fever pitch of bitter.
“How is it?” Celeste asked, probably looking at my face in concern, though I couldn’t see. I could barely hear. I could only taste.
“Aggressive,” I said.
If the human palate has adapted to not eat bitter foods because they might be poisonous, I have not the foggiest idea how how this got into the rotation. You know how when you do wine tasting they explain that you feel tannins here, astringency there? I’m used to tasting things on my tongue, on the various parts, on the interior of my cheeks. You know where I had never tasted bitterness before? In the gums surrounding my molars. I had no idea there were even taste receptors there.
She tasted it, and agreed that it was notably bitter, and wisely stepped back. I kept going. Out of stubbornness? Out of confusion? curiosity? It was like pressing on a bruise. I bit, it bit back. Eventually I gave up, both because I was full, and because it seemed to be injuring me. It also started raining like someone unzipped the sky, but perhaps that’s not that notable in the tropics.
Later on on the trip we spied the vegetable, this time in the markets of French Guiana, 1 euro for that whole plate.
I did some research, on the base of the name I was given in Suriname, and figured out that in English, it is called the scarlet eggplant. It turns red when ripe, but is generally eaten when green. By whom I cannot say, though I imagine this is not a starter food for young humans. I have to assume that when you are habituated it it, it becomes one of those flavors you miss with your whole soul when you can’t find it. Because I have never tasted anything like it before, and doubt I’ll ever find anything like it again. It is originally from Nigeria, and I can imagine that when the first crop came up, on the coast of South America, people were thrilled, because I bet to someone out there, it tastes like home.
I was not precisely thrilled to try it that first time, but I know somehow that if I were to see it again, I’d try that very aggressive vegetable. Because I’m a sucker for nostalgia. Even when it’s not mine.
** I’ve been meaning to write this for a long time. I’m glad I finally did. Taste anything crazy lately?