I’ve always envied my friends with generation-old, well-loved recipe cards enshrined in cracked wooden boxes and fading metal tins. I want that tangible object. Instead, what I have is my mother’s brain. (To her credit, she remembers each recipe with astonishing precision.) My favorite card in her mental index is buljol—a warm, unassuming salad of salt cod, tomatoes, onions, and chiles.
In my native Trinidad, the name “buljol” is derived from the words brulé (burnt) and gueule (mouth), a nod to the dish’s spiciness. While patois contorted the word to its present form, there’s no changing one key ingredient: salt cod. Native to North Atlantic waters, cod preserved in salt supplemented the Caribbean slave’s one-meal-per-day ration.
Despite its ugly origins, salt cod continues to be wildly popular in Trinidad. This little salad was not a special occasion meal; growing up, I ate it regularly. I think it was my mother’s way of teaching my siblings and me about our heritage, without going into the gory details. For my mother, buljol was a lesson masquerading as a meal, one that we’d one day understand on our own terms.
On her most recent visit from Trinidad, my mother insisted on making me buljol. It was her way of saying: “I’m here now.” I watched as familiar sights and sounds from my Caribbean childhood engulfed my Raleigh, North Carolina kitchen. Her muscle memory was as sharp as ever; she followed the recipe sequence and knew the exact ratios without any consultation. Before I could ask any question about her process, she was done.
“Eat it quickly, before it gets cold,” my mom said with a lilt in her voice and a faraway smile. I sat down, picked up my fork, and took a first bite. My mother watched quietly as I ate, and I didn’t say a thing.. It was a meal so meaningful that we dared not trespass on the precious silence. I ate slowly, purposefully, acknowledging the weight of this history and the effort of my mother and grandmother before her to keep this recipe relevant. I will eventually make this recipe for my daughter, further removing it from its dark origins. “This is our family tree,” I said to myself. “This is as tangible as it gets.” I’m so thankful for the women who made this possible.
- 1/2 pound boneless salt cod, desalinated
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 2 large cloves garlic, minced
- 1/2 cup white onion, diced
- 1/4 cup green onion, diced
- 1 cup tomatoes, diced
- 2 teaspoons ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon chopped habanero pepper, seeds and ribs removed
What's the dish your mom always makes for you when she visits? Let us know in the comments!