Black History

The West African Dish That Formed the Heart of Our Sunday Lunches

A family recipe, from centuries ago.

Photo by Bobbi Lin

Good food is worth a thousand words—sometimes more. In My Family Recipe, a writer shares the story of a single dish that’s meaningful to them and their loved ones.


In the islands, Sunday lunch is an institution. The typical spread consisted of Kingfish steaks, steamed with burst tomatoes and herbs; stewed chicken, which produced a tangy-sweet, lacquered gravy; colorful potato salad served warm; cheesy macaroni pie; fried rice; and callaloo, a leafy green stew. For reasons that warrant pardon, while I outwardly devalued the significance of the week’s big meal, inwardly, I loved the tradition and took great pleasure in eating, well, most of it. When our family sat down to lunch at around 1 p.m. on Sundays, every dish made it onto my plate—every dish except one, the callaloo.

Callaloo, a native West African dish, came to the Caribbean during the triangular slave trade along along the Middle Passage. Its key ingredient—the heart-shaped leaves of the taro plant, known as Xanthosoma on the continent—continues to exert unparalleled influence on the Caribbean diet. It forever connects the region to the reach and realities of slavery, centuries later. Sometimes a stew, sometimes a soup, callaloo is an ode to the masterful and resourceful way that enslaved Africans repurposed indigenous plant life and accessible aromatics into a deeply nourishing staple. The process of making it seethes with a simplicity that defined slave cooking: quick and straightforward with little margin for indulgence. Even today, in callaloo’s postcolonial adaptation—where ingredients like fresh crab and chopped pumpkin sometimes bulk up the dish’s vegetal base—its minimalist preparation persists.

That preparation was something I avoided as a kid. That is, up until an arthritis flare-up in my mother’s left knee determined otherwise one Sunday morning. “I’m going to need you to be my legs in the kitchen today,” she said to me, with a pain in her voice that dismantled my teenage ambivalence to cooking.

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“Taro leaves are prized in Indian cuisine too. What was done in T&T to get rid of the itchiness resulting from handling these leaves? I remember copious amounts of cooking oil being rubbed on the palms before picking up this leaf. ”
— Annada R.
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Sunday after Sunday, for as long as I could remember, my mother would gently cajole me to help her with Sunday lunch. I always found a way to skirt the issue, never truly acknowledging that it was my own fear of causing a catastrophic kitchen hap that kept me out. This meal was central to our functioning as a family. When we sat down at our large, well-worn dining table, everyone’s emotional clock got reset and readjusted. We never talked about the coming week’s plans or deadlines; rather, we ate together in that moment, thankful for God’s providence that made that meal and our lives possible. I wanted no part in disturbing the delicate, yet powerful, balance of our Sunday lunch. So I took myself out of the cooking game, at least until my mother’s arthritic knee benched her, as well.

“Brigid, I’m going to sit here and walk you through the entire process, step-by-step. If you can listen to me, you can make Sunday lunch,” my mother said with scant confidence, trying to assuage her obvious reservations. Try as I did to convince her that her otherwise sound judgment was compromised by her joint pain, Mum would have none of my protests. She dismissed my objections as quickly as they came. I recall turning around to find her sitting at the entrance of our galley kitchen, rubbing her knee with an ointment, ready to relinquish her role as head chef to a pimple-faced newbie who could barely hold a knife.

“We’ll start with the starches and carbs first,” Mum ordered, “Then we’ll do the proteins and finish with callaloo.”

“There’s no way we’re going to pull this off,” I quipped. And then, under my breath: “There’s no way I’m making that vegetarian green glop.”

As the morning progressed, potatoes got scrubbed and cooked. Macaroni was boiled. Rice was simmered. I chopped more carrots, celery, onions, garlic, and red bell pepper than I thought was possible. My knife cuts were abysmal. Heaping amounts of rosemary, thyme, parsley, and scallions were minced, and fresh coconut was grated. All of the requisites of Sunday lunch meal-prep went without a hitch—albeit at snail’s pace. I suspect this irritated my mother, who was accustomed to moving at the speed of light as she managed a household of four every day without skipping a beat.

Before I knew it, the fish was steaming and the chicken was stewing. Mum looked at me with a knowing smile, proud of the eleventh-hour cook she created out of thin air. I was exhausted, but my fatigue was no match for the task that was entrusted to me.

It was a little after twelve when my big brother, Reynold, popped his head in to see if this Freaky Friday of an endeavor was a disappointment. “All I recognize are the smells,” he said. Mum and I both knew what he meant.

“The callaloo is all that’s left,” Mum said excitedly.

Frustrated, I pleaded that this Sunday we should skip that side. She shot me the type of glance that could scare anyone into immediate compliance. And then she spoke. With a reverence that I had never witnessed from Mum regarding any type of food, she expounded on the history of callaloo; particularly, how it remains inextricably linked to the carefree realities of my all-girl Catholic high school existence. She challenged me to see beyond the ingredients and to imagine a time back when our ancestors crossed the Middle Passage, bound, beaten, and branded; a time when choice wasn’t an option. She reminded me of callaloo’s civic prestige—as Trinidad and Tobago’s national dish—duly designated by emancipated slaves-turned-citizens-turned-statesmen, acquainted with its place in the nation’s history.

“There’s a reason we eat callaloo on Sunday,” she said. “It’s the only day that slaves didn’t have to work on the sugar plantations.” And with that, the side I once shunned became a significant part of my identity. I felt small under the weight of a history I blithely knew and never acknowledged. But for the first time, I felt destined to be in the kitchen. My trepidation and fatigue gave way to resolve. My mother, for the first time that day, stood up on both legs and walked shakily towards me. Those were the sure steps of resilience and love.

We started by stripping the stems of the taro leaves. This was followed by finely chopping the stems along with the heart-shaped leaves. Mum shifted a part of her weight to the kitchen counter. She then added water to a bowl of grated coconut and squeezed the pulp until pure coconut milk flowed through her fingers. I chopped okra and crushed allspice berries. I’d caught glimpses of Mum engaged in this process every Sunday, but on this Sunday, I saw clearly the symbolism behind this unassuming vegetable dish.

She reminded me of callaloo’s civic prestige—as Trinidad and Tobago’s national dish—duly designated by emancipated slaves-turned-citizens-turned-statesmen, acquainted with its place in the nation’s history.

When we sat down to eat that day, my family lauded my efforts and remarked that they couldn’t differentiate between Mum’s cooking and mine. Even though I was showered with praise and initiated into a new tradition, I was noticeably quiet at the table. Alone with my thoughts, I reflected on what cooking these foods meant for my mother, my family, and now me.

I should mention that on that Sunday, and on every Sunday lunch after, callaloo was the first thing on my plate.

When I zoom out, looking at my now thirty-something life in the United States—married to a Jamaican man and raising two small children of my own—I cherish this edible dimension of the past embodied in callaloo. It continues to facilitate a connection to a long, complex history that I otherwise would not have felt an heir to.

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7 Comments

Chris March 21, 2019
Technically, Xanthosoma isn't Taro. That's the problem with common names. The common names of Taro, Eddo, Elephant Ear, and Malanga all tend to be used interchangeably, even for the same species. I presume this article is referring to the edible Xanthosoma sagittifolium (aka "Malanga Blanca") while "Taro" would be Colocasia esculenta.
 
Chris March 21, 2019
Technically, Xanthosoma isn't Taro. That's the problem with common names. The common names of Taro, Eddo, Elephant Ear, and Malanga all tend to be used interchangeably, even for the same species. I presume this article is referring to the edible Xanthosoma sagittifolium (aka "Malanga Blanca") while "Taro" would be Colocasia esculenta.
 
Beautiful, M. March 3, 2019
This is lovely. I’m married to a Trini and have had a lot of callaloo— this is the prettiest (most verdant) I’ve seen! I use taro leaves, which I can get easily in California even though there are few West Indians here— used in Vietnamese food too.
 
Nicholas March 21, 2019
I'm a Trini in LA. I've been using spinach for my Callaloo. I'm close to a large Vietnamese grocery. Do you know how they sell/label the Taro leaves? I found Chado Benni there under a Vietnamese name.
 
Eric K. February 24, 2019
I love the way you walk us through everything, Brigid. Every motion, feeling, and taste.
 
Emily February 19, 2019
I got my first migraine after cooking Thanksgiving dinner under my mother's direction from her wheelchair after foot surgery.

Food52 - I love these "My Family Recipe" posts. Thank you for sharing so many wonderful stores.
 
Annada R. February 19, 2019
What a thoughtful article, Brigid! Thank you for sharing it. Food is at the cusp of history, geography, sociology and tells so many stories if we care to listen carefully.

Taro leaves are prized in Indian cuisine too. What was done in T&T to get rid of the itchiness resulting from handling these leaves? I remember copious amounts of cooking oil being rubbed on the palms before picking up this leaf.