Callaloo, a native West African dish, came to the Caribbean during the triangular slave trade along the Middle Passage. Its key ingredient—the heart-shaped leaves of the taro plant, from the Xanthosoma genus—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 exudes 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. —Brigid Ransome Washington
Test Kitchen Notes
Many different variations of this stew can be found all throughout the Caribbean, featuring whatever local produce is in season. Taro is one of the signature ingredients of this dish, but because it can be difficult to find in some parts of the U.S., this recipe utilizes the much easier-to-source spinach. If you can find taro, feel free to use it! Just be aware that taro leaves, if eaten raw, are poisonous, so be sure to thoroughly cook your taro before consuming. You can also use kale or collard greens instead of the spinach.
No one can explain the significance of this dish better than Brigid's mother. Brigid (who developed this recipe) reports: "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 knew and blithely never acknowledged. But for the first time, I felt destined to be in the kitchen."
Read more here: The West African Dish That Formed the Heart of Our Sunday Lunches. —The Editors
- Prep time 10 minutes
- Cook time 30 minutes
- Serves 6 to 8
large okra pods, stems removed, cut into 1-inch rounds
medium yellow onion, finely chopped
scallions, finely chopped
baby spinach, roughly chopped
full-fat coconut milk
1 1/2 teaspoons
freshly ground black pepper
allspice berries, crushed
large garlic cloves, finely chopped
fresh thyme, leaves removed
whole cloves, crushed
whole Scotch bonnet or orange habanero pepper
White rice, for serving
- In a large stockpot over medium-high heat, bring 2 cups of water to a boil. Add the okra, onion, scallions, spinach, milk, salt, pepper, allspice, garlic, thyme, and cloves. Stir to combine and cover the pot. Cook 7 to 10 minutes, until the spinach is wilted.
- Add the whole pepper, cover the pot, and reduce the heat to medium-low. Simmer for 20 minutes. Remove and discard the pepper. Stir in the butter.
- Using an immersion blender, purée the mixture until smooth. (If you don't have an immersion blender, feel free to use a regular blender, working in batches.)
- Serve hot over white rice. Or serve as an alternative to spinach dip. To serve as a soup, add 2 to 3 cups of boiling water after the callaloo has been puréed (adjust the salt and pepper accordingly).