Lelani Lewis reclaims the term ‘code noir' and shares her Caribbean cuisine

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Many cultures use leaves to cook food. Pasteles are the Caribbean's version, popular during the Christmas season. Photo by Remko Kraaijeveld.

The Caribbean. We say it like it's one thing, one place. But it consists of thousands of islands, stretched over thousands of miles and it contains five continents of influence. Between the 16th and 19th centuries, millions of African men, women, and children were brought to the islands against their will. In her book, Code Noir: Afro-Caribbean Stories and Recipes, Lelani Lewis shares this important history and the rich cuisine it brought forth.

Evan Kleiman: Your book is titled Code Noir, which refers to a French document regulating the treatment of slaves. Why name a book celebrating food culture after such a monstrous document?

Lelani Lewis: It's a question I get a lot. A few French people have seen the book on shelves and been completely outraged by it, which is entirely understandable because it was a very dehumanizing document with 60 articles written about how to regulate, punish, how many grams of food each enslaved African should be given. But I felt that for so long, Caribbean culture and Black culture, in general, had been completely overshadowed by the suffering that they had experienced. I know that when I go to the Caribbean, despite the history and what they've been through because of this displacement and enslavement, I also see the opposite, which is people who are super resilient, people who are super joyous and always get some kind of happiness out of life, no matter how disadvantaged they may be. They're just joyous and colorful and amazing. 

I thought, you know, what? It is time for us to revert some of these histories, which have been written in a way that continually dehumanizes, and to invert that meaning to recognize some of the resilience and the adversity that some of these people have been through and what they've created from that, which is beautiful cuisine. A tasty, delicious, colorful cuisine. So that's why I did it.

"Code Noir" began as an exploration into Lelani Lewis's identity and dual heritage. Photo courtesy of Simon & Schuster.

What is your connection to them?

My father is from Grenada, a tiny little island in the Caribbean. B) Growing up in London, especially south London, where I was born and bred, there is a huge diaspora of so many different Caribbean people there. I grew up in the neighboring borough to Brixton, which is famously known for its market selling loads of Caribbean produce and having Caribbean bakeries and fresh fruits and vegetables. Everything that you needed to make your traditional Caribbean recipes, you could get from Brixton market. Not so much anymore but then for sure.

Lelani Lewis' father sits on her grandmother's lap. Photo courtesy of Lelani Lewis.

We so often talk about the Caribbean as if it's one thing but listening to your descriptions, from a purely food point of view there must be a tremendous diversity of foods and ideas that lived side by side in this collection of island cultures.

Absolutely. It's made up of so much different flora and fauna. There's quite a lot of similarities between the flora and fauna but the food and cuisine has been interpreted in different ways because of the dominant colonial powers that have gone into those different islands. There is a huge diversity across the islands and the cuisine, which I find fascinating because it's not just the people who colonized the islands that create the difference, it's also the influx of people who have been forced there, for enslavement or [because] they had indentured contracts. So it's also those influences. That's why I think Caribbean food is so fascinating because it is this melange and melting pot of all of these different influences.

Let's talk a little bit about your personal introduction to food. Who was the cook in your house when you were growing up? And what did celebration food tables look like?

Untraditionally, it was my dad who was the cook. When my parents met, my mom didn't even know how to boil an egg, which is just absurd to me. I just don't understand how but she was very spoiled. My dad taught her to cook and she's a great cook in her own right, now. But my dad was the resident chef. 

My dad has 11 brothers and sisters so family gatherings at our house were always centered around huge tables, banquets of Caribbean food that my parents would be preparing from morning 'til night. There would be different fish and meats and rice and macaroni and cheese and coleslaw and salads. Some of our family members would bring Tupperware. They knew there would be leftovers because there would always be such an abundance of food. And it was always super delicious, as well.

Lewis remembers climbing trees to pick fresh mangoes in her Aunt Marie-Claire's garden. Photo courtesy of Lelani Lewis.

Your mother was from Ireland. Did she feel overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of your father's family? And did she take on his food, the food of Grenada, and start making it her own? 

Yeah, I don't think she had much of a choice in the matter. I think she did get a bit, I can't say bullied because my aunties, if they ever hear this, they'll be like, "What? We didn't bully your mom!" But there were a lot of them so she definitely was influenced and taught to cook a lot of Caribbean food. I think one of the things that fundamentally she then taught me, and that was directly through my Caribbean family, was roti. 

I always find that so interesting in the journey of food how it's never a straight, linear line to how these foods have come about or been made. It was Indian roti that came to the Caribbean that was taught to my aunties who then taught my "plastic paddy," as she's referred to, mother, who then taught me to make roti. It's just so convoluted and also beautiful that it's not this straight line. It's all over the place. I really like that. I think that is the epitome of food and culture.

Humanity is messy. Because we're on this side of the pond, tell us what "plastic paddy" means.

A "plastic paddy" is basically a diasporic Irish person. My mum wasn't born in Ireland. She was born in the UK to first-generation Irish people who migrated over to the UK. So all of her Irish relatives would refer to her as a "plastic paddy," which basically means you're kind of a fake Irish person.

How lovely. As if figuring out your identity isn't hard enough.

Exactly. I think they kind of said it as a term of endearment, in some ways. It's the Irish humor.

As you began to explore and find solace in your identity through food, you discovered a drink that brought both sides together. I'm thinking about the Guinness Punch. Describe what it is and what it reveals from a history standpoint.

Being a mixed race woman, half-Caribbean and half Irish, and moving to the Netherlands and not having known a single soul, I really felt unanchored, and food became my way of anchoring myself. I was just trying to reconcile with that duality of who I was, those two seemingly unattached people. I grew up drinking this drink called Guinness Punch. It's made with Guinness, loads of condensed milk, a crap ton of rum, nutmeg, cinnamon. It's absolutely delicious. I never really thought, "Why is it a Guinness Punch, which is very famously Caribbean? How did the Irish Guinness get to the Caribbean?" 

When I first started embarking on this journey of research into Caribbean food and food, in general, I found out that even before many enslaved Africans were kidnapped and brought over to the Caribbean, the British brought loads of poor Irish mothers' and fathers' children to the Caribbean on indentured contracts. The Guinness company realized that we have this huge diaspora of Irish people in the Caribbean, let's start shipping it over there. It's called Guinness West Indian Porter. It's different from the Dublin, the original Guinness, because it has extra hops in it. The extra hops were to ensure that it was preserved across the transatlantic journey from Ireland to the Americas, as they called it. 

A mixture of strong stout beer, sweet condensed milk, cinnamon, and nutmeg marries both sides of Lelani Lewis's heritage. Photo by Remko Kraaijeveld.

That must be such a delicious drink. Let's dip our toe into the food. What is browning? Why is it essential? And give us a first recipe to use it in?

Browning is super essential, especially in Jamaican cuisine. It's no more complicated than burnt sugar. It's such an overused term in food now, isn't it? But it gives it a very umami taste. You have the sweet and bitterness. It hits so many different flavor points in your mouth. I think the easiest thing to add that to would be chicken stew. You just brown or caramelize or burn your sugar and then add your onions and your garlic and your chicken and cook that down. It's absolutely delicious because it has these sweet and bitter notes to it.

Your dad's rice and peas… in the recipe you call for 20 whole allspice berries, which seems like a lot. What do they bring to the party? And although the name has peas in it, the recipe actually uses kidney beans, right?

Yeah, I don't know why Caribbean people call beans "peas" but they do. Not generally, but in that recipe, they call it peas. I do use a lot of pimento seasoning. I think that your rice and peas should be so flavorsome that you should be able to eat it and you would be very satisfied just eating the rice and peas. So I call for quite a lot of seasoning. 

For me, pimento is quite similar to pepper, in some ways, but with more of a smoky taste. I love it and it's used a lot in Caribbean cuisine. Jerk wouldn't be jerk without putting pimentos into it. I think it's an essential spice to have in your cupboard and to use throughout this cuisine.

Lelani Lewis grew up in London with a Grenadian father and an Irish mother, often visiting her relatives in the Caribbean. Photo by Chantal Arnts.

You said the word "jerk," so I feel like I can bring it up. In the book, you have a recipe for it but you also say it can be a source of annoyance. I would love it if you would describe why because you also say it encapsulates an entire culinary culture in a single dish.

The contradictions. I think that it's become such a monolithic understanding of Caribbean food and I think it really is so reductive, because Caribbean food is made up of five different continents of influences. So when you're using one dish to summarize that, you're not really getting the full breadth of that diversity. So yes, I love it because, let's face it, jerk, the marinade, the smoking of meat, you can't really go wrong with that. It is a beautiful marriage of indigenous people and enslaved African maroons coming together to create this delicious dish. But please, everyone, know this: Jerk chicken is not the entire beacon of Caribbean food.

Tell us a little bit about Trini doubles, where it comes from and its origins.

I love making Trini doubles. Trini doubles was, again, derived from India. You have batters in India, and you obviously have a chana curry, it's very typical. There was an Indian guy in Trinidad, who I guess was a descendant of indentured workers, and he decided to start selling batters and chana curry on street corners. People loved them so much, they would order two. That's why it became Trini doubles because it's made in Trinidad and people wanted more. So he then served two batters with the chickpea curry. 

I'm a condiment queen. My fridge is stacked full of condiments from the first and the second shelf. The great thing about Trini doubles is that you can put hot pepper sauce on it. I put tamarind sauce on it. I do a cucumber chutney. I do a coconut yogurt. It's making my mouth water thinking about it, actually.

Yeah, it's essentially like an Indian bhatura. It's like a fried flatbread situation topped with a chickpea situation. 

Absolutely. I love it. That is the situation.

Lelani, I'm so glad that you came to the show. When I first opened your book, the whole beginning part of it, of the history of the Caribbean, I found it so fascinating. I really appreciated that I was able to learn so much before I got into the recipes. Thank you for that

It was an absolute pleasure. Thank you.