Esquire/The Seasoned Cook/
Two nonswimmers who burn under a reading lamp find themselves in midwinter baking on the beaches of Barbados. To escape the locals solicitiously hawking milky aloe vera in rum bottles, they drag their reddened bodies into a rented Mini Moke and jolt up the Platinum Coast. Already they’ve eaten their way through the tame flying fish and stuffed crab and callaloo at the places the guidebooks tout as showcases for Bajan fare. Now they’re in search of real food.
By now these adventurers do know to forget wine or soda and just drink the Barbados beverage, by the bottle, so they pull in at the first rum shop, an open-front Bajan bar where the proprietress doesn’t blink at an order for a half-pint each of Cockspur and Mount Gay at 3 in the afternoon. The breezy bar is empty that time of day, so she sits and chats, swinging her legs off a high stool. Her name is Brenda and she doesn’t think there’s anyplace nearby that serves lunch this late. But she might consider cooking a little something to soak up that rum — fish and chips with salad okay?
Half an hour after she disappears ou the back door, she’s back with two plates of a fish that is like nothing these seasoned eaters have ever experienced. The fish is ultrafesh, batter coated and deep fried to perfection. But what makes it extraordinary are the two slashes Brenda has cut into each steak and packed with fresh herbs and hot pepprs. Every bite is a contrast of crunchy and juicy, mellow and incendiary. Brenda, basking in her guests’ full-mouthed praise, is willing to tell what kinds of fish she uses — kingfish or flyikng fish or dolphin, never shark — but what’s in those slashes is her little secret. Herbs and spices and things, she says coyly.
That flavor haunts for a couple of days until a late-night foray to Baxter’s Road in the capital, what the want ads refer to as “that part of Bridgetown that never sleeps.” There the intrepid eaters find a cross between Forty-Second Street and Columbus Avenue in New York, a strip of bars and cafes and all-night groceries where young and old Barbadians hang out, eating fried chicken parts and aromatic sandwiches. The best smells come from the far end of the street, where a platoon of grandmotherly cooks stands over cast-iron skillets on campfires right on the sidewalk. With sizzles and boasts, they’re flash-frying big slabs of fish that look and smell awfully familiar.
“Try my fish, honey,” one heavyset woman urges, lifting a batter-fried chunk out of the fresh oil, popping it into a sheet of aluminum foil and splashing it with a streak of hot pepper sauce and ketchup. Once again, it’s crisp perfection, right down to the slashes packed with herbs and peppers. But once again, this sidewalk chef is not about to part with her recipe, certainly not in earshot of competitors handing over foil packets to passing cab drivers and sidewalk strollers.
The rest of the trip becomes a search for the magic formula for “slash and burn.” A trip to the Cheapside market yields some clues: bundles of fresh thyme, sage and marjoram; piles of tiny crinkled Scotch bonnet peppers in crimson, emerald and gold. Back home, a prowl through a neighborhood where the Korean markets cater to Caribbeans turn up all the raw materials. But it takes a friend from Barbados named Agnella to crack the code — and then only after admonishing that “decent people don’t go to Baxter’s Road.”
Fresh herbs are vital to what she calls “the seasoning,” but the Scotch bonnet peppers can be replaced by jalapenos or serranos or “any kind that’ll kill you.” Equally important is a lime and salt marinade to bring out the fish’s oceanic flavor far from Bridgetown. Here is what Agnella recommends to slash and burn fish for four:
1 1/2 pounds firm-flesh fish, 3/4 inch thick (kingfish, mahimahi, swordfish or halibut)
1 large lime
1 tablespoon plus 1 1/4 teaspoons kosher or coarse sea salt
2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
2 tablespoons fresh marjoram leaves
2 tablespoons (lightly packed) fresh sage
1 large clove garlic, peeled and coarsely chopped
4 scallions, trimmed, tops and bottoms finely chopped
1 to 2 teaspoons minced Scotch Bonnet or other hot peppers
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons fresh lime juice
Vegetable oil for frying
1 cup fine dry bread crumbs
Rinse the fish well and divide into 4 portions. Cut a couple of slashes into each, about halfway through the flesh. Place the fish in a shallow glass dish and sprinkle with juice of whole lime plus 1 tablespoon salt, turning to coat both sides. Set aside for 15 to 30 minutes.
Anytime up to a week ahead, make the seasoning: Combine the herbs, garlic and scallions and use a mortar and pestle to pound them into a fairly smooth paste. Grind in the hot peppers, a teaspoon at a time, until the paste is hot but still palatable. Season with paprika, cloves, salt and pepper and blend in the remaining lime juice.
To fry the fish, first rinse it very well and pat completely dry. Carefully pack the herb mixture lightly into the slashes. Any remaining seasoning can be rubbed over the flesh.
Pour vegetable oil to a depth of about half an inch in a large, heavy skillet, preferably cast iron. Heat it to about 365 degrees, or until a cube of bread browns quicly and floats when added to the oil.
While the oil heats, place a beaten egg in a shallow dish and the bread crumbs, seasoned with salt and pepper, in a second dish. Dredge the fish first in egg, then in crumbs, coating completely. Add to the hot pan and cook about 3 minutes on each side, until the fish is crisp and browned but still juicy inside. Straight it straight from the pan, Baxter’s Road style, with or without hot sauce and ketchup.