Cocoa tea, a drink for Dominica 

click to enlarge A cracked cocoa pod reveals its treasure. Dominica’s crops have been devastated. - SHUTTERSTOCK.COM
  • Shutterstock.com
  • A cracked cocoa pod reveals its treasure. Dominica’s crops have been devastated.
Dominica, one of the countries hit hardest by Hurricane Maria, has flown somewhat under the radar. The death toll there thus far is 40 times higher on a per-capita basis than in Puerto Rico. There are communities in Dominica that, two weeks later, have still not been reached and have received no aid. The agriculture sector, the heart of Dominica’s economy, has experienced “100 percent destruction,” according to the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency.

So we dedicate this week’s food column to the tiny island my family and I fell in love with last winter.

Dominica holds the highest density of volcanoes in the world but lacks the gleaming white beaches of its neighbors, so tourism plays a minor role in the economy. Food wise, it’s the ultimate locavore nation, and has been since long before eating local became trendy. While U.S. stores make a big deal of labeling local foods, in Dominica the opposite happens: Unless a food is labeled as an import, it’s assumed to be local, and shoppers I spoke with assume that paying more for imports that are less fresh, and of unknown provenance, is a bad deal.

The base of the Dominican food system is starchy plant parts, most of which grow underground. They are called “provisions,” and include taro root, manioc root, sweet potatoes and yucca. These can be stored in a shed without refrigeration, but reports indicate that the provisions still in the ground are difficult to find amidst fields strewn with debris. And the breadfruit, plantain, coconut and banana trees are gone.

One of the common talking points in support of local agriculture is that communities that feed themselves have greater food security, as they’re shielded from disruptions in the food distribution chain. But when you’re an island and a hurricane wipes out your agriculture system, imports start to sound pretty good. Clearly, there’s a place for global movement of food, while making the case for local food.

Dominica is the only nation with land set aside for the original inhabitants of the Caribbean islands. Barbecue, both the practice and the word itself, are products of the indigenous Carib Indians, also known as the Kalinago. Thanks to them, barbecue is revered island-wide, and Dominica typically resembles one large, mountainous drive-thru BBQ joint, with makeshift smokers fashioned from oil drums.

The jerk chicken and pork are awesome, but I’ll share instead a recipe for a charming Dominican drink called chocolate tea. It’s similar to hot chocolate, but lighter on cream and heavier on spices. It also contains cocoa butter, unlike the chocolate powder used to make cocoa. The main ingredient in cocoa tea is a minimally processed form of chocolate, in which cocoa nibs are ground and mixed with spices like nutmeg, cinnamon and Caribbean bay leaves (different from those common in the U.S.). The pressed, ground nibs and spices are called “cocoa stick” or “cocoa balls,” solid hunks of chocolaty goodness that can be found on many Caribbean islands or closer to home in import markets and online. Adventurous types can make their own.

Cocoa Tea: Bring to a boil 2 cups water with one ½-ounce cocoa stick, grated, and ½ teaspoon
vanilla. Reduce to simmer, and when the cocoa has dissolved, add 1 cup milk and sugar to taste. Raise your mug to the islands, and if inspired to do so, donate directly at dominicarelief.org.

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