Here is the fifth installment of my investigation of Dominican racial identity, through the lens of their cuisine. If you haven’t already read the first three entries, click here for #1, here for #2, here for #3, and here for #4!
Rice and beans is arguably the biggest staple in Dominican cuisine. Arroz y moro, as it is usually called, was served at every lunch in my DR experience. Moro is usually made with habichuelas or kidney beans, however variations do exist, including guandules (pigeon peas) or caupí (black eyed peas). These two beans trace their origins back to Africa and are found in many traditional West African dishes. The name guandules comes from the Kikongo (or Congolese) word wandu, while caupí is probably an adoption from the English word “cowpea.”
Rice, another filling and economic source of nutrition, is now grown directly in the Dominican Republic, but this was not always the case. Based on research by The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “the African species of rice was cultivated long before Europeans arrived in the continent.” It was these European slave traders that brought rice to the Caribbean. Therefore, Dominicans didn’t necessarily know what to do with this carbohydrate, and learned how to prepare rice from the slaves living on Hispaniola. Moro, a bean stew served alongside rice, has West African roots in dishes like Red-Red from Ghana, and Ewa Dodo, from Nigeria.
Another influence of West African cooking on Dominican cuisine can be seen in the vegetables used. Both Dominican and West African cooking doesn’t rely heavily on vegetables, since they are harder to grow and can be more expensive than things like rice and potatoes. In West Africa, as was my experience in the DR, “you will readily find fresh vegetables at the market [but] you’re not likely to be served a big side of them. Starchy vegetables and legumes–such as peas, corn and beans–often accompany already carbohydrate-heavy rice dishes.” I was lucky that my host mother also enjoyed salad, so I got to eat some lettuce every so often. However, for the most part, vegetables were pretty scarce in my diet during my stay in the DR. A typical lunch plate looked like this:
Meat was another food that was not served in abundance, like rice. While there was some sort of meat or fish at every lunch in my host house, the portions were minuscule compared to what we’re used to in the US. The most common meat served was chicken; only occasionally did my host mom prepared beef, goat or fish. This aligns with West African cooking traditions: “Beef is relatively rare in West Africa, as cattle is expensive. […] Chicken, goat and pork are more popular.” Being that both were (and still are) developing countries, it makes sense that rice and beans would be the more stable source of protein than meat, which can be expensive and hard to come by.
Finally, I wanted to explore the similarities in spices used, which I think can tell us a lot about the relationship between the two styles of cooking. I chose to look at the history of 2 spices and 1 herb, and their journeys to the Caribbean:
- Cinnamon: This spice is commonly used in both Dominican and West African foods, sweet and savory. Cinnamon was originally diffused in the word by Arab travelers but dates back to the times of Ancient Egypt. However, “Christopher Columbus wrote to Queen Isabella, claiming he had found cinnamon and rhubarb in the New World, but when he sent samples of his findings back home, it was discovered that the spice was not, in fact, the coveted cinnamon.” Therefore, I would guess that the cinnamon currently used in both styles of cooking was diffused through the slave trade between West Africa and the island of Hispaniola.
- Cloves: Cloves were treasured as a spice as far back as the Ancient Roman Empire. However it was the Dutch that were responsible for controlling and diffusing the spice in the 17th century; cloves then probably arrived in Africa with the Portuguese (who worked closely with the Dutch during those years). From there, they made their way to the Caribbean with slave European slave traders. Now it is commonly used in Dominican desserts or found ground in a spice mix for savory dishes.
- Cilantro: Regardless of your feelings on cilantro, it’s hard to deny its impact on the culinary world. Cilantro has been around since Ancient Egypt and was “introduced to the Americas by Europeans in the 1600s.” However, prior to this, I would imagine it was probably used all over Africa since it was so popular in Ancient Egypt and Northern Africa. This raises the probability that Cilantro was diffused in the Caribbean because of the slave trade.