Tropical recipes from Islas | National Post

Documentarian and food historian Von Diaz shares lessons in resilient cooking from the Indian, Atlantic and Pacific Ocean islands

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Our cookbook of the week is Islas: A Celebration of Tropical Cooking by Emmy Award-winning documentarian and food historian Von Diaz.

Jump to the recipes: Kelaguen uhang (citrus-marinated shrimp with coconut), cucumber, mango and pineapple salad with tamarind and chili, and poulet boucané (sugarcane smoked chicken).

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The idea for Islas was born in Von Diaz‘s North Carolina backyard. Building a fire, getting ready to grill some meat she had marinated, it came to her. She would centre her ode to tropical cooking on ancestral techniques, ranging from spicy, citrusy marinades such as kelaguen (“as much a technique as it is a dish”) to more complex banana leaf-wrapped parcels of stuffed fish, pork and slow-cooked duck.

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At the beginning of her research, the Emmy Award-winning documentarian, food historian and author theorized that islanders across oceans cook similarly because they cook under similar conditions.

Storms sweep across tropical islands, disrupting access to power and resources. Besides the shared environmental disturbances, many islands have been colonized and have “precarious” government systems. Sometimes, these complex relationships dictate the flow of ingredients in and out of the islands. Diaz didn’t know this would be true at the outset of Islas, but nearly all the islands she studied import most of their food.

“Not only do we have the material conditions of the storm-prone area, like, ‘My refrigerator isn’t working, so I have to figure that out, and my stove isn’t working. I have no microwave. I can’t get gas for my car.’ But then there’s also a lack of access to ingredients and a reliance on shelf-stable food, so canned vegetables, canned meat, pasta, dried beans, sauces, dry condiments, preserved things, vinegar-based sauces and things of that nature. And so, fairly quickly, I would say within a month’s time, between my ‘A-ha!’ moment and actually starting to dig into research, I found enough examples to prove my theory.”

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Diaz was born in Puerto Rico to Puerto Rican parents but spent most of her childhood and adolescence in Georgia after her father joined the U.S. military. As a child, she often travelled back and forth to Puerto Rico, sometimes spending entire summers there with her grandmother and cousin. She has “rich, vibrant, prescient memories” of the Caribbean island and has always followed what’s happening there from afar.

As soon as hurricane season started each June, her family went on alert, glued to the news to see if a storm would emerge. If one did, they called her grandmother to make sure she had everything she needed.

“Once, she called us from inside the closet to let us know that she had gotten all her stuff and gotten in there. But this is life for islanders — climate change or not. It’s been life for islanders for thousands of years. But we know that storm systems are worsening and becoming increasingly unpredictable. And they’re unpredictable in terms of timing. They’re also unpredictable in terms of strength. And we’re also seeing that the cumulative effects of climate change — droughts, coastal erosion, all of these different factors — are leading to different impacts from storms.”

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Now based in Durham, N.C., Diaz works full-time as a senior producer for StoryCorps, “the largest single collection of human voices ever gathered.” The recordings are part of the U.S. Library of Congress archive, and the stories are broadcast weekly on NPR.

Islas book cover
Islas: A Celebration of Tropical Cooking is Von Diaz’s follow-up to her 2018 culinary memoir, Coconuts and Collards: Recipes and Stories from Puerto Rico to the Deep South. Photo by Chronicle Books

As an oral historian, Diaz dedicates her work to everyday people, especially in communities “we don’t often hear from or don’t hear from enough.” She took the same scholarly approach in Islas, the follow-up to her 2018 culinary memoir tracing her Puerto Rican roots and Deep South upbringing, Coconuts and Collards.

In Islas, Diaz shares lessons in resilient cooking from the Indian, Atlantic and Pacific Ocean islands. She highlights the techniques and ingredients that define island cuisine and profiles food business owners, farmers, and regular citizens who have lived there their entire lives.

Chapters centre on marinating, pickling and fermentation, braising and stewing, frying, grilling, roasting and smoking, steaming and in-ground cooking. They also spotlight life in Guam, Seychelles, Madagascar, Curaçao, Puerto Rico and Vanuatu. Diaz highlights that while these tropical islands are tourist destinations for most of the world, living there is an entirely different experience — one often glossed over by visitors.

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“Being from one of those places — Puerto Rico is incredibly heavily touristed — I know that the perception of the island from the tourists does not match the reality of the lives of people there,” says Diaz. “So I engaged in this book with a deep desire to capture and share these histories, these details of culture, the beauty of the places and the beauty as received by the islanders. We also think it’s beautiful. We understand why people come to visit them. They’re beautiful places, and we love them, too. And also, with this lifetime of knowledge of what the storms do to communities and infrastructure, and how much they disrupt people’s lives.”

Diaz wasn’t sure she wanted to write another cookbook after Coconuts and Collards. She loves being a journalist, learning new things and cooking — “but cookbooks are a big lift.” Diaz resolved the vast scope of Islas by building “my little village,” collaborating with culinary specialists Brigid Washington and Jenn de la Vega to develop the book’s 125 recipes. Five photographers, including Lauren Vied Allen (recipe photography), Cybelle Codish (location photography, photo curation, editing and location scouting), and Rija Ramamonjy (Madagascar photography), contributed imagery.

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Early in the process, Diaz realized she was uniquely suited to telling the stories in Islas. She has an undergraduate degree in women’s studies, a master’s in journalism and Latin American and Caribbean studies, and is from an island. “Part of me believes and wants to empower the idea that we are unique beings, and sometimes, we have totally unique ways of seeing things. Once I’d checked all my boxes, then it felt like my responsibility to write it.”

Diaz hopes that visitors to tropical islands will read Islas before they go to learn not just about the dishes and foodways but also about the conditions, cultures and societies that people live in. “My dream is that this book becomes a resource for people to come to really value and respect island communities. Because in this environmentally changing world, I believe they have the tools, the techniques and also the emotional resiliency that we all need to survive and thrive.”

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Kelaguen uhang (citrus-marinated shrimp with coconut)
“This is one of my absolute favourite recipes in the book. In part, because it is so simple and fresh,” Von Diaz says of kelaguen uhang (citrus-marinated shrimp with coconut), a technique as much as a dish. Photo by Lauren Vied Allen

Citrus-Marinated Shrimp with Coconut

Island: Guam
| Yield: 4 to 6 servings | Active time: 30 minutes | Total time: 1 hour 35 minutes

1 1/2 lb (680 g) fresh shrimp, peeled and deveined
2 cups (170 g) finely grated unsweetened coconut
1 cup (48 g) thinly sliced green onions, white and green parts
1/2 cup (120 mL) fresh lemon juice, plus more as needed
3 red bird’s eye chilies, stemmed, seeded if desired to mitigate spiciness, and minced (optional)
1/2 tsp kosher salt, plus more as needed
Steamed white rice, tortillas or tostadas, for serving

Step 1

Bring 4 cups (945 mL) of water to a boil in a pot or kettle.

Step 2

Meanwhile, finely chop the shrimp into small pieces.

Step 3

Once the water is boiling, transfer the shrimp to a fine-mesh sieve, then pour the boiling water over the shrimp, shaking the sieve to ensure the shrimp are evenly heated. Shake a few times and let drain.

Step 4

In a large nonreactive mixing bowl, combine the coconut, green onions, lemon juice, chilies (if using) and salt. Add the shrimp and toss well. Cover and transfer to the refrigerator. Chill for at least 1 hour before serving.

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Step 5

Toss again and add more salt or lemon juice as needed. Serve with steamed rice, tortillas or on a tostada. Kelaguen uhang will keep in the refrigerator for several days.


Cucumber, mango and pineapple salad with tamarind and chili
Von Diaz appreciates the adaptability of this tangy, tropical salad. You can replace the mango with peaches or nectarines or the pineapple with guava. Photo by Lauren Vied Allen

Island: Mauritius |
Yield: 6 to 8 servings | Active time: 15 minutes
| Total time: 1 hour 15 minutes

1 red bird’s eye chili, stemmed and thinly sliced (see tips)
1 tbsp kosher salt
1 tsp light brown sugar or honey
2 tsp tamarind pulp or paste
1 large cucumber, peeled, seeded and chopped
1 ripe mango, peeled, pitted and chopped
1 large pineapple, peeled, cored and chopped
Fresh finely chopped mint or cilantro leaves, for serving (optional)

Step 1

Using a mortar and pestle, grind the chili and salt together.

Step 2

In small bowl, combine the brown sugar and tamarind pulp, mixing well with a fork until the sugar is mostly dissolved.

Step 3

In a large nonreactive mixing bowl, combine the cucumber, mango, and pineapple and toss well.

Step 4

Sprinkle the chili salt over the fruit, then add the tamarind mixture. Toss well to fully incorporate. Cover and let it sit in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour before serving. Add finely chopped fresh mint or cilantro leaves before serving for a more savoury approach. This salad will keep for 3 to 4 days in the refrigerator.

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Tips: This salad is very adaptable. You can finely dice, coarsely chop, or even slice the fruit, depending on how you want it to look. The overall flavour will be the same, but a smaller dice allows the fruit to soak up more tamarind flavour.

If you have trouble sourcing fresh chilies, substitute crushed red pepper flakes.

For a stronger tamarind flavour, use tamarind paste.

Jicama is a great addition or substitution for cucumber.


Poulet boucané (sugarcane smoked chicken)
“This is one of those traditional dishes that people make all over the island, at roadside stands, in their homes with endless variations,” Von Diaz says of Martinique’s poulet boucané (sugarcane smoked chicken). Photo by Lauren Vied Allen

Sugarcane Smoked Chicken

Island: Martinique
| Yield: 4 servings
| Active time: 30 minutes | Total time: At least 2 hours 30 minutes

One 4 lb (1.8 kg) whole chicken, spatchcocked
6 large garlic cloves, minced
2 green onions, white and green parts, chopped
1 yellow onion, minced
2 or 3 red bird’s eye chilies, stemmed, seeded if desired to mitigate spiciness, and chopped
1 tsp ground allspice
1/4 cup (15 g) chopped fresh thyme sprigs
2 tbsp kosher salt
1/4 tsp freshly cracked black pepper
1/2 cup (120 mL) fresh lime juice
1/2 cup (120 mL) white rum
Three 7 in (17 cm) pieces fresh sugarcane (see tips)

Sauce chien:
2 tbsp chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
2 small garlic cloves, minced
1 small red bird’s eye chili, seeded if desired to mitigate spiciness
1 green onion, white and green parts, minced
1 small shallot, minced
1/4 cup (60 mL) fresh lime juice
1/4 cup (60 mL) olive oil
1/4 cup (60 mL) warm water
1 tsp kosher salt, plus more as needed
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper

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Step 1

To make the chicken: Pat the chicken dry with paper towels, remove bone shards if needed, and score the chicken breast, thighs, and legs through the skin. Transfer the chicken to an extra-large resealable bag or a container with a lid.

Step 2

In a medium nonreactive mixing bowl, combine the garlic, green onions, yellow onion, chilies, allspice, thyme, salt, pepper, lime juice, and rum and blend with a fork. Alternatively, grind the marinade ingredients in a food processor.

Step 3

Pour the marinade over the chicken, then toss well and massage to evenly coat. Marinate for at least 1 hour at room temperature or in the refrigerator overnight.

Step 4

When ready to cook, heat a grill to 450F (230C).

Step 5

Meanwhile, prepare the sugarcane by rinsing, then drying it well. Using a cleaver or other heavy knife (a machete or hatchet will do), cut the sugarcane pieces in half by holding the sugarcane upright on a cutting board, and carefully inserting the centre of the knife through the centre of the cane. Then, use your other hand to push the blade through, carefully banging your palm down on the top of the knife if needed.

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Step 6

To make the sauce chien: In a 1 pt (475 mL) jar with a lid, combine the parsley, garlic, chili, green onion, shallot, lime juice, olive oil, water, salt and pepper. Tighten the lid and shake vigorously to combine.

Step 7

Once the grill reaches the desired temperature, place a 10-by-12 in (25-by-30.5 cm) grill basket over a large baking sheet. Lay the sugarcane pieces on the sheet, cut-side up. Carefully transfer the chicken from the marinade to the sugarcane, breast-side up. Close the lid of the basket and secure the latch, using an additional clamp if needed.

Step 8

Place the basket on the grill and roast for 30 to 45 minutes, turning and basting every 5 to 7 minutes to cook evenly, ensuring you cook off the marinade (see tips). Remove the basket from the grill and set over a clean rimmed baking sheet. Loosely tent with foil and let rest for 7 to 10 minutes, then remove the chicken from the basket. Transfer it to a cutting board and chop into eight pieces with a sharp cleaver, pouring over any reserved juices from the baking sheet. Serve with sauce chien on the side.

Tips: Sugarcane can be difficult to source. Lemongrass is a good substitute, or you can omit this ingredient altogether. If the chicken starts to get too dark or burn in places, remove it from the grill basket, place it on a baking sheet, and finish in a 350F (180C) oven until the thickest part of the breast has reached 165F (74C), likely another 10 to 20 minutes.

Recipes and images excerpted from Islas: A Celebration of Tropical Cooking by Von Diaz. Copyright ©2023 Von Diaz. Published by Chronicle Books. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

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