When it comes to Florida cuisine, the conversation starts with Norman Van Aken. The chef and author was among the first to realize the tropical food goldmine of the region, and his restaurants and cookbooks have had a huge influence.
Now the chef/owner of Norman’s at the Ritz-Carlton, Grande Lakes, Orlando and Director of Restaurants at Miami Culinary Institute, Van Aken is hard at work on his next book, My Key West Kitchen. Each week, he contributes to Food Republic with his Word On Food. He’s on Twitter: @normanvanaken.
Each year we do a summer dining “bargain program” with most of the restaurants in Miami, where I live. The polyglot ocean-hugging community is a far cry from the Midwest where I grew up. Perhaps that encouraged my curiosity toward the wild assortment of foods available to me here.
To keep it interesting in regards to this program we call “Miami Spice” — three courses for $39 in our case at Tuyo — we change the menu roughly every two weeks. We call them our Voyager Spice Menus. We are about to launch our Brazil menu. I wrote this three-courser starting with a classic dish called “acarajé.”
It’s originally a West African fritter made from black-eyed peas. There are various types with other names: bacalaitos, ubiquitous in Latin restaurants and homes, are members of the same family as accras in Trinidad, “stamp and go” in Jamaica and acrats de morue in the French Islands. Some have raising agents in their batter (like yeast or baking soda), some don’t. The basic idea seems to descend from a universal archetype, and that archetype seems to be West African fritters called accras.
As Raymond Sokolov says in his concise and brilliant book, Why Eat What We Eat, “The fritter vocabulary of the Caribbean is immense, unprecedented in Europe and certainly Spain where the idea is mostly limited to desserts. But in the French islands one finds fritters based on taro, hearts of palm, chayote, breadfruit, pumpkin, black‑eyed peas, minnows, crayfish and of course, salt cod.”
I cooked in Key West for almost 20 years. Conch fritters could have certainly been called conch accras, but the largely English-speaking Bahamians chose a word easier for them of course. Kind of how Jerez became Sherry. But that is another Word on Food.
New World cuisine draws on influences from a variety of places: Cuba and the Caribbean at large, Central and South America, and here with accras, we have the traditions and flavors of Africa. In our upcoming book we do them as they are called there: bollos. You almost have to love language as much as you do food to truly ride this caravan!
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