Above: Coconut tree in my backyard from which we have harvested fresh coconut.
I have to remind myself daily that I’m not living in the Caribbean because so much of my life now in North Miami echos back to when I lived in Santo Domingo. Sure, the infrastructure is way better — power stays on, regular water, the roads don’t have gaping holes that can take out a tire and when it rains the water has somewhere to drain into that isn’t clogged up with trash. But infrastructure has less to do with culture and more to do with the fact that the United States has more money than most Caribbean nations combined. The reality is that North Miami has an undercurrent which is so Caribbean it’s palpable, like a dream you carry with you the entire day and can’t shake. It’s only when I drive far out of the area that I can truly believe I am living in the United States.
“Mi barrio” (my neighborhood) is very residential. It borders on an area called Biscayne Park which is very nice. Most of my neighborhood is well maintained but there are a few blocks where trash is scattered and everything looks run down. The common core of this area is that 99% of the residents hail from the Caribbean: Haiti, Dominican Republic and Jamaica. Even the mayor is from Haiti. So it is no wonder that I feel like I’m back in the Dominican Republic.
Like in Santo Domingo, people are generally friendly and polite, family oriented and very religious. Compared to other schools in Miami, the kids in the elementary school my children attend are mostly well behaved, at least that is what I have been told. But appearances are deceiving in this neighborhood. There is a feeling of lawlessness, of coming apart at the seams, of never being 100% sure who or what you can trust. There is also a illogical way things are done, like when I informed the school that my children would be starting after school care, to make sure they got on the transfer bus okay. The school staff looked at me like I was crazy to tell them about it; after all, why should I think the school, who is responsible for my kids all day, should know where they need to be after school? Yes it is the combination of civility, discord and complete lack of common sense that really reminds me of Santo Domingo.
Oh but let’s not forget about the coconuts.
The coconut is the ultimate symbol of the tropics. From Asia to the Caribbean to Miami, anywhere the climate is tropical, coconuts grow. And the coconut, in all it’s forms from meat to milk to oil, is a key ingredient in tropical cuisine of many nations. So it is no wonder that in Miami, which a semi-domesticated cousin of the Caribbean, you can find coconuts growing everywhere and also a plethora of coconut foods.
Now if you are versed in food at all you know about ingredients such shredded sweetened coconut that is used in macaroons and frostings, coconut milk in a can for Thai food and coconut sorbet. You may even know about the recent popularity of coconut oil for frying and coconut milk in a carton as a substitute for cow’s milk. If you are really into cooking like I am, you may also be familiar with coconut powder and flour. But even I was unprepared for the range of coconut products that I have discovered in my neighborhood.
In my local market, aptly called “Presidente” (anyone who has been to the Dominican Republic knows that Presidente is the brand of beer most popular there. So much so that if you ask for “una fria” (a cold one) it is assumed that you mean a Presidente beer.) I have discovered that coconut milk doesn’t just come in the 13.5oz standard size cans I have always seen, but also in super-size 30oz cans and mini 6oz cans. Plus there are so many more brands of coconut milk than I’ve ever seen, including dehydrated coconut milk.
Coconut water that comes in soda cans is a popular beverage. Coconut bread, a Jamaican treat, is found in the bakery isle. Coconut-ginger toffee candy is really delicious. I found coconut frozen yogurt with dulce de leche (caramel) made by Publix, a flavor I never saw up in Northern Florida. There is many more products too: all sorts of coconut cookies, coconut sauces, coconut syrup, coconut with beans, with meat…down here it is coconut crazy.
There are plenty of other tropical flavors that come in all sorts of forms such as tamarind, a sour tropical fruit with a unique taste, which I can buy fresh, as candy, juice, paste and pulp. Malta is a popular Caribbean beverage made with, you guess it, malt, but unlike beer, malta is sweet and not alcoholic. There are many brands of malta, including one made by Publix that I have not seen elsewhere.
As a food lover and aspiring chef, it’s thrilling to find so many new ingredients and products. Here are a few more pics of food that I have found.