The Caribbean island of Saint Martin -- light years away from Washington -- is a curious combination of French, Dutch and West Indian cuisine. Half Dutch and half French, the 36-square-mile island is a haven for American tourists with a penchant for sun bathing, beach combing and good eating.
If money is no object, meals can be had at the chic La Samanna resort, which prides itself on flying in delicacies from Paris. Other resorts and restaurants subscribe to a Miami shuttle -- a chartered plane that brings in American bagels, beef and ice cream tweice weekly. Native restaurateure shop at local supermarkets where goods imported from Puerto Rico, the United States, France and the Netherlands are sold.
A colorful open-air market in the small port of Marigot, the French capital, displays a myriad of tropical foods. Fishing and motor boats transport the fresh fruits and vegetables from the nearby isslands of Puerto Rico, Nevis, Dominica, Haiti, Guadaloupe and the Dominican Republic. People line up between 7 and 9 a.m. to greet the fishing boats bringing in langoustas (like our lobster but without claws) at $2 a kilo, fresh snapper and stone crabs. Why all this importation of food you may ask? Because nothing but a few bananas are grown on this tropical island.
When Saint Martin was first colonized by the French and the Dutch in the 17th century, a few sugar and cotton plantations were established by deforesting the land. Later people made money by working in salt ponds. But, to this day, few people grow anything and visitors and natives alike pay the high cost of imported foods.
The vegetables and fruits sold on the docks at Marigot and in local stores reflect the flavor of the surrounding islands. Bananas and plantains, a large member of the banana family which must be cooked before it is eaten, come from Santo Domingo. Plantains are either baked in the skin or fried in "sweet" (vegetable) oil. Fresh ginger, garlic, cinnamon bark, whole nutmeg and a gouquet garni of green onion, thyme, bay leaf and grlic for the natives' fish soup are among the spices sold on the docks.
Long lines await sacks of snap beans from Haiti. Kidney beans from Mexico or pigeon peas of African origin are soaked in water and cooked in a broth made from pig tails. Breadfruit, large green fruits which hang lantern-like from trees, tastes like potato when cooked. Cassava or manioc is a tropical vegetable with a long tuberous root covered with a brown, bark-like, rather hairy skin. Its white flesh is often grated, dried and made into flour.
Then there are small lavender and large dark purple eggplants as well as my favorite, Christophine, a delicate-tasting vegetable midway between eggplant and a squash with a white or light green prickly shell, are sold in the open marketplace but rarely tasted in tourist hotels or restaurants. Mangoes, papayas, grapefruit, coconuts, limes, prickly skinned lemons and, of course, pineapples are brought in from other tropical islands. These fruits taste wonderful fresh or in a fruit cup but can be also made into drinks, ice ceram or such sweets as coconup pies, mango pudding or key lime pie.
Saint Martin natives rely on the fresh tropical fish caught daily and live largely on a diet of red snapper, langouste, angel fish, mackerel, mullet, stone crabs, shrimps, turtle, calepeave (which tastes like salmon), conch (pronounced "conck"; it is a pink shellfish used in stews), cutlass and fresh tuna. Occasionally they eat local goat stew, as well as chicken, beef or pork. Pig tails are used for flavoring as Southern cooks in this country use salt pork.
Tourists rarely eat the native foods, however. The hotels tend to cater only to "sophisticated" Western tastes. One restaurant owner, for example, explained how difficult it was to teach native cooks about anchovies and artichokes. This person had never tasted a Christophine. Thus, as in all too many resort areas, one must wander from the beaten track to find the true ethnic cuisine.
A good target is the tiny French village of Grand Cas, located above Marigot. There are several small restaurants specializing in West Indian French creole cooking. A favorite is Chez Christophine, run by Christophine Knight, a woman who stands more than 6 feet, and her husband Wilmot.
Knight likes bright colors so she painted the wooden clapboard exterior herself using pink, green, yellow, red, blue and white stripes. The dozen or so tables in an open-porch setting are packed daily -- and with good reason. With her massive figure and slow, smiling face, Knight dominates her kitchen, a small garage-like building across the courtyard from the restaurant.
Knight's food represents a melange of cultures. Her repertoire includes Indian, French provincial and Creole. (Creole is basically the culinary result of the meeting of the techniques and raw materials of France and Spain, Africa and America.)
Her spicy stuffed crabbacks or land crabs are so tasty that for a time she was making them for the major French restaurants on the island. Her West Indian fried plantains are ripe enough to be soft and slightly sweet. Her pigeon peas and rice have the smoky taste of pork and her stuffed Christophine with breadcrumbs a vegetable dish worthy of her name.
But it is the fresh fish caught daily by her husband in the bay of Grand Cas that attracts the most attention. Broiled or creole-style lobsters, shrimp or crabs, turtle steak, conch stew with dumplings and green papaya cooked in a pungent dark Creole sauce may be on the menu. Or a diner may want to try cold or hot curried salads of fresh cooked lobsters, shrimp, crabmeat or tuna.
Knight has never been to a cooking school and confines herself only to those dishes with which she is familiar.
At the age of 5, she began observing Grand Cas' grande dame of cuisine, Madame Chance. For many years Madame Chance has invited people to her home (for a handsome price) where she prepares for them creole dishes and also runs the local Sunday lunches of conch and goat stew at the cock fights. Knight learned "everything she knows from Madame Chance" -- and went on from there.
The following are some of Christophine Knight's recipes, intended to bring a little bit of the Caribbean sunshine into Washington Kitchens.
SALADE DE POISSON A LA CHRISTOPHINE
(6 servings) 2 onions, sliced in rings 4 cloves garlic, crushed 1 sweet green pepper, sliced in rings 2 ribs celery, diced 4 tablespoons mayonnaise 1 teaspoon curry powder Chili powder to taste Seasoned salt to taste 1 pound cold cooked lobster, shrimp, crabmeat or tuna
Combine the onions, garlic, pepper and celery. Blend in the mayonnaise, curry powder, chili powder and seasoned salt. Add the fish, mix and adjust seasonings.
(RED SNAPPER CREOLE)
(6 servings) 1 whole red snapper (3 1/2 to 4 pounds) or 2 pounds of fillets 3 limes Salt and petter to taste 1/4 cup vegetable oil 3 large onions, coarsely chopped 2 ribs celery, chopped 4 cloves garlic, minced 1 green pepper, chopped 2 tomatoes, diced 1 cup water ot tomato juice 1 teaspoon curry powder or to taste
Have the fish cleaned but leave the head on. Reb with the juice of 1 of the limes and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Ser aside. In a heavy pan heat oil and saute the onions, celery, garlic and green pepper. Cook 3 to 4 minutes, or until the onions are transparent.
Add the tomatoes, water and curry powder. Bring to a boil and simmer 5 minites. Add the fish to the sauce. Cover and simmer fillets about 10 to 20 minutes or until the fish flakes easily when tested with a fork.
Just before serving stir in the juice of the remaining 2 limes.
Serve with rice and a green salad.
CHICKEN WING SOUP
(6 to 8 servings) 1 pound chicken wings, cut at the joints 4 large white potatoes, diced 2 large onions, roughly chopped 2 celery ribs, diced 3 cloves garlic, minced 6 cups water 2 cans (8 ounce size) vegetable soup Salt and pepper to taste
Place all the ingredients in a large pot. Bring to a boil, cover and simmer 45 minutes to an hour or until the chicken is tender. Adjust seasoning to taste.
Remove chicken, cool, remove meat from the bones and place back in the soup.
Reheat and serve.
(Fried Ripe Plantains)
(6 servings) 3 large ripe plantains (the skin should be black) Butter or vegetable oil for frying
Cut off the ends of the plantains, peel and cut diagonally. The pieces should be about 1/4 inch thick. Heat the butter or oil in a large heavy frying pan and saute the plantains until golden brown on both sides.
Drain on paper towels and serve immediately.