Interview with Tropical Foodies

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Winter is coming. Thankfully that does not mean you can’t add a little heat and spice to life. The best way to introduce a little tropical flare to your life is to check out our community’s pick for the #5 best food blog of 2011; Tropical Foodies.  Why do people love this blog so much? It is run by friends, between West Africa and the Caribbean background who are extremely passionate about the food of their countries. We chatted up with Linda, one of the five friends that bring us respite from the cold.

FriendsEAT:  Linda, this is a joint effort between friends. Tell me about how you met and how you decided to start the blog.

Linda:  We all spent parts of our childhood in Cote d’Ivoire. I remember being invited to Gen’s house and trying all sorts of delicious Haitian dishes made with ingredients local to Cote d’Ivoire. When I first had the idea of the blog, I immediately thought of contacting her as I knew she shared my passion for food and she would bring in with her knowledge of Caribbean cuisine, focus and dedication. Elodie is my sister and greatest supporter. We can talk about food for hours, especially the one our Grandmother used to make, or those palm oil plantain fritters that can only be bought in a spot near the beach in Bassam, the former capital of Cote d’Ivoire. Only insiders know about the small stall. The fritters are served in banana leaves and are just divine, but I digress… Maryse and Karine are Gen’s sisters and they wanted to contribute as well.

The idea of starting the blog stemmed from two series of events. First, growing up on Ivorian cuisine, which I think is one of the best in the worlds and then moving to the US, whenever I proclaimed my love for my home’s food, people responded with blank stares, indubitably followed by: “What is food in Cote d’Ivoire like?” There is no simple answer to that question as the food is really diverse and the ingredients virtually unknown in the US, so I often found myself mumbling an unintelligible answer instead of describing the richness, flavors and abundance of Ivorian cuisine.  The second series of events are travels to Latin America, South India, where I discovered entirely new ways of preparing the ingredients I grew up eating. I thought that was amazing, I really had no idea that you could make so many different things with plantains. I was hooked.  I started hatching up a plan for the blog as I wanted to introduce tropical foods and ingredients to the world and thought of who would want to embark on the journey with me. Tropical Foodies was born.

FE: How do the five of you go about organizing who will take care of what? Does it get easier or harder with five people?

Linda: We spent a lot of time on preparation upfront before we even launched the blog, so we knew how things would work and who would be in charge of what. For example, Elodie does most of the linking on the site, I am the “IT person,” Gen and Maryse bring in their expertise on food allergies and Karine does a lot of editing.  We all write posts. Planning was an essential step. Now, it’s more about sharing the recipes we are the most familiar with and the new fascinating ones we find.  If one of us has a recipe that she wants to share, she just goes ahead with writing the post, taking a visually appealing shot, and it gets into the pipeline. It’s all fairly seamless and it’s been a great adventure so far.

FE: What do you see as the biggest obstacle to mainstreaming tropical cuisine in the US?

Linda: Well, I think the biggest obstacle is the lack of knowledge on tropical cuisine and that is the gap Tropical Foodies wants to fill. Tropical cuisine is delicious, the ingredients varied and flavorful and the recipes are usually very simple. I think people are just not aware of how accessible all of this is and hopefully Tropical Foodies will change that.

The other thing is that you don’t see as many Ivorian restaurants, Costa Rican or Haitian restaurants as you see French, Italian or Chinese. The Thai food served in most restaurants has been adapted to Western taste buds and often doesn’t feature many tropical ingredients, if any.

FE: What is the biggest misconception people have about tropical cuisine?

Linda: haha, it really goes two ways. Either people think spicy and hot or they think coconut and pineapple. It’s quite a nightmare actually! I want to tell people all about the steamy shrimp tomato stews, or djon djon rice of our childhoods, the fufu and eggplant soups, the grilled fish, chicken, and avocado shrimps from the seaside restaurants.  I honestly don’t think I ate anything spicy growing up until I got a taste for it after I moved to the US, because a lot of the food was so bland here, and in Cote d’Ivoire, pineapple and coconuts are mostly served as desserts, reality couldn’t be further from those misconceptions.

FE: Out of the five of you, who would you say is the most food obsessed?

Linda: This is the most difficult question you’ve asked me so far! I guess I would say, it depends on the food! Gen loves her chocolate and so does Karine! I have a plantain obsession which Tropical Foodies has allowed me to feed beyond my wildest desires. Elodie and Maryse are “generalists,” they just love good food!

FE: When you started, who did you think your audience would be and who is it now?

Linda: Our tagline is “Introducing tropical foods and tropical ingredients to the world!” so I guess we are quite ambitious and hoping to capture the whole world as an audience. That hasn’t changed, but I would say the focus is now on foodies first (such as the FriendsEAT community), as they would be the ones to either want to discover new recipes with new ingredients or new ways to prepare ingredients they are familiar with and hopefully they will share all the goodness around them.

FE: What are three amazing tropical/Caribbean restaurants that you would recommend?

Linda: Going back to my earlier point about why tropical cuisine is not well known, there are not that many great places with authentic food. Although tropical by definition, I am not including Thai or Vietnamese restaurants in the mix as they are fairly mainstream and do not often showcase the tropical ingredients on which Tropical Foodies  focuses.  A place I have been dying to try is the Patacon  (Venezuela) truck in Washington heights, I have heard great things. I also go to a place called les Ambassades in Harlem for their lamb chops with alloco (fried plantains or maduros) or their grilled fish with attieke (cassava couscous).  Their menu is a bit confusing as they serve a bit of everything, but those two dishes from Cote d’Ivoire/Senegal don’t disappoint. Thirdly, I haven’t been there in a while but Papaye diner in the Bronx has a fair selection of Ghanaian dishes including palm nut soup and fried yams.

FE: And your favorite ingredient?

Linda: Plantains hands-down. There are so versatile. You can use them at all stages of ripeness and make so many delicious recipes! Chocolate is another one, it is the quintessential tropical ingredient as cocoa only grows in the tropics, within a limited distance of the equator…

FE: What’s the feeling around the office about foodtertainment?

Linda:  I think we mostly see food shows as a way to learn about new ingredients, flavors and also a way to understand what attracts people to specific kind of foods. It’s necessary when trying to bring ingredients into the mainstream. I am always so excited when I see plantains featured on a show! However, the real entertainment is that of our tastebuds when we try new recipes, and share them with friends. Nothing can beat that!

FE: Where do you see Tropical Foodies in five years?

Linda: We want to be the reference in terms of tropical foods in the web, have our own database of recipes, so that anyone looking for a tropical recipe they have heard of, or for new ways to make ingredients they know, immediately come to visit our website.  If 5 years from now, I tell someone I meet in the US, that I love Ivorian food, I want them to reply, not with a blank stare, but with an exclamation: “I do too, you know, there is this wonderful blog Tropical Foodies, where you can find great recipes using tropical ingredients!”

FE: I’d love it if you would share a recipe to introduce even the most timid eater to tropical cuisine.

Linda:Of course.  The recipe for attieke or cassava/tapioca couscous

Ingredients (serves 1)

  • 2 cups of attieke (fresh or warmed up)
  • 1/2 boiled or steamed chicken breast (optional), diced
  • 1/2 cup ready-to-eat green peas
  • 1/2 cup diced tomatoes
  • 1 tbsp finely chopped onions
  • 1 tbsp finely chopped scallions
  • 6 tbsp vegetable oil, 2 tbsp vinegar, salt and pepper (for the vinaigrette)

Cooking instructions

  • Mix the oil and vinegar in a small bowl or a shaker to make the vinaigrette.  Add salt and pepper to taste
  • In a separate, bigger bowl, combine all the other ingredients
  • Add the vinaigrette and mix well
  • Serve

FE: Is there anything else you would like to tell the community about the blog? 

Linda: Tropical ingredients are a great way to enrich your diet even more so when you have certain dietary restrictions (celiac disease, lactose intolerance) or you are a vegetarian. They are accessible, on the cheap side and absolutely delicious.

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Blanca Valbuena
I am one of the co-founders of FriendsEAT. Obviously, I love to eat. Other passions include A Song of Ice and Fire, Shakespeare, Dostoyevski, and Aldous Huxley.
Blanca Valbuena
Blanca Valbuena

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