I buried my face in (my fifth) deliciously chilled, eucalyptus-scented towel. As the self-pampering wiped away the effects of my flight, I took a look outside the car: Brightly colored houses zoomed by, blurring with makeshift roadside grills billowing with smoke. We stopped at the top of an inclines called Timothy Hill. Down below, the road continued in a long sloping "S" through an ever-thinning strip of land. On one side, the choppy waters of the Atlantic Ocean lapped against the shore, and on the other lay the peaceful, almost glossy, aqua waters of the Caribbean. As I would soon learn, this dichotomous landscape would serve as a metaphor for my experience here—the island of St. Kitts.
The Caribbean, in its scattered vastness, has always had a magnetic pull on me, definitely supported by a childhood obsession with pirates and tales of shipwrecks. As you pinch into the map, seemingly thousands of smaller islands appear, more than could possibly end up in dreamy travel brochures. St. Kitts felt like one of those places. I was here to immerse myself in its food and culture, hoping along the way to learn what makes it tick—and understand more about the Caribbean as a whole.
As I checked into the newly opened Park Hyatt (the home base for my explorations), a crab idled past me on its stilt-like claws. I looked around at the stonework maze of aqueducts, glimmering pools and, of course, a pristine beach with wind-bent palm trees. .The hotel is situated on a cozy cove facing the island of Nevis, St. Kitts' little sibling. On my way out to the capital, Basseterre, I spotted the chef, Pankaj Bisht, trying to float a breakfast-in-bed tray in a pool like a kid floating a toy ship in a bathtub. I didn't have time to ask.
"There are more monkeys here than people," my driver Alvin pointed out as we rocketed along in our van, speaking in a patois as fast as he drove. As we entered town, we passed a bunch of guys standing around a bridge, almost as if they were posing. I asked Alvin about the crowd, and he said. "no man, they just be cooling." Man, I thought to myself, I could cool it for hours here. But moments later, I got out into a throng of people definitely not cooling it: Dancing was in full effect by the market, for no other reason than it was Saturday. I made my way over to a minivan mobbed with people, where Nigel, who was running the show, started handing out foil wrapped packages.
"The ones with a point are with egg," he said as people scrambled to grab one. I watched as Nigel made one for me. He opened a large aluminum pot sitting on his back seat of his van and scooped out a kind of saltfish ragu cooked with tomato and onion, spread it on a split baguette and then sliced hard boiled egg on top. It was delicious, and something much more than just a sandwich: an ancient coming-together of Spanish (the saltfish, or bacalao) and French (the bread) foods, evoking old trade routes and colonial times. "I've been doing this for 23 years," Nigel said. "What you having now is what we been having then."
The local food was shaping up to be full of timeless mashups. Around the corner from the center of town, I found a place called No Sleep. There I met the owner, Jennifer Taylor, who lives upstairs and cooks downstairs. She's famous for her cook-up, which is like a biryani or pilaf—fluffy grains of rice cooked with whatever the chef has on hand. "You got pig foot, bull foot, rice, peas…," she said counting the items on her fingers. "Chicken, three types: back, neck and wing—and pig snout, pig tail…" Spiced and aromatic, it again seemed to represent many places at once—Africa, India, China—while still managing to sum up the here and now. I added a little mango hot sauce to mine at her suggestion. But why was the place called "No Sleep"? "I only sleep from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m," she explained with a weary smile. "You have to get up to be paid."
Back at the Park Hyatt, I met with Chef Pankaj. I immediately asked him what he was up to with the breakfast tray, but he only smiled and said, "You'll see." He's a native of India who grew up in Australia and has spent his life cooking around the world, yet he's no stranger to the island's culinary mashups. He had something similar in store for dinner that night, as he had arranged to have a dish from each of the countries his cooks are from: one dish each from India, Canada, Mexico and, of course, St. Kitts. There was a deconstructed sweet potato samosa with chicken tikka roulade, salmon with sweet elote sauce and a variation on pork schnitzel, but my favorite was the goat water. It's a goat (or mutton) stew flavored with papaya and cumin that's a specialty of St. Kitts. It was prepared by Chef Telsa Johnson, a native Kittitian, who explained that it's usually only available on Fridays and Saturdays, as it's expensive, long cooking and, well, just special. Which indeed, it was.
Early the next morning, there was a knock at the door. I drowsily opened it to find Pankaj and a mini procession of chefs with the floating breakfast I spotted earlier, a soon-to-launch service that he wanted to test-run on me. I happily obliged to my role as a guinea pig.
The breakfast was splendid, but Pankaj is up to a lot more here than just dreaming up such luxe offerings. A year ago, when he first came to the island, he noticed the divide between the local and hotel cultures and wanted to bridge the gap. In one of his first moves, he helped Alvin Vasquez, a roadside egg seller, convert his operation into a thriving free range chicken and egg business in a matter of months. "Pankaj told me that he'd buy all my eggs if I took my chickens out of their cages and let them roam around," Vasquez who is a former police inspector and now the owner of T & T Chicken Farm, explained. "So I did. Now the eggs are not only larger, but the yolks have gone from a pale yellow to a deep orange!" He has 1,600 chickens laying 1,100 eggs a day and has hired more people to keep up with business. But this was something beyond an act of goodwill and purchasing power. As I watched Vasquez and Pankaj enthusiastically talk to each other, it was obvious that they shared an understanding of one another's lives and how they blend together as part of the island's harmony.
Later that day, in the fishing village of Dieppe, I found myself standing next to a pile of fish—with a few spiny lobsters thrown in—that would have left Captain Nemo in awe. Their varied colors were glinting in the afternoon sun. I picked up a fish the color of a blue Slurpee—I didn't know this color existed in nature—and asked one of the fishermen if (and how) people eat it. "Yeah man," he said with a laugh. "This is a blue ducktail, a tasty fish. We slash it on its sides and fry it up."
After seeing them in Dieppe, I asked Chef Telsa if I could watch him prepare a spiny lobster. He pulled one out of the water at the end of the hotel's dock, split it and grilled it over a large fire. "We brush these down with herbs and garlic," he said. Looking over the water, I recalled the scene at Timothy Hill, and was reminded of how the division of the waters made it feel like I was standing aside two worlds. But despite the divide, they seemed to be working hand in hand: the dreamy resort and the true local culture. I certainly didn't mind a touch of Jimmy Buffett here and there, but I was also I didn't have to waste away there.
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