“Newfoundland?” my aunt apparently crowed upon hearing that I’d got a position here, “That’s where the batjauw comes from!” An uncle disagreed, saying that most of the batjauw – the Creole (Sranan) word for salt fish – came from Nova Scotia, Halifax to be precise. Archival records suggest that salt fish also came to Suriname from St. John, New Brunswick, and also, from Boston.
Salt fish is big in my mom’s side of the family. Alliances are made through salt fish: when my husband’s parent brought Faroese salt air-dried fish to our wedding, my Surinamese relatives congregated around it, snacking the night away. It wasn’t exactly batjauw, but it was certainly close, and they made the most of it.
And so it came to be that the palates of widely disparate worlds – Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Massachusetts, the Faroe Islands, and Suriname – came to be united through a single export product.
Salt fish isn’t something that ever figured in my diet as a child. But how could it, really? I spent most of my childhood in land-locked small town Alberta. And yet, for my mother and her siblings, salt fish was an experience – a flavour, a history, a memory – they shared. For my Newfoundland neighbours, too, it’s part of the part of the palate of identity; that is, a key element of shared stories and histories.
We first tasted Newfoundland salt cod two weeks after our arrival in St. John’s. It was Canada Day, 2008 and we’d planned a suitably full day of Canada Day festivities in this new place we would call home. Up to Signal Hill at 5:30 in the morning for the Sunrise Ceremony.
To the Confederation Building and the provincial celebrations in the early afternoon and then back up to Signal Hill again, to close things off. The Parks Canada Interpretive Centre at Signal Hill was busy with activity. While my older son – then six – learned how to gut fish using a wooden knife and quilted fish guts, we sampled a local chef’s Salt Cod in Cream Sauce and were instantly hooked. It’s a warm, satisfying comfort dish with potatoes, onions, salt cod, and cheese, all held together in a creamy sauce. The kids love it. We love it. It’s delicious. So delicious, in fact, that I’ve taken a photo of the recipe so you can make it yourselves.
Salt cod is integral to the economic and social histories of this place. Fisherpeople in small outport communities worked together to, in the words of Hilda Chaulk Murray, “[wrest] a living from the sea and land” (20). And wresting it was. According to Chaulk Murray, in the summers, fishermen would head out early in the morning. The women in the community, rising slightly later, would take on the shore aspects of the fishery. Together, the community worked to catch and “make” – or process – the fish for market.
First the fish was hauled in. Then it was cleaned out. And then it was “pickled” – dry salted. Then washed and cleaned as part of the curing process.
But while this all sounds simple and straightforward, it wasn’t. There were often several lots of fish on the go, each at a slightly different stage of the process. The weather, always fickle in Newfoundland, could make or break the fish. And the work itself was hard, back-breaking, and relentless. Women working on the shores had to be attentive to the local environment, to temperature, to sun, to wind, and to rain. Any one of these could affect the curing process (you can listen to Joseph Fitzgerald speaking about the whole process here and Laura Whiffen sharing her memories here). And making fish was not women’s only responsibility: Chaulk Murray observes that they were the primary tenders of gardens and berry pickers, too.
Once the fish was done, it was time to sell it to merchants in exchange for goods. The merchants, meanwhile, sent the fish on.
The good fish went to Europe, where it served the elite in countries like Portugal. The lower quality fish went to the West Indies where it formed a staple part of the slave diet. Even today, the Groot Surinaams Kookboek – a classic cookbook that features recipes from the various ethnic communities that call Suriname home – features numerous recipes with salt fish as a key ingredient.
But Surinamese salt fish, shaped by long histories of forced and voluntary migration, tastes very different from Newfoundland salt cod in cream sauce. My uncle shared his own recipe, as tangy, spicy and complex as the histories from which it emerged.
Take a look at the ingredients: ginger and garlic hearken to the east; pickled onions, meanwhile, suggest the need for preservation and perhaps, the realities of transporting of products across longer distances (it’s worth noting that one of my favourite Surinamese recipes – kippenpastei – also uses pickles… and canned vegetables).
So let’s pretend this is a cooking blog and I’ll show you how I did it.
I’ll start by telling you that the recipe calls for Madame Jeannette pepper. It’s a classic Surinamese hot pepper – and apparently one of the hottest peppers around – named after either a particularly violent slave owner or a brothel madame, or a famous urban prostitute, depending on which version of the story you want to believe. In any case, there’s a strong, tough, feisty woman – a “hot lady” – at the heart of this story. It’s also a “curvy” pepper, which may contribute to its gendering. (Below, two teenagers partake in the YouTube phenomenon known as the Madame Jeannette challenge)
But none of this matters when there is no Madame Jeannette, peppery or otherwise, to be had. Instead, I went with some cayenne that we had at home.
First, soak the salt fish to release the salt. Make sure you change the water at least twice over a 12-16 hour period. You could go for three times, too.
Drain the fish. Bring a pot of fresh water to the boil. Add the salt fish. Turn off the heat. Wait ten minutes. In the meantime, chop up one onion, a chunk of ginger and some garlic.
Drain the water. Flake the fish and dry it.
Add the fish and sauté a bit longer. When it’s done, add the pickled onion. As much or as little as you want.
Success? Pronounced delicious by our departmental administrator. Even the kids liked it.
Chaulk Murray, Hilda. More than 50%: Woman’s Life in a Newfoundland Outport. St. John’s: Flanker Press, 1979/2010.
Higgins, Jenny. “The Truck System.” http://www.heritage.nf.ca/articles/economy/truck-system.php.
The Rooms, “The Newfoundland Salt Fisheries: 450 Years of Making Fish.” in Newfoundland and Labrador Salt Fisheries Digital Exhibit http://www.therooms.ca/ic_sites/fisheries/main2.asp?frame=off
Photo credits: Sonja Boon
© Sonja Boon (firstname.lastname@example.org). September 2015