Every April, the Bronx's Garifuna (plural: Garinagu) community gathers in Mott Haven to celebrate the arrival of their ancestors in Honduras. Exiled by the British from their adopted home of St. Vincent to the infertile island of Roatán, they were brought to the Central American mainland by the Spanish. Now New York has one of the hemisphere's largest Garinagu populations.
The Garinagu are one of the America's cultures of resistance, their ancestry a mix of West Africans—abducted but never enslaved, due to shipwreck—and the Carib and Arawak native to St. Vincent. Their West African heritage figures strongly into their their culture and cooking, which emphasizes ingredients including plantains (mashed as in West Africa), yucca (a symbolic foodstuff for its role in their survival after exile), fish, and coconut. Important dishes include ereba (cassava bread), tapou (fish, green banana and root vegetable stew), and dabuledu (a sort of fudge made of coconut flesh, ginger, and sugar), and cassava porridge with coconut bread.
The Bronx is, as I have written, reportedly home to the largest population of Garinagu outside Central America. But despite the large population, there are no restaurants serving the cuisine. There are street vendors, unadvertised and serving a communal rather than commercial function, but, really, only two opportunities a year to sit down and enjoy the cuisine: the annual Central American Festival and Garifuna Day from a couple weeks ago.
You won't find a bounty of dishes there, as at Astoria's Indonesian Bazaar. In fact, you'll find just two to satisfy your savory tooth: a plate of rice and beans, which delighted the strangers at my table, and the iconic soup known as hudutu. But given the rarity of Garifuna food, and the soul-invigorating quality of the soup, the hudutu is worth coming out for alone.
Hudutu, also called machuca, is a soup of coconut milk and seafood. Here you'll find shrimp, conch, and fish. The broth will be familiar to anyone who dabbles in Thai food, though there's zero heat and a different (but no less tantalizing) kind of complexity than you find in a curry or tom yum. Sprigs of cilantro offer some herbal punch, but the dominant flavor is that of the rich and soothing coconut milk.
On the side you'll get a foil-wrapped mass of boiled and mashed plantains. Both the method (mashing a starch) and means (a wooden mortar and elongated pestle) are loaned from West Africa, but you won't get a fufu-like paste. Follow the example of your fellow diners, and plop the mash into the soup. Rip off chunks and dip them into soup. Then, eat. You'll likely only make it half-way through the plantain.
Though there's only a pair of savory dishes, you'll find plenty of sweets. Although Dave Cook, who told me about the event, has written of a pair of tables, by the time I arrived, just after 2 p.m., there was only one vendor. The sweets and breads at this table are produced by the pastor's wife, and I bought a sample of all she had to offer: banana bread, arroz dulce, bread pudding, and many others. None were particularly special, though the raisin studded soft bread (pictured above) made a good case for a spot in the morning pastry pantheon. Of the sweets, I was partial to the coconut milk and ginger-heavy bread pudding. Thick, chewy and dense, a single bite yields a burst of rich and aromatic flavor.
For a more diverse selection of Garifuna food, New Yorkers will have to wait until September's Central American Day Parade. Those curious about the cuisine are well advised to read Betsy Andrews' Cassava Nation, featured in the November 2012 edition of Saveur, which offers recipes for some of the culture's iconic dishes.