Caribbean cuisine: A mouthful of the Caribbean - or Beni Tonka's journey to its cultural roots

Something was missing.

Caribbean cuisine: A mouthful of the Caribbean - or Beni Tonka's journey to its cultural roots

Something was missing. There was this conflict in Beni Tonka that he couldn't explain. And the feeling of not really belonging anywhere - not in Rüsselsheim, where he was born, not in the USA, where he grew up. Already an adult, he learns that the man he calls father is not his father. He gets a name, finds a phone number, but rings to nowhere. Gives up. But the question mark in him remains. It wasn't until he was 26 that he made another attempt. Months later, he found a new family and a home in Trinidad and Tobago. In "Good Lime" Tonka wrote down his search for his own roots. It has become a personal cookbook in which each story has its own (mostly) Caribbean flavor, its own dish that is linked to the experience. A conversation about your own identity, letting go and coming together and your way of cooking, which should open doors.

Mr. Tonka, your cookbook is called "Good Lime", which represents the Trinidadian attitude to life - spontaneity, living in the moment... for me it is a symbol of everything that has happened in the last ten years. I found my family during this time. And it's also about being able to forget what's in the past and instead be in the moment and enjoy it. In Trinidad and Tobago, I quickly realized, life and death are very close together. And precisely because there is such a strong connection to death there, people realize how important time is. This feeling is really present there, almost tactile. If you have the opportunity to have a great encounter with people, good food, music, stories - then you take advantage of it and for as long as possible. This is a lifestyle.

You have lived in Europe, in the USA and also have roots in Trinidad. You photographed animals, worked in a Spanish olive oil factory and for a violin maker in Cologne. They write poems. The list goes on. The Liming vibe seems to be in your blood. I was always on the go a lot, even in my childhood. This gave me the feeling of not having a home and yet being at home everywhere. And I always wanted to follow my heart, pursue my passions. That's why I tried so many things.

In the foreword to your book, Alice Hasters writes that you describe yourself as Nowherian. So as a person who has no clear homeland, no place where he feels completely at home. Can your cookbook also be understood as a search for your roots? For me, working on it was a kind of therapy. Writing has always been my reaction to difficult times and experiences, it's how I process it. But it was also important to me to write down my story because it is not an individual story, it is rather universal. Many of my friends also grew up with a similar conflict that I felt. Perhaps the book will inspire others to also look for their family, for their belonging.

The first dish you ate in your homeland was corn soup. You write: “I have arrived”. Do you still associate that feeling with corn chowder?Now that I've found my roots, I know it feels like home. I feel very at home in Trinidad and Tobago. Nevertheless, I am also a stranger there. It's like in Germany. I am “in and out” at the same time, I belong and I don’t. But now I enjoy the feeling. Now I have access to many different perspectives.

Corn soup is the first recipe in the book. Your Rüsselsheim grandma's chocolate pudding is also in there, a comfort food for you. Also an Old Fashioned recipe, because you were drinking Old Fashioned when you decided to contact your father. All recipes in the book serve as a guiding thread through your life. Every dish has a story, which is your favorite? Exactly. Each of these dishes played a role at a crucial moment. My favorite story is the one about the Coconut Bake. I love this dish about – almost – everything. I met my father when I was 27. My father met his father when he was 51. I was there at this meeting. It was the day I also met my grandfather. That day we had Coconut Bake.

What did you learn about food in Trinidad and Tobago that you didn't know before? It starts with very small things. The heavy, cast-iron pots used for cooking sometimes contain the flavors of generations. Seeing how the pot browns, sometimes even turns black, from the outside and inside, how the flavors burn in, was a metaphor for me. For me, these pots represent recipes that are passed down through generations. That's exactly what I wanted too. A huge reason for me to write down the recipes was that I didn't want them to get lost.

You write that your grandmother from Rüsselsheim was your home, your anchor. Her recipes also appear in the book. But only a few. Does this cuisine belong to the past, to another Beni? No. Trinidadian cuisine has played a major role in the last 10 years, but when it comes to my whole life, my grandma's recipes play a very important role. She is always with me. This also includes certain cooking details. With her the flour always had to go through the sieve. I still do it that way today, even if it's unnecessary - and then I feel my grandma with me.

Caribbean cuisine isn't exactly what your grandmother from Rüsselsheim cooked, is it? That's right, it was a completely new culinary world for me. For example, I never really liked eggplant. Then my aunt in Trinidad roasted some directly in the fire until they were completely black. Then she peeled off the skin and mashed the eggplant flesh with hot oil and garlic. For me, this dish was like a door into the world of eggplant.

Your style of cooking is also described in the book as a door opener. Tell me, what's behind the door? In front of the door is the question mark mentioned, behind it is a kind of comfort. It's about the possibility of coming together, it's about belonging. And of course, my soul is in my food. It is a complex soul. I'll explain. My name is Beni. When I came to Trinidad everyone called me Pa Ben. Because my great-grandfather was called Ben and I reminded her of him. My father's mother always wanted her grandson to be named after him. And then suddenly I was there. All our souls are in the courts.

That sounds complex. However, her dishes themselves are convincing because they are not overloaded with ingredients and the instructions are not overwhelming. This part of the book really worried me. Because a lot of what my family, my aunts and my father prepare are cooked according to taste, without a recipe. So I could only learn them by watching. And then a different amount of flour is used every time, oh man…. But I made an effort to write them down so that not only I can cook them.

A saying in Trinidad goes that chili in food keeps demons away. On the island, every household is said to have its own chili sauce recipe. It is, one might say, a cultural asset. And of all things, there is no recipe in your book. What happened there? That's right. Everyone has their own recipe, everyone thinks they make a better sauce than the next person. Of course I also have one, the Soka sauce. The recipe isn't in the book because I'm selling the sauce now. But maybe there will be fresh chili recipes for the next book

What we cook is perhaps the most authentic description of our identity, writes Alice Hasters. And that you understand it. If that's the case: What did you eat today? (laughs) I can say what I just ate. Sometimes I have to treat myself to something, then I buy a matcha praline from the organic supermarket. White chocolate with matcha flavor and filling, really decadent. It's just a small ball, but powerful. I enjoy it a lot – but only once a week.

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