It had been mentioned that at some point during the trip our culinary skills would be put to the test. We were advised to observe the dishes and ingredients that we came across and to keep cultural influences in mind. Everything boiled down to this day- The Cook-Off.
We were allowed to choose our own teams and we had an evening to come up with an idea of a dish to make. The meal was supposed to be our rendition of a Dominican dish using the knowledge that we compiled from our experiences. In the morning, we would go to the grocery store and race to buy our necessities before heading to a small beachfront restaurant. It was there that we would prepare our meals and have them sampled by a panel of judges. The “winning team” would have their dish placed on the menu.
I have to say that I was not really looking forward to this challenge at all, which shocked me. Normally I would dream of an opportunity like this, but I think that is why I was nervous. I had always imagined myself on cooking shows like Top Chef or Chopped, but this was actually going to happen in reality! Most of the people in my group were on the trip for the cultural experience rather than for the culinary experience and therefore had little self-proclaimed expertise in the kitchen. However, everyone on the trip knew about my passion for cooking and my desire to be involved in this specific aspect of the culinary industry. The pressure! Everyone was joking around about me but inside I was panicking. Something could easily go wrong! What if the grocery store didn’t have what we needed? What did the kitchen facilities look like? Would we all cook together? What if something went wrong? What if the food tasted horrible? This was all very experimental, the idea I had was technically something I had never cooked before, so it could turn out with disastrous results. I grouped up with Emerald, Britney and Ash, we came up with our plan and parted ways for the evening.
I should probably tell you what the plan was for our dish. The idea came together for me over the course of a few days. I made a mental note each time I encountered an ingredient I loved or an interesting cooking method I had not seen before, or for that matter, a cooking method that was actually similar to those in North America. I settled on this. Our dish was titled “Coco Pina Pollo con Puree de Yucca”. Everywhere we went during the week, we encountered fried chicken. Who knew you could actually fry a chicken in so many different ways! Sometimes the chicken looked like KFC, flaky drumsticks. Sometimes it was just joints in a thick yellow cornmeal batter. Other times, the fried chicken reminded me of chicken cutlets, flattened and breaded. I decided to go with this but make it a little more creative. My plan was to take the delicious flesh from all those coconuts I was obsessed with and manually grate them up to make my own breading of coconut flakes. I would then fry the coconut-covered chicken and top it with a chunky reduction of fresh pineapple. Serve the meal with a side of mashed yucca, but instead of plain yuccas mixed with milk and butter, I decided to add sautéed onions like in the mangu dish but then also use coconut milk in order to make it cohesiveness with the main dish. We had our plan. It sounded good. But how would it all play out?
The morning went without any issues, we all raced around gathering our ingredients and then piled back into the bus for the beach in Bayahibe. I was anxious so it felt like ages before we finally reached the restaurant. It was small but cozy, the type of place that seemed like a neighborhood spot. The owner later explained that the restaurant is indeed a local choice. She stated that the food they serve is fresh, the fish is brought in daily and they cook everything to order. It is not uncommon for customers to wait an hour or two for their meals but they know it will be delicious. Part of the process of the meal is to sit and socialize while waiting for the food to be ready. I like this laid-back attitude and devotion to fresh home cooking.
Before long we were busy prepping, looking for pots to boil water in, chopping, grating and peeling. Some of the group members had little to no experience in a kitchen but everyone was eager to learn. It was really amazing to see everyone working together so well, helping one another and teaching when they could. Eventually I made my way into the small kitchen space and got to cooking. Luckily there was enough room for everyone to fit so I set the yucca to boil then began working on the pineapple salsa reduction while the oil heated for the chicken. I wanted the pineapple to have a spicy kick but couldn’t find anything other than sweet peppers in the grocery store. One of the owner’s friends heard my lamentation and came to the rescue with chili peppers plucked right from the garden outside! While the Pineapples simmered, I turned my attention to the chicken. This was my main source of concern, so much can go wrong with fried chicken. If the oil isn’t hot enough, the meat will soak up all the oil and become heavy. If the oil is too hot everything will burn, snap, crackle and pop! Chicken can never be undercooked but I also did not want to serve a dry overcooked cutlet. We decided to make an extra test batch in case, but luckily all seemed to go well.
Soon we had plated our food and were waiting for the judges to assemble. The judges included the restaurant owner, her husband, her two colleagues, our professor, our RA, one of the program directors and a woman from the local press. Our dish went up against two other fantastic opponents. One group made small tostone (fried plantains) and mashed yucca sandwiches with a side of chorizo. The other group did a spin on eggs benedict using mangu instead of bread, salami instead of ham, and a poached egg instead of a fried egg. Pure genius! The competition was tough.
Soon the tasting began. We each explained who we were and then the inspiration behind our dish. Most of the judges spoke in Spanish while they ate so it was difficult for me to decipher how they felt other than by reading their carefully masked body language. Finally they came back to us with feedback.
All of the meals were delicious, it was a hard decision. One woman wanted to know why I didn’t cook fish instead of chicken. This was ironic to me because the day we were supposed to learn about Dominican fishing industry, the activities were canceled. At the end, everyone politely submitted their votes. It was almost even.
If ever you find yourself in the Bayahibe region of the Dominican Republic and you begin to feel hungry, head on over to the small beachfront restaurant that I grew to know over the course of that morning. I hear they have this new option on the menu, its called Coco Pina Pollo.