04 June 2009

Calypso Cafe, or How to Get Warm on a Cold Night

Back in 2006, I spent a short summer in Belize. While there's a lot to like about the tiny, laid-back country, the best part by far was the food. You see, Belize, like many other countries in the region, is a melting-pot for cultures. It's got Hispanic and Indian influences from its Central American location, African influences from the Garifuna communities on the coast, and Caribbean flavours from its position flanking the western Caribbean sea. I ate a lot of rice and beans, arguably Belize's national dish (and damn good too for such a simple food) - cooked with coconut milk, eaten with pepper (Belizean hot pepper sauce... watch out!), and maybe a stewed chicken leg or two. Then there were the fresh flour tortillas my host mother, Lily, used to make: hot, fluffy and chewy, they were more like naan bread than the flat, cardboard-like tortillas I was used to at home. Every morning, Lily would get out the balls of dough rolled the night before, flatten them out, and toss them on a hot plate until they were just puffy and browned enough, then put them in a plastic bowl covered with a towel. I shouldn't forget to mention the obvious here: the spirit of choice in the Caribbean is rum (think pirates) and a LOT of rum was consumed during that summer, most treasuredly in the form of sweet, fruity rum punch.

When I got back to Wellington, of course, I tried to replicate my Belizean favourites. My attempt at home-made tortillas was a flop... the hard little discs, burnt on one side, were not even remotely close to Lily's perfected pillows of chewy bread. My attempt at rice and beans... well, let's just say the only reason why it didn't set off the smoke alarm was because, at the time, my flat didn't have a smoke alarm. So it was with dejected sadness that I resigned myself to not eating Caribbean food anytime soon... until one tired Sunday morning...

I first discovered Calypso Cafe at the old Wakefield market. My then-flatmates and I used to go to the food court there on Sunday mornings. It was a crazy old place with strange, colourful old murals (of chicken drumsticks and baskets of fruit, if I remember correctly) , and an assortment of small, independently-run food stalls of all varieties: Chinese, Mexican, Japanese, Indian, Pasta, etc... and then there was Calypso, the Caribbean stall. I knew I was onto something when I ordered my first plate of jerk chicken: while not quite Belizean (jerk, a spicy seasoning rubbed onto meats before grilling, isn't so common in Belize as in the islands), this was closer than I had ever expected to get in Wellington, with a huge plate piled with tender, spicy chicken, an assortment of tropical vegetables, rice and beans (again, while not quite like the Belizean version, delicious), and a couple carefully placed sweets: rockmelon, mango, sugarcane. There was care being put into the food, I could tell... it was more than a sloppy plate of greasy noodles, that's for sure. I was hooked.

Later, when the stall shut for several weekends in a row (a sign said something about a family illness), and then the Wakefield Market shut down altogether (to make way for an apartment development that seems to be stalled indefinitely), I gave up hope of ever tasting Calypso's offerings again. Then in late 2007 I passed the second incarnation while driving in Karori: Calypso Jerkshack, a takeaway shop. Delighted, I immediately changed my dinner plans and picked up a couple orders of jerk pork and calypso chicken (stewed in coconut milk and lime juice). Ava, the owner, is from Barbados, and was very happy to chat with me, and we swapped comparisons of Barbados and Belize. I never made it back there, though, as I didn't usually have a car and Karori was much too far for my lazy ass to walk.

Fast forward to 2009. I've returned from another tropical expedition, this time in Singapore, and, in longing for laksa and roti prata, have nearly forgotten about the joys of Caribbean cuisine. That is, until I start passing Calypso's newest incarnation, Calypso Cafe on Taranaki St. Once again the desire for spicy stews and rice and beans hits, and it has been in the back of my mind ever since. And, on a particularly cold night last weekend, E and I needed all the warming up we could get.

The new restaurant is a lot bigger than the previous versions... I almost worried that it was too big, as we were the only customers when we arrived (I then looked at my watch and noticed we were insanely early for dinner; the place started to fill up as we were leaving). The colour scheme is a cheery blue and gold, which hasn't changed since my memory of the Jerkshack days, and there are some haphazardly hung photographs of Caribbean beaches on the walls. A little homely, but it works. But the best thing of all about Calypso's new location is its liquor licence. It is fully licenced (and E and I had had a hard week), so we both tried out the rum punch ($8).

Well, it's been a while since I've been in the Caribbean, but I was pretty impressed. True to authentic form, these had a sprinkling of freshly grated nutmeg along with a mix of refreshing tropical fruit juices and just enough rum that it still had a kick. Even E, who doesn't normally like cocktails, loved it - enough that he ordered 2 more after slurping down the first. And at $8 they won't break the bank, either.

We ordered an entree of jerk pork ($8), which fired up our tastebuds right away with its vibrant spices - we devoured it before any photos could be taken. The pork was juicy, though some pieces were a bit fatty - it didn't detract from the overall experience.

Quite some time, and a couple more rum punches later (the food took a long time- I think everything is cooked to order) our attentive waitress came bearing our mains: lamb etouffee ($18) for E, and pepper pot ($18) for me. "Pepper pot" was one of the specials on the chalkboard that our waitress brought over to the table as we were perusing the menus. I was torn between it and the Calypso Chicken that I had so loved before, but I'm happy for my choice - it was the perfect dish for a cold night.

Chicken, so tender that it's practically falling apart, in a thick, hearty spicy sauce of gooey okra and beans, served in a clay pot atop rice, with an assortment of vegetables on the side. It's definitely not for you if you can't tolerate a bit of heat, since the spices do give it quite a kick, but I have a high spice tolerance and thus found it perfectly warming - comfort food. E didn't enjoy his etouffee quite so much, probably because having worked in a New Orleans restaurant for a year he's used to the hot n' spicy Cajun-style etouffees done there. Nevertheless, I tried it, and while definitely lacking in spice, it was a hearty, mildly-flavoured stew, served over rice, which would make it a good choice for a chilli-phobe wanting to warm their insides.

I must add that the obvious care for ingredients hasn't diminished at all since Calypso's early days at the Wakefield market. There is an assortment of vegetables that you would rarely find on other restaurant menus, such as yucca, okra, cassava, choko, the list could go on. Each dish is carefully garnished with a (seasonally?) changing variety of side veges, and we were also served a Caribbean hot sauce and a pineapple salsa to spoon onto our dishes as we pleased. And the little added touches, such as a slice of papaya or melon on the edge of the plate, were still just as I had remembered from the old days. A definite winner, this place. I only hope that its somewhat awkward location doesn't detract from business.


Calypso Cafe

117 Taranaki St (just off Vivian St, across from Briscoe's)
Te Aro

(04) 801-9333

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