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Chef Serves Up a Side of African History with Caribbean Meals

Collard greens, curry chicken, turkey wings, callaloo and rice and peas are just a few of dishes sure to be served at celebrations throughout the holiday season and on New Year's Day.

The dishes also serve up a helping of history rich with flavors born in Africa as well as those crafted by those of African descent, chef Digby Stridiron, a St. Croix native, told NBCBLK.

"There are certain foods that help tell the story of the diaspora," he said as he prepared breadfruit crusted chicken and red beans and rice at his new restaurant, Balter, during this year's Dine Virgin Islands Restaurant Week. "[The African diaspora] is so beautiful."

The April opening of the restaurant — a contemporary West Indian kitchen on the island of St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands — fulfilled one of Stridiron's childhood dreams.

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The interactions of indigenous Indians, Europeans and Africans during colonization, as well the more recent influence of immigrants from other parts of the Caribbean, has resulted in many of the dishes common across the U.S. Virgin Islands today.

This fusion of culture and cuisine is why Stridiron says he refers to St. Croix as a melting pot of the diaspora.

"To me what's cool about St. Croix is you get the Trinidadian rotis, but you get the Jamaican rundowns. You get the ducanas from Antigua and you get alcapurria mofongo from Puerto Rico. You get all these things coming together in one place," Stridiron explained.

He says he uses his role as a chef not only to prepare authentic Caribbean meals for guests, but also to serve up the stories behind them. Stories like those of cou-cou (called fungi in the Virgin Islands), a dish with roots in slave traditions that is similar to polenta or grits and made with cornmeal and okra.

Digby Stridiron, Executive Chef/Owner, Balter, St. Croix.
Digby Stridiron, Executive Chef/Owner, Balter, St. Croix. David Berg / Blackwood Imaging

"You know it started as fufu in Africa, came down to Cou-Cou when you go down to Trinidad and Barbados, then you see it turn into mofongo, you see it turn into a modongo and it finishes off in New Orleans as a gumbo. You know that's a dish that really tells the culture of who we are as people," Stridiron said.

The award-winning chef, who is also the culinary ambassador of the U.S. Virgin Islands, says that while dishes like cou-cou may have different names throughout the diaspora, they are an example of the culinary connections of the African diaspora.

"Another example is when you look at stuff like Hoppin' John in the South, that essentially came from beans or peas and rice. We eat red beans and rice here (the USVI) all the time and this kind of mixture with rice it came from Africa," Stridiron said.

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At Balter, Stridiron encourages customers to ask questions, think about what they're eating and learn about food traditions and techniques.

"When you start realizing that every region kind of has this concept whether it's something that they grind up, whether it's cornmeal or it's fungi or plantains they are grinding up to make different dishes, it's really a beautiful thing," he said.

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