The Pursuit of Bajan
with mike and janet johnston
June 11, 2013
As we were creating our new Bajan seasoning in the Savory test kitchen it became clear early on that if we wanted to make it as authentic as possible, someone would need to ‘dive on the bomb’ and do a research trip to the seasoning’s home, Barbados in the Caribbean.
It’s not easy to get to Barbados from Denver, there is no direct flight and it takes a minimum of twelve hours, but Janet and I heroically decided to take one for the team and off we went!
Bajan: Before & After
Prior to leaving, there was so much we still didn’t know about Bajan seasoning, including how to pronounce it. We were phonetically referring to Bajan as “Bah-gin”. So the first thing we asked our cab driver as we were leaving the Barbados airport was not how the weather looked for the next 10 days, but rather how do Barbadians say Bajan. The answer he gave was perfect. “Bajan, it sounds like Cajun”. Now that is easy for us spice merchants to remember!
It took us a couple days on the beach before we were able to recover from the exhaustive journey from Denver, but we steeled ourselves and started our Bajan research. Janet and I determined that the best way to get the most useful information was to delve into the Bajan lifestyle. We decided the best plan was threefold—eat where the locals eat, shop where the locals shop and persuade a local to reveal the secrets of Bajan seasoning and their cooking methods.
Barbadian Macaroni Pie
We hit the local joints and feasted on native dishes like fried fly fish, curried goat, fish cakes and macaroni pie. Our take away from this initial recon was that Bajan seasoning is very often used as an all-purpose seasoning and that the locals prefer a milder heat level than a Jamaican Jerk seasoning. In fact, when they wanted a spicy hot seasoning they actually used Jerk instead. This reinforced our suspicions that somehow Jerk and Bajan may be closely related. We also made a discovery that was never on our radar, Bajan Hot Pepper Sauce, which is made from scotch bonnets, mustard and turmeric. As soon as we tried this amazing sauce it was an instant “must know how to make this” for us!
The inspiration for our Bajan Hot Pepper Sauce recipe.
With the info we gleaned from eating with the locals we decided we had a sense for the flavors, but we still hadn’t put our hands on the elusive Bajan seasoning. So we hopped on a bus and headed off to the local grocery determined to find it.
We arrived pretty much unnoticed, grabbed a shopping cart and quickly tossed in a few local items like coconut bread and smoked herring just so we didn’t look out of place. Using a bit of stealth we worked our way to the spice aisle and tried to eyeball a jar of Bajan. Nothing! Someone must have been on to us and hidden all the bottles. Up and down the aisles we went, back and forth. And then out of the corner of my eye I spot it, but it isn’t a dry spice and it isn’t in a bottle. It’s a paste! This was an unexpected twist. So we slipped a few packages into a cart along with some other essentials and headed back to our hideaway.
As we are comfortable with converting our Jerk seasoning into a paste, we applied that experience and cooked a Bajan spiced pork and coconut rice dish. It tasted fantastic! Full and satiated, we began to map out the most difficult part of our plan, getting a local to reveal the ins and outs of Bajan seasoning.
We looked extensively online for any useful Bajan information and found a restaurant review that lead us to a local lady who we believed might have the answers we were seeking. There was only one problem, anyone that we had asked had never heard of her restaurant! The most helpful information we had was a general area and that if we find the cricket field we might find someone who could put us onto her location. Regardless, we were determined, so back on the bus we jumped and off we went.
Finally, the destination!
The bus was hot. The ride was bumpy. The journey was long. But alas we found the cricket field. The first person we asked didn’t know her, nor the second, but the third person did. She was just at the top of the hill above the cricket field. It was very hot, Caribbean hot, but we marched up the hill and spied her position. As we gathered our wits and headed toward the door we heard voices inside, but not the voices of a bunch of happy eaters. Apparently they were not currently open and were hosting a business meeting. The disappointment of them being closed after our harrowing journey began to sink in. Just as we were about to walk away, she suddenly appeared in the doorway.
“Are you open?” we asked eagerly. She hesitated for a moment but then said, “Yes, but I really don’t have any food prepared.” She must have seen something in our eyes as we turned to walk away because she called out, “Let me see if there is something I can whip up.”
We sat at a table outside and discussed whether to stay or go as we felt we were intruding, but because we had come all this way, we just had to stay. A short time later a plate of perfectly seasoned and cooked chicken with rice and a side salad was placed in front of us.
Christine and Mike in the kitchen
Before she could get away, I could not help myself and started the interrogation.
“Are you Christine?”
“Yes,” she replied.
“Did you season this chicken with Bajan spices?” Again she said yes.
“Can you show me the seasoning?”
She looked at me a little cockeyed and knew I wasn’t a typical customer. I knew at this time I had to reveal our mission and our identity. Lucky for us she loves cooking with spices and understood the importance in layering flavors. So off to the kitchen she ran.
When she returned there was no bottle in her hand, but rather a handful of fresh herbs and chiles and two little cups; one containing a green paste and the other a dark brown. As she laid down the herbs she told us what each one was and explained to us that Bajan seasoning is made from fresh herbs, a couple dry spices, chiles, and sometimes a little of this or that depending on the family recipe. The green sauce was the Bajan and it tasted savory with just a hint of lime and pleasant chile heat. The brown as you may have guessed was our old friend Jerk.
I asked her about the use of Jerk in Barbados and she explained that the Caribbean islands are like a family and they appreciate and borrow flavors from each other. That confirmed to us the link between Bajan and Jerk seasonings.
“Christine, you been so kind and welcoming, but can I ask you one more thing?” I asked eagerly.
“Sure” she replied.
“Can you give me a Bajan cooking lesson?”
“Come back Wednesday night around 5pm and I’d be happy to!”
We did go back and we cooked Bajan spiced fried fly fish and curried chicken. Christine couldn’t have been more welcoming and kind.
If you ever find yourself in Barbados please look up her little restaurant. It is called Just Stop, which is perfect, because had we not ‘just stopped’ we wouldn’t have learned what we did from such a wonderfully helpful and kind woman.
Mike, Christine and Janet
We learned Bajan sounds like Cajun and has similarities to Jamaican Jerk seasoning, but what sets it apart is the Bajan’s much higher ratio of herbs. Also, it seems that in Barbados you really won’t find a prepackaged bottle of Bajan, that is until now, because we’ve sent one of our own to Christine for her to try!
And by the way, you can convert our seasoning to a paste by simply mixing together equal parts water, oil and Bajan seasoning. Or, start your own family recipe by adding a little of this or that.
Click on the 'Recipes' tab at the top of our Bajan Seasoning page to see a ton of recipes we've created in the test kitchen since we've gotten home!