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A Caribbean Rarity

In Marquette Park at Chicago's only Garifuna restaurant, Garifuna Flava

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When Yolanda Castillo was a little girl in Belize, she learned to make hudut baruru by laboriously pounding green and ripened boiled plantains in a deep, carved wooden mortar with a long wooden pestle.

Hudut is an elemental food of the Garifuna, an Amerindian-African people who these days mostly live in Honduras and Belize. The compressed, mashed-up fruit, frequently served as an accompaniment to fish and meat stews, is a descendant of the starchy West African staple known as fufu. In fact, its ubiquity among the Garifuna can be traced back to a pair of Spanish slave ships that wrecked off the coast of Saint Vincent in the Lesser Antilles in 1635.

The West African castaways escaped from the slavers and integrated with the islanders, a mix of Arawak and Carib peoples. When British colonists showed up on Saint Vincent in 1763, the "Black Caribs," as the Brits called the Garifuna, resisted alongside French settlers for decades, eventually surrendering in 1796. The British rounded up some 5,000 Garifuna and moved them to the Honduran island of Roatan, an ordeal during which half the population died from starvation and disease. Many survivors migrated to mainland Honduras, where most of the approximately 250,000 Garifuna worldwide live now; others moved to coastal southern Belize. Their descendants have branched out into U.S. cities such as Los Angeles, New York, and—like the Castillos, who came in 1986—Chicago.

These days Yolanda can mash up her hudut in seconds in a food processor, a convenience that's made it a lot easier to produce in quantity for the customers that come to her family's Marquette Park restaurant, Garifuna Flava—the only restaurant in the city currently serving the food of the Garifuna.

Garifuna culture hasn't been invisible in Chicago. Yolanda's husband, Rhodel, has helped organize music and dance performances at the Evanston Arts Festival, the Field Museum, the Museum of Science and Industry, and the Chicago Cultural Center and consulted on The Garifuna Journey, a documentary by Evanston filmmaker Andrea Leland that features one of his poems. Musician Andy Palacio, who used rhythms in the Garifuna dance music punta to develop punta rock, played Millennium Park in 2007, a year before his death at age 47. But until about a year and a half ago, apart from a restaurant operated by a Honduran couple that closed about ten years ago, there'd been no place to taste Garifuna food.

Rhodel decided that had to change. "We've done a whole lot in terms of showcasing music and dance," he says. "But food has never been a part of the forefront." Rhodel, who works in real estate, bought the building that houses the restaurant about five years ago. It's a large, bright, open space decorated with framed black-and-white prints of Garifuna culture by Chicago photojournalist Bob Richards. There's a banquet hall off the main dining room that often hosts music and dance performances on the weekends. "So now we showcase culture and now we showcase food," Rhodel says.

Not everything is as simple to prepare as hudut. Slow-cooked stews and soups feature prominently on the Castillos' menu, and as the Garifuna have a strong fishing culture, so does fish. Yolanda makes a coconut milk stew called falumou and a flour-based peppery cabbage stew called tikini, each featuring a generous portion of kingfish or red snapper—either the head or tail end—bobbing in the thick broth. Her conch soup, made with okra, cassava, and carrots, has a texture and body similar to gumbo. (Sourcing the shellfish for this and the deep-fried conch fritters sometimes presents a challenge for the Castillos, so these dishes aren't always available.)

You'll also find a number of fifth-quarter cuts of meat amid the sea creatures. A pair of fat pigtails stewed in tomato sauce is served with a different plantain preparation, darasa, made strictly with green plantains, which has a smooth, fine texture almost like a Guatamalan tamale. There's also a cow-foot soup that gets its luscious body from the cooked-down gelatinous flesh.

The sweeter side of Garifuna cuisine isn't limited to dessert. Ducunu is a lightly sweet pudding made with grated fresh corn that Yolanda only makes in season; like hudut, it's served alongside savory dishes. And actual desserts—like sweet potato pie and sugary coconut tarts—can have a bracing, surprisingly strong ginger element.

The restaurant has become a hub for local Garifuna, but they're not the only clientele. "We have Belizean Creoles coming in," says Rhodel. "We have African-Americans, Mayan, Spanish. Belizean mestizo people. We have Caucasians." So Yolanda also has a repertoire of Belizean and more familiar Caribbean dishes not exclusive to the Garifuna: tostones, jerk chicken, stewed oxtails, a giant tamale encasing a whole chicken leg, and panades, deep-fried mini empanadas for which she spends whole days boning the buffalo fish that gets hashed and stuffed inside. You can also find garnaches, tostadas topped with a schmear of black beans and, oddly, shredded cheddar cheese and ketchup; these are vastly improved by a dose of the thin, oniony habanero salsa that comes on the table.

After all that, it's helpful to know how the Garifuna like to follow up a meal. Under the bar Rhodel keeps a bottle of homemade gifiti, or Garifuna bitters, that he gets from a friend. Made by steeping a number of herbs and barks with names like pie de hombre and billyweb in white rum, it's favored as a digestive and an aphrodisiac to boot. "It's bitter like hell," he says. "But it kind of cleans out your system."    v

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