By Dady Chery
Tomtom ak Kalalou Gombo is now considered to be traditional to the town of Jeremie in southern Haiti, but in colonial times this was the everyday dish of the Haitians. Recall the traditional Haitian lullaby “Dodo Titit.”
The breadfruit hanged from tall, lush, tropical trees and practically fell from the sky — as it still does. The yield from breadfruit trees (Artocarpus altilis) is one of the highest for any food plant: a single fruit can feed a family, and one tree can produce over 200 fruits each season. Breadfruit originates from Asia; it is unclear how it reached the Americas, but it was already there in the 17th century.
Gombo/okra (Hibiscus esculentus) was also easy to come by in colonial times because it grows quickly in tropical climates. Gombo probably originated in Ethiopia and was introduced into the Americas with the slave trade around the mid 1600’s. The fruit was familiar to the West Africans who had been kidnapped to Haiti. It is called “kingombo” in various Bantu languages and “ọ́kụ̀rụ̀” in the Igbo language spoken in Nigeria.
Haitian proverb: “Ou sèl dwèt pa manjé kalalou gombo” (One finger does not eat kalalou gombo)
Tomtom ak kalalou is never eaten alone. The traditional way to partake of this dish is to place the breadfruit mash in the middle of a table, the gumbo purée alongside it, and have the extended family take turns at digging into the breadfruit with index fingers, then into the gumbo sauce for flavoring, and then lightly into the mouth with one gulp until the next round.
It takes a long time to eat, and this is a good occasion for conversation and stories, hence the name “Callaloo” for the superb journal of the African diaspora and Black writers worldwide.
The following recipe is from Jean-Edner Dorvil of Jeremie, with some of my recommendations and commentary.
1 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper
1 lb okra (fresh or frozen)
1 cup djon-djon mushrooms
1/4 lb of the seafood in season
[Dorville recommends salted fish that is pre-soaked to remove the salt and then shredded, but this is usually replaced with in-season seafood that is cooked (shelled if crab or deboned if fish) and shredded; for a vegetarian version, I substitute djondjon mushrooms or whatever fresh mushrooms are on hand. DC]
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 small onion, sliced
2 tablespoons of pikliz
Quarter the breadfruit. Peel the sections and remove and discard their center area with the heart of the fruit and the small black seeds. If this is not done completely, the dish will be bitter. Cut each slice into 4 equal-size pieces. Boil in salt water for 30 minutes or until soft to a fork, then discard water and cool. Mash the cooled breadfruit in a large mortar with a pestle, occasionally wetting the pestle to keep the purée from sticking to it. Alternatively, mash the breadfruit in a blender.
While the breadfruit boils:
Prepare the okra sauce by cutting and discarding both ends of the okra and then boiling the okra in a small pot. Discard the liquid. Transfer to a blender.
In another small pot, soak the djondjon mushrooms in 2 cups of water for 10 minutes, boil for 5 minutes, and strain the mushrooms, pouring the dark liquid into the okra. Blend for a few seconds.
In a frying pan, heat the oil and sauté the onion for 2 to 3 minutes. Add the shredded seafood and sauté another minute. Add the okra purée. Bring to a boil and simmer together for 20 min. Add black pepper and pikliz, to taste.
For individual servings, spoon the bread onto each plate and add the fish-okra sauce on the side. The breadfruit should be dipped in the gumbo sauce and swallowed without chewing.
Sources: Jean Edner Dorvil in A Taste of Haiti (Hyppocrene books, NY, 2003) | Haiti Chery
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