Nancy’s Fiery Fare: Tropic-Q


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by Nancy Gerlach, Food Editor Emeritus

Recipes in this Issue:

  • Mayan Achiote-Marinated Chicken Cooked in
    Banana Leaves and Served with Pickled Red Onions
  • Cebollas Encuridas (Pickled Red Onions)
  • Cuban Habanero-Spiced Black Beans
  • Jamaican Jerk Pork
  • Tandoori Murg (Chicken Tandoori-Style)
  • Garam Masala
  • Mint Raita

  • Satay Daging (Beef Satay with Peanut Sauce)
  • Sambal Kacang (Spicy Peanut Sauce)

Since I now live in the tropics, namely Chelem, Yucatán, I’m surrounded by palm trees, turquoise blue water, white beaches, and warm breezes. Hot climates produce life styles that are suited to the heat, such as cooking and eating meals outdoors. The types of foods and spices used may vary from region to region, but the basics of outdoor cooking are pretty much the same. I’m not saying that all the world’s great barbecues come from the tropics, so please no mail from Kansas City–it’s just that most of the countries within the belt circling the equator between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn do have some delicious hot and spicy outdoor cooking.

Deep in Yucatán

Pit-style barbecuing has been popular in the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico since the Mayans first appeared, about 2,000 years ago. To cook in the pibil-style as it’s called, a pit is dug and is lined with stones. A roaring fire is built in the pit and, when the fire dies down, the coals are covered with banana leaves. The meat to be cooked is covered with an achiote based sauce, wrapped with additional banana leaves, and placed in the pit. The pit is then closed, and the meat is roasted underground for eight to ten hours until it’s tender enough to pull apart. This method both bakes and steams at the same time, while infusing the meat with the flavor of the seasonings including the distinctively flavored banana leaves.

Historically, it was wild boar that was cooked in this manner, but over the years, more sophisticated equipment has replaced many of the pits, and domesticated pigs and chickens have replaced the boar. I’ve had success in duplicating the pit method without using a backhoe in my yard, but by using a covered grill or an inexpensive back-yard smoker. If using a smoker, don’t add wood chips for smoke, instead just place a pan of water between the coals and the wrapped meat to keep the “package” from drying out.

A Nice Kind of Jerk

When visions of the white beaches of Jamaica creep into my head, so do thoughts of their hot, hot, hot national dish, Jerk Pork. The word “jerk” is thought to have originated from the word “ch?arki” (the question mark is part of the word), a Quecha word from Peru. The Spanish converted the term to charqui which meant jerked, or dried meat, which in English became “jerk,” the origin of the word jerky. This distinctive island barbecue evolved as a way of preserving meat, just like it’s counterpart beef jerky.

The technique of jerking was originated by the Maroons, Jamaican slaves that escaped from the British during the invasion of 1655 and hid in the maze of jungles and limestone sinkholes known as the Cockpit Country. The Maroons seasoned their pork with local herbs and spices including the incendiary Scotch bonnet chile, and cooked it until it was dry and would preserve well in the humidity of the tropics. During the twentieth century, the technique gained popularity in Jamaica and today roadside stands called “jerk shacks” are common all over the island. The method has evolved however, and the pork is no long overcooked to the point of dryness. And it’s not just pork that is jerked anymore. Today heavily spiced chicken, fish, and beef are grilled in this manner to juicy perfection.

No expensive equipment is needed for recreating an authentic “jerk” at home. In Jamaica, just about anything is used for cooking, from a simple grill on a steel drum to a conventional jerk pit. The jerk pit is a two foot deep, shallow trough with a row of cinder blocks on either end. A fire is burned in the pit and when it dies down, a grill is placed on the blocks. Traditionally the grill was made of inch-thick sticks cut from a green pimento (allspice) tree and would burn up during the process to flavor the meat. But the grill would have to be replaced every few hours. Today, allspice sticks are still used to flavor the smoke, but the sticks are thrown on the fire and metal grills have replaced the wood. The meat is rubbed with the spicy marinade, put on the grill, and pieces of galvanized zinc are used to cover the grill to trap the “smoky heat.” Over the years the equipment may have changed, but the hot and spicy jerk paste used to marinate has remained pretty much the same as it has for the last few hundred years.

Opened Tandoor

A large portion of India is in the tropics, and you naturally think of curries. But they also have a unique method of barbecuing that involves cooking food over a charcoal source inside a thick-walled clay vessel called a tandoori. The word “tandoor” comes from a Sanskrit word “kandu” meaning bowl-shaped vessel. This giant, waist high, urn-shaped oven has been used in that part of the world for approximately 5,000 years. The tandoor is made with thick walls of clay with small air holes near the bottom. Wood, charcoal, or in modern ones, gas is burned. It takes hours to preheat a traditional tandoor, and as the thick walls become heated, they radiate the heat back into the oven where the temperatures can reach up to 800 degrees F. The meat to be cooked is threaded on long skewers and the skewers are put in the tandoori vertically so that the juices run down and marinate the meat and not drip on the heat source, so it doesn’t flare up and burn. Because the tandoori is so hot, the food cooks quickly, within minutes, and doesn’t dry out.

Like jerk foods, those that are barbecued tandoori-style are also marinated overnight to add flavor and also to tenderize the meat so that it cooks quickly and still remain tender. The Indian marinade uses a thick yogurt sauce as a base to which a number of herbs and spices are added. Traditionally, tandoori meat has an unusual red color which comes from chiles and paprika that are used as a rub, but now if you order tandoori food in a restaurant, the chefs rely on food coloring to produce the same effect.

Satays That Satisfy

And finally, I couldn’t have a tropic-q without including some of my favorites–satays. These small, grilled kebabs are popular street food throughout Malaysia as well as the 13,000 tropical islands comprising the country of Indonesia. Grilling meat on sticks originated with the Arab traders who introduced Middle Eastern kebabs on their travels throughout the islands searching for spices. The variety of satays is dazzling. Any type of meat, poultry, or seafood is used, the meat can be ground or whole, and ranges in size from really tiny to large, even by U.S. standards. There are, however, a few constants with these satays. First, the meats are threaded on short skewers only, the amount on each skewer is small, vegetables are never included, and satays are served with a sambal or other spicy sauce for raising the heat level.

Just thinking of the tropics brings up memories of all the great barbecues I’ve sampled in wonderful, exotic paradises. There is just something about cooking food outdoors that always makes it taste better. Since I can’t get away this year, I’ve gathered some of my favorite recipes for tropical barbecues to share. So if you too are stuck in the cold, put on your down coat, fire up the grill, and join me for a tropic barbecue in your own back yard.


Mayan Achiote-Marinated Chicken Cooked in Banana Leaves and Served with Pickled Red Onions

Cooking meats in the pibil method dates back to Pre-Columbian times and variations of these dishes can be found in just every restaurant that features local cuisine throughout the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico. This method of cooking is done in a pit lined with stones called a pibil which were the center of the Mayan community. This is a easier variation that can be done on the grill or in a smoker, and doesn’t require digging a pit in your back yard. Achiote paste is made with annatto seeds, which is used both a spice and an orange coloring agent. I prefer using the paste, rather that the seeds which are as easy to grind as steel ball bearings. Güero chiles are substituted for the usual xcatic chiles which are impossible to find outside of the area. Banana leaves can be found in Asian markets, but you can also use aluminum foil. Pibils are traditionally served with pickled red onions.

Achiote Marinade:

  • 10 whole black peppercorns

  • 1/4 teaspoon cumin seeds

  • 3 cloves garlic

  • 2 habanero chiles, stem and seeds removed

  • 2 tablespoons achiote paste

  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano, Mexican preferred

  • ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

  • 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice

  • 2 tablespoons lime juice, fresh preferred

  • 2 teaspoons white vinegar


  • 1 2 pound chicken, cut in serving size pieces or 4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts

  • 3 fresh banana or güero chiles, stems and seeds removed, cut in strips

  • 1 small red onion, sliced and separated into rings

  • 4 sprigs fresh epazote or substitute 1 tablespoon dried (omit if not available)

  • 4 tablespoons margarine

  • Banana leaves

  • Cebollas Encuridas (Pickled Red Onions), see recipe below

Place the peppercorns and cumin seeds in a spice or coffee grinder and process to a fine powder. Combine the powder with the garlic and habanero chile and place in a blender or food processor and puree.

Combine the spice mixture, achiote, oregano, bay leaves, and lime juice. Put the chicken in a non-reactive pan and prick with a fork. Pour the marinade over the chicken and marinate overnight or for 24 hours in the refrigerator.

To make 4 packets, cut 8 pieces of string about 6 inches long. Lay the strings down on a flat surface, place 4 banana leaves on top of the strings. Place a chicken on each the leaves along with the marinade and top with the chiles and onions. Place a little epazote on each breast along with a tablespoon of margarine. Fold the banana leaves over the meat and tie with the strings.

Place on the grill over indirect heat and cook for 1 hours, or in a smoker on the grill with pan of water between the coals and the wrapped chicken to keep the chicken juicy.

Serve the chicken with warm corn tortillas, pickled onions, and black beans.

Yield: 4 servings

Heat Scale: Mild to Medium

Cebollas Encuridas (Pickled Red Onions)

These colorful onions are a traditional accompaniment to pibil dishes. Found on virtually every table throughout the Yucatan, they will keep for a long time in the refrigerator.

  • 1 small red onion, thinly sliced

  • 5 black peppercorns

  • 3 allspice berries

  • 1/4 teaspoon cumin seeds

  • 1/4 teaspoon dried oregano, Mexican preferred

  • 2 cloves garlic, minced

  • 1/3 cup white vinegar

  • Salt

Place the onions in a bowl and pour boiling water over them. Let them sit for 1 minute and then drain. Discard the water.

Coarsely grind the peppercorns, allspice, and cumin seeds in a spice or coffee grinder. Add to the onions.

Add the remaining ingredients, and enough water to barely cover. Allow the mixture to marinate for a couple hours to blend the flavors.

Yield: 1 cup

Cuban Habanero-Spiced Black Beans

These beans are an excellent accompaniment to a tropical barbecue. There are many variations of preparing turtle, or black beans, throughout the Caribbean. This recipe uses a Cuban sofrito, which is sauted onions, tomatoes pepper garlic and herbs, as a flavor base for the dishes. Remember to always add and salt or an acid after the beans are done, adding them sooner will make the beans tough.

  • 1 pound black beans, rinsed and picked over

  • 1 teaspoon dried epazote (omit if not available)

  • 1 tomato, skin removed and chopped

  • 2 tablespoons cider vinegar

  • 2 tablespoons dry sherry (optional)

  • Salt to taste


  • 2 tablespoons olive oil

  • 1 small green bell pepper, stem and seeds removed, chopped

  • 2 small onions, chopped

  • 4 large cloves garlic, minced

  • 2 habanero chiles, stems and seeds removed, chopped or substitute 4 rocottilo chiles

  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano

  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

  • 1 bay leaf

Place the beans in a pot and add cold water to cover. Bring the water to a boil and boil them uncovered for 2 minutes. Remove the pot from the heat, cover, and allow the beans to sit for 1 hour. Drain the beans and rinse them.

Return the beans to the pot, add the epazote and 2 quarts of water. Bring the pot to a boil, reduce the heat slightly, and cook for a 1½ hours or until the beans are almost done.

In a heavy sauce pan add the olive oil and heat over a medium.. Add the green pepper, onions, garlic, and chiles and saute for a couple of minutes until softened. Add the oregano, cumin and bay leaf and saute for an additional minute. Add the sofrito to the to beans. Cover and simmer for an additional 30 minutes

Add the tomato, vinegar, sherry, and season with salt to taste. Simmer for an additional 10 minutes.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Heat Scale: Medium to hot

Jamaican Jerk Pork

Turning the Jerk Pork

The “jerk” in jerk pork is a spice mixture that was used to preserve meat before refrigeration. It was developed by the Awarak Indians, and later refined in Jamaica by runaway slaves known as Maroons. These days, the spices are used to season meats for barbecue and to tenderize rather than to preserve. An inexpensive smoker or a covered grill can be substituted for the traditional jerk pit, and is a lot easier than digging a pit in your yard. Note: This recipe required advance preparation.


  • 3 to 4 Scotch bonnet chiles, stems and seeds removed, chopped

  • 1/4 cup chopped green onions, including some of the greens

  • 3 tablespoons crushed allspice (piemento) berries, or substitute 2 teaspoons ground

  • 3 tablespoons fresh thyme

  • 3 cloves garlic

  • 2 tablespoons grated ginger

  • 2 tablespoons lime juice, fresh preferred

  • 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

  • 2 bay leaves

  • 3 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper

  • 2 teaspoons ground cardamom

  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

  • 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg

  • 1 teaspoon salt

  • 3 to 4 tablespoons vegetable oil

  • 1  3 to 4-pound pork butt or loin roast

To make the jerk paste, either pound the ingredients together using a mortar and pestle or place them in a blender or food processor adding the oil to make a paste.

Place the roast, fat side down in a non-reactive pan. Make slashes in the pork about 1½ to 2-inches apart and almost through the roast. Rub the jerk over the meat, making sure to get it throughly into the slashes. Cover with plastic wrap and marinate in the refrigerator overnight.

Remove the pork and bring it to room temperature.

Prepare either the grill or smoker. If using a grill, be sure to use a pan under the pork to catch the drippings. Smoke the pork for about 2 to 3 hours, turning the roast every 30 minutes to insure even browning. Cook until a meat thermometer inserted into the thickest part registers 150 degrees.

Yield: 6 servings

Heat Scale: Hot

Variations: Substitute lamb chops, chicken, or rib steaks for the pork.

Tandoori Murg (Chicken Tandoori-Style)

Tandoori chicken, a famous Indian dish, is also one of the tastiest. The word tandoori refers to any food cooked in a tandoor, which is a giant, unglazed clay oven. The chicken in this recipe is marinated twice, first with the lemon juice, then with the yogurt mixture. You can approximate a tandoor by using a charcoal grill or gas broiler, but the food won’t achieve the exact flavor. The taste is hard to duplicate since the tandoor reaches such high temperatures, up to 800 degrees F, but even if the chicken is not strictly traditional, it’s still flavorful. Those who are watching their fat intake, will like cooking chicken in the tandoori-style, since the skin is removed from the chicken before it is cooked. And, by using a low fat yogurt in the marinade, the fat is reduced even further. This chicken is traditionally served with cooling mint chutney. Note: This recipe requires advance preparation.

  • 4 chicken breasts, skin removed

  • 2 to 3 teaspoons ground cayenne chile

  • 1 tablespoon ground paprika

  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

  • 1/2 cup lemon juice

  • 3 tablespoons melted butter or margarine

  • Garnish: Lemon slices

  • Mint Raita, see recipe below


  • 1 cup plain yogurt

  • 1/4 teaspoon crushed saffron threads dissolved in 1/4 cup hot water

  • 1 tablespoon grated ginger

  • 1 tablespoon chopped garlic

  • 3 teaspoons ground red chile, such as New Mexican or piquin

  • 2 teaspoons Garam Masala, commercial, or see recipe below

  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander

  • 1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric

  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

  • 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cumin

  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

Line a strainer with a dampened cheesecloth, add the yogurt and place over a bowl. Put the bowl and strainer in the refrigerator and let the yogurt drain for 4 hours to thicken.

Make slashes in the chicken about 2 inches deep. Combine the cayenne, paprika, and black pepper and rub the mixture into slashes, add the lemon juice and coat the chicken. Marinate the chicken for 30 minutes at room temperature, then drain.

Put the drained yogurt and all the rest of the ingredients for the marinade in a blender or food processor and puree until smooth. Pour the marinade over the chicken and, using your fingers, rub it into the meat. Cover the chicken and refrigerate for 24 hours, turning at least once.

Start a charcoal or hardwood fire in your barbecue. Place the grill 2 inches over the coals and grill the chicken for 10 minutes, turning once. Use the marinade to baste the chicken as it cooks. Raise the grill to 5 inches and continue cooking for another 5 minutes, turning once.

Remove the chicken and brush with the melted butter. Return the chicken to the grill and continue to cook for another 5 minutes, turning once, until the chicken is done and the juices run clear.

Serve the chicken garnished with lemon slices and with the mint chutney on the side.

Yield: 4 servings

Heat Scale: Medium

Garam Masala

In Hindi the word garam means hot or heating and masala, a mixture of spices. The Hindu teachings about health refers to effects of spices in the body. Garam Masala is a mixture of those which create heat in the body–cinnamon, cloves, black pepper, and cardamom. Toasting the spices before grinding releases their essential oils. Masalas are prized for their aromatic qualities and are usually formulated for a specific use. This masala, however, is a basic blend that is used alone or with other seasonings. If used in cooking, they are best used towards the end of cooking period to get the full effect of their aroma. Garam Masala can also be sprinkled over a finished dish as a garnish.

  • 3 3-inch pieces cinnamon sticks

  • 1 tablespoon black peppercorns

  • 1 tablespoon whole cloves

  • 1 tablespoon cardamom pods

  • 1 tablespoons coriander seeds

  • 1 teaspoon cumin seeds

  • 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

Place a heavy skillet over high heat. Add the spices and lightly roast until the seeds begin to “pop” and they become fragrant. Be careful that they do not burn.

Allow the spices to cool, and grind until fine in a spice mill.

Yield: 1/4 cup

Heat Scale: Mild

Mint Raita

Raitas, or raytas, are India’s version of a salsa or salad that are served as cooling counterpoints to hot and spicy Indian foods. They are yogurt based and contain vegetables that are either raw or cooked, and low fat or whole yogurt. If using whole fat yogurt thin with a little water to produce a smooth texture. Because of the coolness of the yogurt, they are served during hot weather only. Serve with crudities or pieces of Indian bread called naan as an exotic appetizer.

  • 1/2 cup plain yogurt

  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint

  • 1 tablespoon minced onion

  • 1/2 teaspoon garam masala, commercial or see recipe above

  • 1/2 teaspoon minced serrano chile

  • Pinch of sugar

  • Salt to taste

Combine all the ingredients in a bowl, cover and let sit at room temperature for an hour to blend the flavors. Refrigerate until ready to use.

Yield: 1/2 cup

Heat Scale: Mild

Satay Daging (Beef Satay with Peanut Sauce)

Satay Daging

Satays, or sates, are popular throughout Malaysia and the 13,000 some islands that comprise the county of Indonesia. They are miniature brochettes or kabobs made of bite-sized pieces of meat and grilled on bamboo skewers over glowing charcoal. Eaten as a snack, appetizer, or part of the meal itself. They can be made of beef, chicken, pork, as well as lamb, depending on local custom and individual tastes. They contain meat only, never vegetables, and are served with a spicy sauce, such as Sambal Kacang, on the side for dipping. Note: This recipe requires advance preparation.

  • 4 to 5 Thai chiles, stems removed, or substitute serrano chiles

  • 4 green onions, chopped including some of the greens

  • 1 tablespoon chopped ginger

  • 3 cloves garlic

  • 2 to 3 tablespoons peanut oil plus oil for basting

  • 2 tablespoons tamarind juice

  • 1 tablespoon lime juice, fresh preferred

  • 2 teaspoons ground coriander

  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cumin

  • 1 teaspoon sugar

  • 1/2 cup coconut milk

  • 1.5  pounds sirloin beef, cut in 1-inch cubes

  • Sambal Kacang, commercial or see recipe below

Place the chiles, onion, ginger, and garlic in a blender or food processor and puree until smooth, adding some of the peanut oil, if necessary, to make a paste.

Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a heavy saucepan, add the spice paste and saute the mixture for a couple of minutes. Add the remaining ingredients, except the beef, and simmer until the sauce starts to thicken, about 15 minutes. If the marinade becomes too thick, thin with hot water. Allow the mixture to cool.

Place the beef cubes in a heavy plastic bag and add the marinade. Marinate the beef overnight in the refrigerator. Remove the beef and thread on skewers.

Preheat a gas gill to high or, if using charcoal, the coals should be glowing. Grill the satays until done, about 2 to 3 minutes per side. Brush them constantly with the oil and turn frequently to prevent burning. Cut one cube to check for doneness, they should be slightly charred on the outside and just done on the inside.

To serve, place the satays on a platter, and serve the Sambal Kacang sauce on the side for dipping.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Heat Scale: Medium

Sambal Kacang (Spicy Peanut Sauce)

This hot and spicy peanut sauce is probably the one most associated with Indonesian cuisine. There are many variations of this widely popular sambal. It’s used as a dip for satays, as a basis for unusual curries, as a dressing for gado gado, which is an elaborate mixed vegetable salad, and as a sauce for cooked vegetables. It is traditionally prepared by pounding the peanuts into a paste before using. I’ve simplified the recipe by substituting commercial peanut butter.

  • 3 shallots, minced

  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic

  • 1 teaspoon minced ginger

  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil, peanut preferred

  • 1 cup chicken broth

  • 1/2 cup peanut butter, either crunchy or smooth

  • 3 tablespoons lime juice, fresh preferred

  • 1 tablespoon crushed dried piquin chiles

  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce

  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar

  • 2 teaspoons Asian fish sauce

Heat the oil in a heavy skillet over medium high heat. Add the shallots, garlic, and ginger and saute until the onions are soft and transparent but not browned, about 5 minutes.

Add the chicken broth, raise the heat, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and stir in the remaining ingredients. Simmer the sauce, uncovered, for 10 to 15 minutes until thickened.

Serve the sambal warm or at room temperature. Do not refrigerate or the peanut butter will congeal and the flavors will not blend.

Yield: 1 cup

Heat Scale: Hot

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