Food From The Rye: Callaloo



I was worried that me and callaloo were doomed from the start. The soup always seems to contain a healthy amount of okra and I had a problem with this for two reasons: firstly, those hairy little fingers irritate the hell out of my (thankfully not so hairy) little fingers, bringing me out in a rash, and secondly, most callaloo recipes called for them to simmer in the liquid for at least half an hour. This to me says one thing and one thing only: slime. Eating overcooked okra is like eating a fat slimy bogey; a big glutinous bowl of snot soup. Yum. Can’t wait.

After a bit of mental wrestling I came to the conclusion that omitting them entirely was not acceptable and so I fried the sappy slices until they were sappy no more, sealed instead by a crispy outer crust. They were added back at the last minute. Other than these (literally) irritating beasties, the soup contains pork, prawns, scotch bonnet chilli, thyme, two types of onion and of course, the callaloo. I think it’s safe to say there’s a lot going on.

The flavour of the callaloo, which I bought tinned, is described somewhere on the great interwebz as, ‘a cross between spinach and cabbage’. That is exactly what it tastes like. Perhaps there’s a bit of asparagus in there as well. You get the idea. This predominantly ‘green’ flavour, makes for a very vegetal soup. At first. Then comes pork and then, even-better-joy-of-joys, pork fat; melty pieces cling to each pink nugget with a seductive wobble. There is the odd surprise of shrimp but it’s not unpleasant.

At first I find the soup musty but as the spoonfuls pass this transforms into an intriguing peppery complexity. The coconut milk is not really discernible as its usual overwhelming self but instead sort of lingers around keeping things in order. The okra keep themselves to themselves.

There’s no getting away from it – this is some seriously hearty soup and I’m amazed that it is usually served as a side dish, to act as a sort of gravy for other foods. Most of my Rye Lane dishes have been similar in weight and intensity. They are the kind of dishes that stick to your ribs; fortify, bolster and sustain.

That said, this soup also has an aromatic quality from the little love triangle going on between chilli, coconut and thyme; a surprising delicacy underneath it all really. But then that was the problem right there: so much in the mix, so many flavours and contrasts that all got a little bit muddy and confused. I really should have started with a simple version (no meat or fish) like the family recipe sent to me by a friend and blogger yesterday.

Although I enjoyed the taste of the callaloo vegetable itself, I’m not sure I’ll be cooking with it that often. A green leafy vegetable from a tin is not really any contender for fresh spinach, kale or chard for example. Well, my version isn’t anyway. I basically made a fundamental schoolgirl error by choosing to make the nitrous oxide, big-bore, super-charged version when I should have started off with the understated yet reliable runner. You live and learn.


325g callaloo (drained weight)
1 small white onion, finely chopped
1 tablespoon thyme leaves
3 spring onions, white and green parts, chopped
125g thick bacon cubes
225g small prawns
150ml coconut milk
200g okra, sliced
1 small scotch bonnet chilli, de-seeded and chopped
Stock – about 1 litre (I used vegetable)

Begin by frying the okra in a little oil until soft but crispy on the outside. Set aside on kitchen paper to soak up any oil. In a large pan, soften the onions and chilli gently for a few minutes before adding the callaloo, bacon, thyme and stock. Bring to the boil and then simmer for about 30 minutes before adding the prawns, okra and coconut milk for a further 2 or 3 minutes. Check the seasoning and serve.

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  • Avatar
    Reply The Ginger Gourmand December 20, 2009 at 5:55 pm

    A nifty way to include the okra in your callaloo! It can be horrid and slimey. We sometimes order okra bahji from the Indian Dining Club if we get take away and that is crispy fried in the same way and pretty damn tasty.

    I’ve not tried the callaloo from tins – the recipe I use has fresh spinach instead. Still a rather unusual, irony flavour in there though!

  • Avatar
    Reply tobias cooks! December 20, 2009 at 7:16 pm

    Looks healthy and delicious.

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  • Avatar
    Reply Christie @ Fig&Cherry December 20, 2009 at 11:20 pm

    Fantastic photos Helen! Love the reflections in the red onion one.

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    Reply Catherine December 21, 2009 at 8:15 am

    I’ve eaten (and cooked) callaloo all over the Caribbean and have very rarely seen okra or coconut milk in it – I personally wouldn’t bother with the former. Much more important is the pork! The other thing is that much of the callaloo in tins is in actual fact a variety of spinach, so when I make it here I just use whatever greens are available, which is what most West Indian people I know do too – though some of them grow it in their gardens/allotments (it’s basically a biproduct of dasheen).

    Yours does look very good and authentic though.

    • Avatar
      Reply betty prince September 26, 2018 at 10:16 am

      Pepper pot soup eaten a lot in Jamaica always include young okra ring slices and lean salt pork pieces. My granny prefered salt beef unstead of pork but equally tasty.

  • Avatar
    Reply Helen December 21, 2009 at 10:18 am

    The Ginger Gourmand – Hi and thanks again for the recipe. I think I will definitely just use spinach next time. Thanks also for mentioning the okra bhaji – -what a wonderful idea! I find most vegetables are transformed by a good deep-frying…

    Tobias Cooks – Well, I suppose it may look healthy from all the green but there is rather a lot of pork fat in there to be honest!

    Christie – Cheers m’dear!

    Catherine – How interesting. I honestly found only a couple of recipes that didn’t include okra. What a relief! On the coconut milk side of things, Wikipedia says that “Trinidadians have embraced this dish from their ancestors and over time have added ingredients such as coconut milk to improve its flavor” but it is interesting that you have not found this on your travels. What I am most pleased to hear however, is that the pork is very important. This is simply the best news I have heard all day! I’ll try making a simplified version next time then just using spinach (no okra!) and the pork. Thanks for your comment, interesting stuff.

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    Reply Lizzie December 21, 2009 at 11:03 am

    I’ve often wondered what callaloo is, but I love the jerk chicken / pork too much to stray from ordering it.

    I love okra, even it’s slimeyness!

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    Reply Gourmet Chick December 21, 2009 at 11:05 am

    That picture of all the onions looks fantastic – I am enjoying this Caribbean theme you are going through at the moment after the earlier Sichuan one!

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    Reply shayma December 21, 2009 at 12:10 pm

    i dont eat pork, but the way you’ve photographed this and described it, hey, even i want some now. the idea of meat, seafood, vegetables and coconut milk sound v comforting this winter- and w the addition of that red chili you added- it looks gorgeous. i dont like slimey ladyfingers either- my mum has taught me to never, ever stir when it’s being sauted, at least for the first 20 minutes- let the ladyfingers do their own thing, she says. that’s what prevents the slime from coming out. i like the way you fried yours first, really clever. happy hols, helen. x

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    Reply Sharmila December 21, 2009 at 12:41 pm

    Glad you went with the pre-frying approach for the Okra Helen! This looks very comforting indeed.

    If you need any other Indian okra recipes, I have a wonderful one for a yoghurt-based dish!

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    Reply Helen December 21, 2009 at 12:51 pm

    Lizzie – yeah exactly, it’s impossible. I’ve never ordered it in a Caribbean restaurant either for the same reason. I will persevere with the okra. The fried ones were nice after all but I think I’ve a way to go before I like the slime!

    Gourmet Chick – Thanks! Yes and the Sichuan one continues! The cravings only get stronger and stronger…

    Shayma – Thanks and thanks also for the tip! I will experiment with your mum’s cooking method.

    Sharmila – Yes yes yes please! Yoghurt is one of my favourite ingredients.

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    Reply Jonathan December 21, 2009 at 6:40 pm

    Love the third picture in particular. I can almost smell it through my computer screen. In a good way it reminds me of some very iffy okra experiences I had in Ghana…

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    Reply Catherine December 21, 2009 at 8:20 pm

    It very much depends on the island – I must have over 40 different recipes for callaloo and what is common in Trinidad can be unheard of in, say, Dominica etc.

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    Reply Y December 23, 2009 at 5:27 am

    Haven’t tried this before. Sounds intriguing, and looks absolutely delicious!

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    Reply Margaret January 6, 2010 at 3:34 pm

    I just LOVE that middle photo!

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    Reply Sasha @ Global Table Adventure December 30, 2010 at 2:56 pm

    Looks wonderful! I’m going to be making a version of Callaloo for my meal for Dominica (I’m cooking one meal for every country in the world). Your post and the comments are helping me hone in on what version to make. Definitely one with ham (I have leftovers from our Christmas dinner.. yum! 🙂

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