I’m sitting in Mi Boca Dushi, a small mostly take-away shop owned by James Boonchi on the Caribbean island of Aruba. We’re eating some of the island’s traditional foods, not the fancy stuff you might find in the many island restaurants that serve the tourists Maine lobster or North Atlantic salmon, but rather the local foods any Aruban will immediately recognize and perhaps even blush a little to say they love.
At Mi Boca Dushi, we’re devouring pastechi, a flakey pastry filled with cheese; meat empanadas; arepas, a Latin American corn cake brimming with grated cheese; funchi, fried sticks of polenta; and a big beautiful pile of chicharrons, thick slices of hard-fried pork belly. All delicious, but also all very high in fats and carbs, which is why it’s best to eat these foods with a pickle
A sprinkling of pickle sauce (center left in the photo above) made a huge difference. Boonchi told us it’s just vinegar, onions, salt and habanero chilies. This simple pickle relieved the potential heaviness of the food, lightening each bite and cleansing the palate between bites, making these Aruban foods taste even better…because that’s what pickles do.
Pickles come in a lot of forms, some of which do not announce themselves as pickles. Sauerkraut is a kind of pickle, as is ceviche. At the Sunset Grill at the Hilton Aruba, we enjoyed Chef Matt Boland’s excellent ceviche “shooter” of blanched scallops, shrimp, squid…and a healthy dose of lemon juice. Lemon or other acidic juice, including vinegar, can actually “cook” the fish and bring out the flavor. Ceviche also delivers a good sour smack that wakes up your mouth for the dinner to come, which is why you sometimes see it on the appetizer menu.
Fermentation is another simple way to make a pickle. To make sauerkraut, for instance, all you need to do is smash cabbage leaves to get the enzymes flowing, add a little water; put it all in a crock and wait a day or so for the magic of fermentation to begin (to convert cabbage to sauerkraut takes around three days, depending upon ambient temperature).
Fermentation also confers upon pickles some important health benefits. Sandor Katz, perhaps the greatest living proponent of fermentation, has said that the most profound nutritional benefit of fermented foods is their bacterial culture: “Antibiotics, cleansing products, and chlorine in water are designed to kill bacteria,” and Katz says fermented foods replace the critical bacteria that improves “our digestion, our immune function, and our mental health.”
Clearly, a fermented pickle is more than just a taste-enhancing condiment.
Whether pickled with acidity or through fermentation, pickles provide immense benefits, for flavor and for health. And they’re everywhere: I counted approximately 100 (!) types of pickles at Pete’s Market on Lake Street.
So, let us now praise the pickle…and what better day to offer that praise than National Pickle Appreciation Day, November 14, when we honor one of our planet’s most important foods, the pickle, so much more than a condiment.