The Melting Pot | Immigrants Bring New Approach to Rhode Island Seafood

By Sarah Schumann
Photos by Stacey Doyle

Providence is a city of immigrants. A full third of the city’s residents are foreign-born, originating in countries as far-flung as the Dominican Republic, Colombia, Bolivia, Guatemala, Cambodia, China, Laos, Liberia, and Cape Verde. They bring with them culinary traditions through which they interpret the fruits of Rhode Island’s land and waters.

Seafood figures prominently in this culinary convergence. Fishermen selling their catch at the docks in Galilee know this: they count immigrants as among their most eager and versatile customers. Tackle shop owners know this too: they do brisk business selling dip nets, hooks, and bait to immigrant day-trippers in summer.

I had an inkling of it as well, having worked in the past as a lobster boat deckhand and farmers’ market seafood sales associate. When selling at the dock or in the park, I noticed that immigrants—whether from West Africa, Central America, or Southeast Asia—gravitated towards different local seafood items than those popular among native-born  Rhode  Islanders. Crabs instead of lobsters. Sea robins instead of cod. Scup instead of scallops. I also noticed that they preferred their fish whole. But what I wanted to know was: how did they prepare it once they got home?

To learn more, I asked a friend, Joshua Riazi. Joshua is a classically trained chef who coordinates a culinary job skills program at the Genesis Center in Providence. Many of his students have roots in other countries.

But Joshua didn’t want to just answer my question; he wanted to show me. So he brought together his assistant Alba Rabe and two of his current students, Gonya Jangaba and Alice Rivera. Alba, Gonya, and Alice went to their local markets and picked up some spices and vegetables. I went to Sea Freeze Shoreside in Galilee and picked up a box of herring, mackerel, and scup. Then we all gathered in the kitchen at the Genesis Center, and we got cooking.

Gonya prepared a traditional Liberian dish with Rhode Island scup, Alice prepared a Dominican dish with Rhode Island mackerel, and Alba prepared a Honduran dish with Rhode Island herring. Each was unique, and all were delicious.

As Rhode Island’s local seafood movement continues to blossom, it may find itself propelled by something that isn’t originally local at all: a repertoire of culinary know-how learned in countries across the globe and imported to Rhode Island through the customs and cookbooks of Providence immigrants. The recipes that follow offer an introduction to those customs, applied to local fish

Recipes may be applied to any kind of fish small enough to fit in a baking pan or wok.

Try them with local species such as scup, herring, whiting, mackerel, sea robin, sea raven, or small black sea bass. 

BAKED FISH WITH TOMATO SAUCE
Gonya Jangaba | Liberia 

 

When Gonya Jangaba left Liberia at the age of 7, she was already a practiced cook. According to Gonya, Liberian girls are trained from a young age to become wives and mothers, learning to make specialties like pepper soup, a spicy staple of Liberian cuisine, made with fish or meat, that serves as both a meal and a cold remedy.

Liberians use fish for purposes both spiritual and mundane, Gonya says. Residents of the predominantly Christian country eat fish to break their fast on Easter. They also like to eat it on the street, where vendors make it hot and fresh to-order for customers as they wait.

In Rhode Island, Gonya buys her fish at Armando and Sons Meat Market on Elmwood Avenue.

INGREDIENTS

4 small fish
Mrs.Dash seasoning
1 Zuchinni
1 White onion
Olive oil
Sazon seasoning, adobo seasoning
1 pint Goya tomator sauce
Cilantro or Basil

RECIPE makes four small fish

  • Preheat the oven to 325°
  • To prepare the fish, remove scales and guts.* Rinse and pat dry.
  • Score the sides. Season inside and out with Mrs. Dash seasoning.
  • Arrange fish on their sides in a baking pan.
  • Thinly slice 1 zucchini and 1 white onion.
  • Place slices on top of fish.
  • Drizzle with olive oil, and bake for 30 minutes.
  • While the fish is in the oven, prepare the sauce.
  • Mix 1 packet (about 1½ teaspoons) sazon seasoning, 1½ teaspoons adobo seasoning, and 1 pint Goya tomato sauce.
  • Add a small handful of cilantro or basil, chopped fine. Optional: add a pinch of hot pepper, such as cayenne.
  • Remove fish from oven after 30 minutes.
  • Pour tomato sauce mixture over the fish, and return to oven.
  • Bake another 30 minutes.
  • The flesh should be white all the way through when poked with a fork.
  • Remove and serve warm.

FISH ESCABECHE

Alice Rivera | Puerto Rico

Alice Rivera moved from Puerto Rico to Rhode Island as a young child. Although Puerto Rico is in the U.S., the seafood cuisine that Alice learned from her mother and grandmother is its own regional specialty—different not only from New England’s cod and boiled potatoes but also from other Caribbean island seafood cuisines.

Puerto Ricans enjoy a lot of shrimp, octopus, crabmeat, lobster meat, and clams, Alice recounts, and they flavor it with onions, red peppers, and cilantro. Regardless of preparation, she adds, fish is best when it’s fresh.

“I prefer catching fish myself, instead of going to a fish market,” Alice explains. In the summer, she likes to go with friends and family to Narragansett and East Greenwich, where they fish from kayaks and dig for quahogs. Her favorite local catches are striped bass, scup, and flounder.

INGREDIENTS

2 small fish
1 tbsp salt
1 tbsp pepper
4 cloves garlic
red onion
white onion
green pepper
red pepper
2 bay leaves
1 tsp whole peppercorns
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp vinegar
yucca

RECIPE makes two small fish

  • Preheat the oven to 350°
  • Make the fish seasoning by mashing together 1 tablespoon salt, 1 tablespoon ground black pepper, and 4 cloves garlic with a mortar and pestle.
  • To prepare the fish, remove scales and guts.* Rinse and pat dry. Score the sides.
  • Rub the seasoning mixture over the fish, inside and out.
  • Arrange fish on their sides in a baking pan.
  • Bake for 45 minutes.
  • While the fish is in the oven, make the escabeche topping.
  • Cut 3 very thin slices each of red onion, white onion, green pepper, and red pepper.
  • In a bowl, stir together pepper and onion slices with 2 bay leaves, 1 teaspoon whole peppercorns, and 1 tablespoon each of olive oil and vinegar.
  • Cook the mixture in a skillet over medium heat until vegetables begin to soften. Remove from heat. 
  • When fish is done baking, remove from oven and place on a platter.
  • Arrange the vegetables on top, and pour remaining liquid over the top. Serve accompanied with boiled yucca.
  • To peel the yucca, cut a shallow slit through the leathery skin from top to bottom, then wriggle out the inner white root by rocking it back and forth while holding a knife or spoon under the skin to peel it away.
  • Slice the yucca into ½-inch discs, and boil until soft, about 10 minutes.
  • Serve alongside the fish.

FRIED FISH WITH PLANTAINS, CABBAGE SALAD, AND PICO DE GALLO

Alba Rabe | Honduras

Alba Rabe is from the Pacific coast of Honduras, a land of mangroves, shrimp, and shellfish. There, Alba says, she ate seafood at least twice a week, sometimes every day. It’s a tradition she has maintained since moving to Rhode Island, where her favorite local fish is scup. Although she likes to go fishing with her family in Newport each summer, Alba says that her talents lie in the cooking, not the catching.

“My sister is good catching those fish, but I don’t know how. I usually go with my family, but I just like to be there to support them. To go fishing, you have to have a passion for it. That’s not me. I love to eat it, but not catch it!”

INGREDIENTS

4 small fish
Canola or vegetable oil
salt
1 small white onion
3 plum tomatoes
2 tbspn cilantro
Lemon juice
1/2 tspn white vinegar
1/4 tspn ground black pepper
1/4 tspn cumin
1 small head of cabbage
3 carrots
3 green plantains

RECIPE makes four fish

  • To prepare the fish, remove scales and guts.* Rinse and pat dry. Score the sides. Sprinkle with salt.
  • Pour canola or vegetable oil into a deep frying pan or wok. Heat oil over high heat. Test for readiness by adding a drop of water or a piece of vegetable; the oil is ready when the test ingredient sizzles and pops.
  • Add fish to the oil, and cook until it is golden brown. Then flip it and cook until the other side also appears crispy.
  • Serve accompanied with pico de gallo, cabbage salad, and fried green plantain chips.
  • To make pico de gallo, finely chop 1 small white onion, 3 plum tomatoes, and 2 tablespoons cilantro. Mix with 1 tablespoon salt, juice of 1 lemon, ½ tablespoon white vinegar, ¼ teaspoon ground black pepper, and ¼ teaspoon cumin.
  • To make cabbage salad, shred a small head of cabbage and 3 carrots. Mix in a bowl, along with a pinch of salt and lemon juice to taste.
  • To make plantain chips, remove the skin from 3 green plantains. It is wise to use gloves, as plantain skins can leave hands sticky. Cut each plantain in half at the middle, then cut each half into 4-5 slices. Soak slices in cold water until they are ready to cook; this keeps them from turning black. Just before serving, deep-fry plantain slices and sprinkle with salt

How to Scale and Gut a Fish

* All fish should be gutted before use
* Some local fish, such as scup, should be scaled before use.

To scale a fish, position it over a sink or on a cut-ting board with its tail facing you. With your other hand, hold a knife or fork at a 45° angle. Working from tail to head, scrape scales off, careful not to miss hard-to-reach places like behind the fins.

(Local fish such as mackerel, herring, and sea robin do not need to be scaled.)

To gut a fish, use a sharp knife to make a slit from the fish’s anus (a small hole near the tail) towards its gills. Next, spread the gills open with one hand while using a knife or scissors to clip the gills from the head.

Finally, grab the gills and guts and pull them out of the fish in one mo-tion, working from head to tail. Scrape the cavity with a spoon or knife, and rinse well with cold water. Some people prefer to chop the whole head off, but this is not necessary.

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