The Origins of ‘slave food’: Callaloo, Dumplings and Saltfish

The Caribbean is sometimes referred to as the true ‘melting pot in the Americas’, where people, their culture, customs and cuisines, were forcibly integrated with the newer imports of African people under European bondage. Today, we trace back the origins of one of these ‘melting pot’ creations; Callaloo with Dumplings and Saltfish.

The actual origins of Callaloo are widely contested. For Trinidadians, Callaloo is one part of their national dish: Crab and Callaloo- a dish which was created by the African slaves sometime around 1530 when the island was under Spanish occupation.

It means that whilst the dish may be a national staple on both islands in Trinidad and Tobago, the origins of the dish stem long after the arrival of African slaves circa-1510. Furthermore, documents detailing the cuisine of Africans by English and Dutch Explorers in the 1400’s, depict Callaloo as a regular ingredient in dishes, most noticeably ones which include spinach.

However, the difference in preparation between African Callaloo and that found in the Caribbean and particularly in Trinidad and Tobago is the use of Palm oil. As a readily available plant throughout West Africa, Palm Oil was and still is used in a variety of dishes throughout Nigeria, Congo, Sierra Leone and Angola. However, in the Caribbean, where Palm trees and alas, Palm Oil is not native or wildly available, the slaves in the 1530’s were forced to improvise using what was readily available near or on their plantations- Coconut palm.

As the processes between Coconut oil and Palm Oil are vastly different, the resulting oil not only changes the depth of flavours between the two different types of Callaloo, but their flavour profiles and health properties as well, with Palm Oil having more carcinogenic properties than its coconut oil variant, as well as having a more ‘slimy’ texture and slightly more bitter taste.

Regardless of the flavour of food, the Slaves merely sought out the oil for its ability to keep the Callaloos’ texture firm and consistent throughout the dish, preventing it from becoming almost paste like in consistency.

Yet surprisingly, the method of how the slaves extracted the oil from the Coconut palm is relatively unchanged over the past 400 years, with the slaves initially grating a dry coconut into a pulp before squeezing the liquid out through a sieve, resulting in a product that had the colour of milk which they would then add into the ingredients to make Callaloo.

Now whilst Callaloo was a tasty and often filling morsel for the ill-treated slaves to dine on, the time consuming nature of creating Callaloo from scratch was often too risky for it to be a regular form of sustenance. As such, an alternative was forcibly needed; dumplings.

Whilst both Caribbean and African cuisines now use a combination of plain and self-raising flour made from wheat for their dumplings today, the Slaves would not have had access to wheat crops. Instead, Cassava, which was cultivated by several plantations for its similarities to wheat and potatoes, would make the first adaptations of dumplings in the West Indies.

In both cases, where the ingenuity of the enslaved lay was what they accompanied their carbohydrate heavy dishes with; seafood. As crabs were often the most easy to catch of all the seafood available due to Trinidad and Tobago’s abundance of shorelines, Crabs rock pooling along the shore were easy targets for slaves looking for a quick bite.

As restrictions on the movement of slave both on and off the plantation grew and the penalties for escaping or even wondering out of the plantation became more severe, the use of crabs fizzled out by the mid 1500’s. Instead, the enslaved were forced to look for an alternative to their dish- which they found in saltfish.

Initially used as a fertiliser for the crops, ‘Salt-fish’- which was merely any white fish that was doused in salt, was often useable fish that slave owners did not want to use to feed their slaves/. Initially, the fertiliser was fresh fish, but after slaves ate the fish whilst working the fields, Plantation owners added salt to deter their slaves from eating the produce. As such, initial adopters of raw Saltfish were those who were hungry; a decision which often became a cause for their death due to dehydration. Those who were caught eating the salt fish were reprimanded with lashes, muzzles and in the case of known repeat offenders, the removal of their tongue.

It meant that for the Saltfish to become a useable or even integral part of a meal, it had to be processed- which was often done by ‘washing’ the salt off the fish where available, boiling the fish till the salt came off as a silted layer in the water, or soaking the fish till the taste of the salt was almost completely removed.

Today, Callaloo with Dumplings and Saltfish is a hearty, filling meal eaten by Trinidadians, often on a Sunday when available. In recent years, and with the growing acknowledgement of Trinidad’s Asian influence, Roti is included or even used to substitute for the Dumplings, whilst Crabs have been re-introduced into the dish to accompany and even contrast the more savoury flavour of the Salted fish.


I would not necessarily consider the Caribbean the true “melting pot” in the Americas. Of course I would say this because I am African American 🙂

that very interesting to found thing like tis out as to where the original dish came from
very esy to make and very tasty too

The saltfish history is interesting to note, as other accounts refer to the Portuguese bringing salt fish / bacalhau to the Caribbean. Whilst I note you article in on Trinidad, I had read about the Portuguese and that along with saltfish, rice and peas were fed to slaves during transportation and on the plantation. As these were dry ingredients that were non-perishable and could be stored on ships and transported.

see and

Many thanks for publishing this article, it’s extended my understanding of another facet to Caribbean culinary history.

As a regular eater of callaloo, albeit made with spinach rather than with dasheen leaves now we’re in England, I appreciated this little bit of history. Might buy some palm oil and try it that way!

Exactly why you were enslaved American black still no unity

Thank you for the insight into the story about Callaloo and dumplings , I did know some aspects however was unsure as to whether this dish was solely for Trinidad, I also saw this in dish Jamaica. As a Vegetarian I do not eat meats of any types, however I enjoy Dasheen Spinach and Callaloo all of the time and the two traditions which goes Palm Oil, but not much- my preference is coconut oil

Can you let us know what sources you used for the articles.


Thank you for the the article a good read.

Clint Hendrickson – a ridiculous statement to make

What are the origins of the plants used for Callaloo ,or Kallaloo?

Brilliant read. Brought back memories of waking up early Sunday morning to the sound of my Nan grating the coconuts. Then I used to watch her squeezing the juice through the sieve and as a child never understood why she didn’t just use the milk! Now I know, and will start using this method especially for cooking rice and peas. Thank you

Greetings. andAll due respect to your work.

A quote from your post:
“Yet surprisingly, the method of how the slaves extracted the oil from the Coconut palm is relatively unchanged over the past 400 years, with the slaves initially grating a dry coconut into a pulp before squeezing the liquid out through a sieve, resulting in a product that had the colour of milk which they would then add into the ingredients to make Callaloo.”

I am Jamaican.
Just to be sure.
Callaloo.. is a green plant; It stands alone.
You are correct in this part: the grated pulp is squeezed through a fine cloth, or a fine strainer:
but… I watched My Late Uncle, when I was 5 years old, in Kingstom JAMAICA, cook rundown…; by boiling the coconut milk, from the coconut, NOT FROM THE {{PALM}}.

THEN he cooked/ fried whatever other ingredients in that resulting oil.

The way you wrote the process .. give a different understanding to those of us …not from Jamaica.
Notwithstanding, thanks for showing the readers our Jamaican creations.

They treated the slaves so badly

One Love, give thanks for this beautiful info. I have 2 add, being from one of the Guyana’s, saltfish is one of our staple food but we do not fry dumplings. Saltfish is called Batyaw obviously derived from BacalhauThe former British Guyana dem do make fry dumpling calling it float or bake. And in Brasil in Salvador the palm oil is a staple food they call it Dende. A lot from their food is as is their culture Nigerian orientated. We R an amazing people 4ward ever.

Callaloo is actually an Amerindian dish. Boiling tarro leaves with crab is actually a pre-historic food. It origin is not with African slaves.

Very interesting article. I think what was written about the poor treatment of slaves was and is despicable.

Callaloo is made with coconut milk NOT coconut oil btw. Salt fish refers to salted cod that was dried and salted and used on sea voyages. Callaloo is eaten mainly as a side dish in Trinidad.
Just a lil Trini input here.

Oh and as a Trinidadian let me assure you it is eaten with red beans and rice and stew chicken. Sometimes macaroni pie and baked chicken but NOT dumpling and salt fish. Seriously…

Also…even in Oprah Winfrey’s cook book there is a better pic of what callaloo looks like. It’s a soupy dish not what you have pictured here.

You can use or cook callaloo however you like the greens. The Jamaican, Trinidadian, Nigerian, or my way is good. Sauté vegetable with garlic, onion, scotch bonnet, oil (your choice), fresh tomato, bacon bits, or crabs, salt fish. Make it yours! Barbara

The plant/greens that both Trinis and Ja’cans call “callaloo” are two distinctly different plants, hence some confusion as to who is right and how it is traditionally prepared. I too was baffled until I found out that the Trini version is actually the Taro plant (sometimes prepared with coconut milk), while the Ja’can version is actually a plant of the Amaranth specie (cooked with salt fish). So there we go, my fellow West Indians. Let’s share the name, enjoy our respective version of “callaloo” and honor the legacies of our beloved enslaved ancestors.. Much love…

The picture shows a good reflection of how many nations in the Caribbean and diaspora prepare Callao and fried dumpling/bakes

The dish pictured is the Jamaican version of callaloo and saltfish with fried dumplings. Callaloo in Trinidad is made with dasheen or taro leaves, ochroes (okra), coconut milk, pumpkin, etc and the texture is more like a soup. Jamaicans I have met are actually shocked we cook dasheen (taro) leaves. They cook a different type of leafy vegetable to make their version. As we know it salted cod and brined pig tails were imported as a cheap form of protein to feed slaves.

K. Harry there is an African dish made from cassava leaves which are pounded to remove the ribs then cooked with ochroes , dried fish etc. It is quite similar in taste and texture to callaloo as made in Trinidad.

So many criticisms to this article, most notably the ones written by folks who didn’t read it thoroughly (the coconut palm comment, for e.g.). Write your own articles, nuh? Or just be grateful for the recognition! As a fellow islander (and a person of the ‘Americas’ as noted, geographically; the United States does not constitute to ‘The Americas’ ) I think that a per-island break down of who cooks the foods discussed with what and how would’ve been really nice but I am glad that someone in the United Kingdom elected to write a piece on something that all of us hold so dear – in whatever form we eat it. Our part of the world is a melting pot and everyone has their own take on things that are similar to us all.

Post a comment