Some things are worth a risk. For me, Tobago’s flying fish is one of them. Eat it, and you put your life in the hands of the filleter. The slightest nick of the fish’s poisonous innards while cutting can turn the succulently sweet flesh into a deadly dish. But my yen knows no fear.
My first bite was while visiting Tobago with my Trinidadian father some twenty-five years ago. We stayed with his favorite niece, Pinky, who had relocated there from Trinidad as a young woman. She was an accomplished cook, and the fish that she served us that day was so remarkable that, even at twelve years old, I realized I was eating the first delicacy of my young life. Flying fish are so prized that when they changed migration patterns beginning in the 1960s from the waters around Barbados to those nearer Tobago, bitter tensions arose between the two islands, bordering on an international incident.
Fresh flying fish was not to be had at home in New York City, where my father settled back in the 1950s. Sometimes the West Indian fishmonger in Brooklyn sold it frozen, a watery imitation of itself. It is rarely seen fresh even on sister-island Trinidad, twenty-one miles away from Tobago.
So, on a recent trip to Tobago, the moment my husband and I land at Crown Point International Airport on the southern tip of the island, I ask the driver to take us somewhere for flying fish.
“None ‘round here, Miss,” he says.
“How ‘bout Charlotteville?” I counter.
“Yuh wan’ go way out dere?” He looks at me in surprise. “De fast road being fix.”
“Yes,” I say unflinchingly and get into his twenty-year-old Toyota.
The fishing village of Charlotteville is tucked into a bay on the north coast, about twenty miles from the airport as the crow flies. But since the more direct south road is closed, we have to take the narrow paved road along the island’s leeward coast that skirts the dense rainforest preserve at the island’s heart. This trip will likely take two and a half hours.
We drive along in silence punctuated by the driver’s here-and-there comments. As we pass a group of hunters at the forest edge, their dogs straining hard against the leashes and the day’s heat, he says, “Is manicou dey gettin’.” Manicou, a type of opossum, is a delicacy here. The driver says he makes it into a stew.
“I have sweet hand, ya know,” he says smiling, using the local slang to say he is a good cook.
We drive on, and the flashes of turquoise from the Caribbean bays and inlets below are like sparkles off a diamond. The car slows until a group of barefoot children trying to coax a cow out of the road moves aside.
It is May, and many of the fruit trees are bearing. I search for a glimpse of my favorite: pommerac (also known as the Malay apple), a thin-skinned red fruit with a sweet-tart flesh that grows in the yard of my family’s ancestral home in Trinidad. I see none and share this disappointment with the driver, which gets us to talking about our beloved foods. His favorite dishes are made during Christmastime.
Suddenly he starts to sing local carols. I lean toward the window to feel the breeze and, in my mind, the different ways to cook flying fish bounce along with his tune: fried fish, creole fish, curry fish, fish with tamarind sauce.
About halfway there we pull over for a soda at a rum shop squatting on a precipice over the sea. Below, Parlatuvier Bay on the leeward coast arcs into a perfect horseshoe, like an impossibly pretty postcard. Inside, three old men are sitting at a table. There is a bottle of rum in the center and each has a bottle of Stag beer. They will sit for hours teasing and telling stories as they pour fingers of rum and drink them with beer chasers.
“How you goin’ baby?” one of them calls out to me.
“Fine, uncle,” I answer politely. In Trinidad & Tobago, it’s improper for a “decent woman” to lime in a rum shop. But in the company of my husband and the driver, I won’t be judged a “fast woman.” The old men smile and nod in return.
Back in the car I cannot concentrate on the driver’s banter. I barely notice the traditional outdoor mud-oven that we pass. Old ladies man the volcano-shaped structure, using water-filled rum bottles for rolling pins and banana-leaf squares as baking trays for their fat coconut tarts. It is the flying fish I want.
The car dips down a low hill toward Charlotteville and, in the distance, fishermen haul their pirogues onto the shore. I see the glistening of fish flesh when the boats tip side to side as they are dragged. My mouth starts to water.
At Sharon and Phebs restaurant in the village we take a table on the veranda. It is mid-afternoon and we are the only customers.
“Fish fresh?” I ask the waitress, although I know the answer. She juts her chin toward the fishermen.
“Flying fish?” I ask.
She nods, “How ya wantin’ it?”
I close my eyes. I can’t decide. I want to order ten plates and taste each one. Instead I choose the local style. “Creole,” I answer.
We sit back to look out at Man of War Bay, a little-visited spot that reminds me Tobago is sometimes thought to be Robinson Crusoe’s original isle. We watch ripples of warm, clear water hypnotically roll over the soft sand, and we wait.
Finally, finally it comes: a huge plate, the fish smothered in tomato, onion, and green pepper. I inhale deeply and my eyes begin to water. It’s not from the steam; it is from joy. I take my first bite. It is delicate and delectable and, most of all, sweet. As sweet as the memory of my now-gone father holding out a little morsel of fish for me to nibble from his hand.