Tomato Choka Is the Caribbean Dish That Will Brighten Any Gathering
Long before she stepped into the halls of the Culinary Institute of America, Anya Peters was a student. She had been surrounded by food her whole life. When her dad wasn’t at work, he was in their New Jersey kitchen, Peters alongside him. She watched her grandmother season food and took notes, soaking in her lessons. Any time she could assist, Peters would be there, setting the table or slicing butter into cubes destined for a hot pan.
“Caribbean food is very nuanced and very regional, and it often starts in the home,” she explains. With Jamaican and Trinidadian heritage, Peters doesn’t prescribe to a narrow definition of Caribbean cuisine. She learned early on, though, how to make her food taste like home.
As for cooking and technique, her greatest education didn’t come by way of culinary school but from her community. “I don’t think my generation is necessarily interested in looking back at history and seeing how we make foods traditionally,” Peters says. But she is. “So I started to ask elders and recorded our stories on video and audio.”
With the techniques and culinary insight from her family, Peters began hosting pop-ups and taking on catering opportunities. She started Kit an’ Kin, what she refers to as a “vessel” for sharing Caribbean foodways through education, meals, and celebrations.
Like the time her grandmother accompanied her to a large catering gig where her signature rice and peas dish, passed down through generations, was on the menu for a group of 300 people. For a gathering of that size, the dish needed to be prepared using an oven instead of a traditional pot on the stove, something Peters’ grandma didn’t think was possible. “She was looking so skeptical, because you don’t mess with her stuff,” Peters laughs. “But it came out. Little moments like those are what I love the most about this process—bringing my family together.”
The knowledge that Peters is absorbing and sharing is not just for elders, but for the younger generation, too. Peters is motivated to bring about a series of children’s cookbooks exploring hyper-regional Caribbean cuisine and diasporic riffs.
“I have a niece and she’s three now, and I really want to tap into that intergenerational learning and make something for her that is culturally relevant,” Peters says. Inspired by the genre of “my first cookbooks,” Peters intends to put her own twist on children’s cookbooks by sharing the national dishes for countries throughout the Caribbean: ackee and saltfish for Jamaica, cocoa tea from Grenada, and Trini callaloo. “All these different islands have food that are revered there and children grow up eating it, so this is going to be for Caribbean children or any child interested in food,” Peters says. As a multi-hyphenate creative, Peters will write and illustrate the books herself using watercolors.
It’s a lot of projects to juggle, but Peters’ passion is palpable. “I like to think of myself as a culinary anthropologist, in the sense that I am for Caribbean culture in terms of food, art, music, and general traditions and keeping that link between generations connected.”Peters is doing this on a larger scale with both Kit an’ Kin and her cookbook project, for which she is slated to roll out preorders in August. But on a microlevel, Peters unites friends and family at home around the table, where she might be found serving tomato choka, a summertime favorite that is versatile and celebratory of the season’s produce.
“Choka is perfect in the summertime because you have the grill and you want to fire something really quick and also have food that is vegetable-oriented,” Peters says. “Choka is basically a method of burning a vegetable over fire or coals and then pounding it up with seasonings, a hit of acid, and cilantro.”
Peters has served hers with shrimp, roti, and bhaji (a cooked spinach dish). You can have it for breakfast or as a side to dinner, but the ease of preparation and the robust flavors make it a crowd pleaser. “There’s the fresh aroma of fried garlic, cilantro, lime juice, and summer tomatoes,” Peters grins. “It just goes so well with everything and is so easy to make and do.”
- 8 ripe tomatoes (plum, heirloom, beefsteak)
- ½ cup grapeseed oil
- 2 cloves garlic whole, plus 2 cloves minced
- 1 tablespoon cumin seeds
- 4 sprigs thyme, stripped
- ¼ hot pepper, seeded and minced *or 1 teaspoon cayenne depending on preferred spice level
- 1 bunch cilantro
- Juice of 1 lime
- Pinch of salt and black pepper
1. Oil tomatoes with 4 tablespoons of grapeseed oil and sprinkle salt and pepper on top. Broil the tomatoes on a lined sheet pan on low for 15 minutes until charred. Alternatively, fire up your grill and roast the tomatoes slowly until blistered 20-30 minutes.
2. With a mortar and pestle or your knife, grind garlic, thyme, hot pepper, and cilantro together to create a base for tomato.
3. Remove as much blackened skin as you can from tomatoes and place in a large bowl with the ground seasoning base. Season with salt and pepper and lime juice.
4. In a shallow frying pan, let 4 tablespoons of grapeseed oil heat on medium high. Fry remaining minced garlic until golden brown (2-3 minutes) and cumin seeds and toss the hot oil and garlic cumin mixture on tomato choka. Mix together.
5. Serve with fry bakes.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, TikTok, and Snapchat!
Kat Thompson is a senior staff writer of food & drink at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @katthompsonn.