The versatile Roucou or Ookoo plant By Omilla Mungroo. Someone once told me a globally recognised fast food doesn’t taste the same elsewhere as it does here in Trinidad and Tobago. It’s most probably the herbs or seasonings grown here, she said. Others who have travelled to the US and other countries confirm what was said. Our unique blend of shadon beni, podina or fine thyme, and other seasonings, mint, etc, all create a most exotic blend that nowhere else in the whole world can boast of. One of our long time secret to a tasty and colourful meal is a liquid made from the roucou plant; or “ookoo” as the old people used to say.
“Ookoo” comes from the fruit of the Achiote tree. The fruit itself is a soft, prickly pod of seeds, which is packed with the red dye so subtly hidden inside them. Although it is used to add colour to our variety of local cuisine, it also served as body paint, used by the indigenous Caribs who lived here so long ago. It is said that roucou also has medicinal purposes. It is currently being researched to make snake anti-venom in other parts of the world. Of course foreign countries may have different uses for the plant, but its main use here in Trinidad and Tobago is for food. In some instances there is the powdered form of it, but we are more familiar with the liquid, “ookoo”.
Roucou is used by many Trinis
Memories of my late grandmother, “Mama”, cooking lentil peas and soups, often included orders or commands to “bring de ookoo for mih please”. I didn’t know where the unlabelled bottle came from until one day I saw bunches of the strange looking fruit on the kitchen counter. My aunt had answered my inquisitive mind that day, scolding me, “You leave that! That is ookoo for Ma to make!”
That evening, I watched as Mama carefully used a spoon to empty the seeds from the prickly pods into a bowl. Then she put warm water in it, and left it to soak overnight. The next day she strained the liquid into another bowl using a piece of clean cotton cloth, and added a little more water to the seeds, rubbed them and strained it, about three times, to get more of the red colour out. Then she strained them all again into a clean pot and put it to boil, adding a little salt to it. When it was done, she let it cool and filled the liquid into bottles, ready for use in the kitchen.
It was one of those bottles she called for that day when she was cooking the lentils. Roucou is used by many Trinis when making pelau, pastelle, callaloo, sancoche, oildown and even stew fish! I am sure some of you Trinis used some “ookoo” to make your pastelles last Christmas.
What’s cooking this Carnival? “Bring de ookoo for mih nah!”
February 2014 – Issue 8 www.sweettntmagazine.com
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