East Indian Roots: Aloo Chokha (Part I)

This post started out with me just wanting to share a Chokha recipe—a tasty, East Indian mashed potato dish— that's been in my family for a little while now, but along the way it evolved into an exploration into family history! 

A Confession 

Sites like ancestry.com used to really bother me. 

One of the devastating residual effects of slavery (which was just as present in the Caribbean as it was in the United States), and indentured servitude, was that families were often torn apart! Rich family histories, lineages, and legacies were all dismantled with one crushing blow! 

I used to think, "I'd never waste my site with a site like ancestry.com, because it was not created for me—for people like me."

I envied friends who could trace their families back many generations—white and black alike. Danny + I have a friend from Cameroon who can trace his tribe back to the 1500s. That's amazing!


A Little Family History

Family is important to me, a virtue modeled by my parents. And I've always been intrigued by history, especially family histories. 

When Danny + I were engaged, we had to turn in individual family trees as part of a project for our premarital class. I didn't get very far. I could only go back 3 generations (which by my own standards was not very impressive).

I didn't know very much about my maternal grandfather's parents. (A mystery to be explored for another day.) My maternal grandmother (my darling Grams) is an only child, who became an orphan at a young age. 

My father's father's father (great grandad - lol) left my grandfather (also an only child) for Cuba, and that is the last we know of him. My paternal grandmother's parents were from India. I know they migrated to Jamaica, but that didn't tell me much, especially with an anglicized (European-changed) surname like James. (When Indians came to Jamaica, they changed their last names to avoid discrimination.)


Memories + The Makings of Me

My facial features are in my opinion, a perfect blend of my parents. But I inherited my height and short stature from my dad's mother (Grandma Ivy).

Left to Right: Grandpa Percival, Grandma Ivy, Dad (Eric), Mom (Elain), Grams (Melvie), Grandpa Frank - On my parents wedding day in 1986

Left to Right: Grandpa Percival, Grandma Ivy, Dad (Eric), Mom (Elain), Grams (Melvie), Grandpa Frank - On my parents wedding day in 1986

Grandma Ivy was the heart of my dad's side of family. She loved all her children and grandchildren, and like glue she kept everyone together.

Grandma Ivy was a fantastic cook (a trait she passed on to her children). I remember looking forward to summers that included returning back home to Jamaica. From the moment we pulled up the steep driveway to get to my grandparents house in Linstead we would be greeted by dizzying aromas of a full Jamaican spread, which had been prepared on Grandma Ivy's small stove. Ackee and Saltfish, fried dumpling, roti, dal, curry chicken and more!

That's me (Little Cara) on my grandmother's hip with my Aunt, my cousin Sher, and my Grandfather - circa 1994

That's me (Little Cara) on my grandmother's hip with my Aunt, my cousin Sher, and my Grandfather - circa 1994

There was always food at the house in Linstead. Always. Food + Love. 

2017: My Father in the Kitchen at his childhood home in Linstead, Jamaica

2017: My Father in the Kitchen at his childhood home in Linstead, Jamaica

The house in Linstead is still there, a family heirloom we all treasure. Eleven children were raised in the small house. Today, there's no shortage of food, love, warmth, or good cooks. 

But there is a gnawing absence of the short, fair-skinned, lady with the long, single, gray-streaked braid, and the sweet smile and big heart. Her towering companion, with the twinkle in his eyes, who smelled of tobacco, and who seemed to physically shrink in the years after her departure, is also gone.

But their legacy still lives on through their children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, nieces, and nephews, and extended family who are still connected to the Taylor and James names. 



Growing up, it was rare that my father was in the kitchen. The kitchen was a domain ruled by my mother and Grams. My father usually reserved his culinary talents for the grill—jerk chicken, hamburgers, etc. But on those rare occasions that he did go in to the kitchen, I knew we were in for a treat. In recent memory, my father holds the Chokha title. 

So when I decided to try my hand at this cultural dish a few years back, my dad was the one I called on for direction. Even though it's a simple dish, I still found myself calling him again to double check. 

This time, after speaking with him, out of curiosity I decided to do some research to see what I could find out about the history of the dish:

Aloo Chokha is a Bihari Indian dish. Bihar is a state, bordering on Nepal, in the eastern part of North India. The language spoken in Bihar is Bengali. And Aloo is a Bengali word that is translated to mean "Mash" in English. (I couldn't find a direct translation for the word Chokha.)

According to an archived article in the Jamaica Gleaner, over 36,000 East Indians came to Jamaica from 1845 to 1921. Most of them came as indentured servants. In 1845, the first group landed at Old Harbour Bay. They came from North India. 


Connecting the Dots

I'm not sure when my ancestors arrived from India, but to finally be able to trace them to a certain region using a cultural dish that has been in my family made me really excited. I'm one step closer to the history that's been lost to me. 

As Danny + I work to create a meaningful legacy for our own family, we want to preserve the history of our families, so we can pass that knowledge on to our own children. At the very least, we hope it will provide them with a greater context for their lives and remind them of who they are. 

I love experimenting with new dishes and switching up our weekly menu, but I'm thankful for the distinct cultural dishes our unique Jamaican heritage has given us—oxtail, rice and peas, curry, escovitch fish, dal, roti, and of course chokha (to name a few)! 

I promise to pass them down to our children, the same way they were passed down to me. 

What are your thoughts on cultural dishes and your family history? Share them in the comments below!

Grace. &. Peace. 

- Cara