Tastes Like Home

Good times at snack-time 

By Cynthia Nelson

channa.jpgHi Everyone, When I was a little girl I relied on the kindness of a snack-lady. Let me explain. I don’t know if they still do it, I certainly hope so, but when I went to school vendors used to sell channa (chick peas, garbanzo), egg-ball and cassava as snacks. At my school these were only available during the morning 10 o’clock break-time. As soon as the bell rang there would be a mad scramble to get to the snack-lady. Students would crowd around her table with shouts of “I want two cassava balls” “I want a egg ball”, “I want 50-cents channa”, “No sour!” “Yes, I want nuff sour…” and so the chatter would go.

Me, I’ve always been quiet so I never was a part of the stampede at the sound of the bell and you’d never hear me shouting out for stuff. I’m the kind that would stand quietly, wait for my turn and speak gently when making my request. This quietness meant that other students pushed their way in front of me, they got what they wanted, yammed it down quickly and returned to purchase seconds while I still stood there waiting to be heard. Things changed after a while though, the kind snack-lady noticed me. She realized that I was always being among the last and that by time I made my request most of the stuff I wanted (channa, egg ball, cassava ball) would be gone. So she took pity on me. She told me that she’d keep a cassava ball, channa or egg ball for me daily, just let her know which one I’d want the day before. That’s how I got my daily fix at break-time.

Those snacks I bought at school were among the best I had ever or have ever tasted. The cassava was beyond creamy, it was as if the cassava was whipped because it was always creamy-light. The crust was thin and broke-mashed gently. The egg for the egg ball was usually encased in this same deliciously flavourful cassava mixture, and again with the thin crust. The channa, ummmm, it was so good.

eggball.jpgBack in the day it used to be served in small brown paper bags lined with grease-proof paper and my friends and I would pick at it with our fingers as the bag got moist from the sour that had dampened the bag. As we got older, things got a little more sophisticated and we got the channa in plastic bags and with forks. We were no longer left holding damp paper bags. And we no longer had hands covered in seasonings and sour; of course, neither did we have the delicious chore of licking the taste from our fingers before we washed our hands. Good times! Good times!

So of course I was very excited when I went to the market here in Barbados and espied what I thought was a true true Guyanese snack-lady. I happily approached the vendor in the market, excited to get my hands on some long time favourites. I gleefully took them home ready to be transported back to school time days.

No doubt you’ve guessed what happened. Rather than joyfully munching on delicious tasting channa, egg-ball and cassava ball I was left feeling disappointed, dissatisfied and desperate. I was looking for a taste of home but what I got was a poor excuse. The cassava ball was more like a flour ball with a hint of cassava, the egg ball was the same, sure enough there was the egg but egg ball is about the egg and the mixture around it.

The channa was okay, it was clear though that she made it with canned chick peas rather than the dried ones that would need to be soaked overnight. Don’t scoff at that last comment because there is no way you can win the taste-argument. The texture and flavour of the dried chick peas is far superior to the ones in the can, I know because I’ve used them before to create my channa snack and it just did not work. I found that the seasonings and aromatics such as the ground jeera did not adhere to the peas and no matter how much I seasoned it, it just did not absorb the flavours. The texture of the canned peas is not as creamy either.

cassa.jpgMashing the cassava to get that creamy texture is not easy; it requires some good hand-work. When I make snacks such as these I always develop a better understanding for the pricing of certain things because of the amount of time and effort involved. But at the same time, I get angry when I am willing to shell out top-dollar only to receive a mediocre product.

On recent trips back to Guyana I went in search of cassava ball. I tried some from one of our popular Saturday-markets and some from a popular snackette on the East Bank, neither hit the spot. The one from the snackette was only slightly better than the one from the market. I worry sometimes that in the haste to make a few more dollars too much quality is sacrificed. I worry that there will be a generation of people who grow up not knowing of these things because of the current fast-food rage. I worry that people will never grow to like these foods because of the poor quality being offered. I worry that people will stop making these kinds of food because of the work involved. I worry… and so I try to do my bit.

Last week I armed myself with the necessary ingredients and got busy one afternoon making all my snack favourites. Email me and I’ll share my cassava ball, egg ball and channa recipes with you. The ones I made were pretty darn good, even if I do say so myself, but I still hold the memory of those school ones in my mind and the kindness of that snack lady.


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