THOUGH THE PHRASE “peasant food” sounds low-brow, New York’s version of a peasant dish might just be some of the best chow that you’ve had. Think about it—you’re out on a drunken night in the West Village and stop for a $2 falafel on MacDougal Street or at that taco truck on Sixth Avenue. Simple, cheap, delicious. Arcane, a restaurant tucked away on Avenue C, showcases a different kind of peasant dish in its Colombo De Porc. Though traditional French Caribbean cooking is much harder to find in the city than Famous Ray’s Pizza, this pork curry stew is just as tasty and comes from similar low cost roots.
The chefs on the islands of the French Caribbean—Martinique, St. Croix and St. Bart’s, among others—had little to work with. Something they did have? Poudre de Colombo.This curry powder was originally transported to the islands by indentured servants from East Asia, who were brought over to work the sugar cane fields. It was commonly worked into a number of dishes, rubbed into fish, used as a vegetable marinade and mixed into stews like this.
The pork is tender, grilled and cut into bite-size chunks that fall apart as soon as the fork gets close.The meat is mixed with vegetables, sweet potato and zesty lemongrass before being slathered with the Colombo curry sauce.The curry is different from what you might be used to from your local Indian or Thai restaurant.This spice mix traditionally contains mustard seeds, coriander, turmeric and pepper— it’s potent and rich, but doesn’t pack too much heat. Combined with the soft meat and the earthy, sweet potatoes, it makes for a hearty stew that would make any pauper (or New Yorker looking to eat well on the cheap) feel like a prince.
The mélange of ingredients that go into the stew is representative of the islands themselves, explains co-owner Ben Alter. “In the Caribbean the cuisine is like the people, it’s a mix of Indian, Chinese, French, Dutch, black African and Portuguese. It’s like the patois—the language of the islands—which is also a mix.” Alter should know.Though born in Strausbourg, he moved to Guadoloupe when he was a year old, stayed until he was 16 and claims that he spoke the island language before he spoke French. Having lived in New York for 15 years—and specifically in Alphabet City for the past six—he opened Arcane to showcase this culinary style in a city known for its own diversity.
The dish is served with Jasmine rice, good for sopping up every last bit of the savory sauce. A similar conch stew is also available if you want to sample a seafood variety with ingredients from the islands. While this peasant dish isn’t going to be as cheap as the grub at Gray’s Papaya, a heaping portion is still quite reasonable at $15. And if you’re going to feast on traditional stew, you’ll need something to drink. Arcane offers a solid rum selection; a snifter full of potent Flor de Cana washes down dinner with smooth hints of molasses and cinnamon.Yes, it’s $10 a glass, but let’s not overdo it with the peasant business.
111 Ave. C (betw. E. 7th & E. 8th Sts.), 212-777-0477.
Stew you: The Columbo De Porc at Arcane.