Trinidad native Sedesh Boodram's spiced-up Southern style shines in this chile-spiked sauce

Mackensy Lunsford
Southern Kitchen
Sedesh Boodram at The Anvil.

The Caribbean island of Trinidad and Tobago is home to a melting pot of cultural influences. Now independent, the island was colonized by a variety of European nations and also populated by enslaved people and indentured laborers from Africa, China and India. Those influences, and the nation's proximity to Venezuela, created a distinct culinary identity.

This is where chef Sedesh Boodram of The Anvil Pub and Grill in Birmingham, Alabama, was raised: between the ocean and a lagoon, with a world of flavors at his disposal.

Later, following a dream to become a chef, he graduated from the French Culinary Institute, now the International Culinary Center, in New York. He worked with Thomas Keller at Per Se. He picked up the art of pastry while working under chef Geoffrey Zakarian at Country.

But when he arrived in the South, a big bag of stone-ground grits in the kitchen at Birmingham's Hot & Hot Fish Club would be the first regional ingredient to stump him. It wouldn't be the last. 

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"I remember on the first day, I walked in to cook in the restaurant and chef Chris (Hastings) said, 'You need to make grits,'" Boodram said. "I said, 'OK, I don't know what that is,' and I pulled the pastry chef aside and said, 'What do I do?'"

Not all Southern ingredients were foreign to the chef, who rarely stopped to consider the world of flavor surrounding him as a child. Okra, for example, is key in several Trinidadian dishes, a gift of the enslaved West African people who would become the ancestors of modern islanders. Okra came to the U.S. in the same manner. 

The Anvil in Birmingham, Alabama

But until regional Southern food became popular, okra largely stayed in the South, thickening gumbos and riding sidecar to chicken and pulled pork. "I remember when I went to culinary school, most of my teammates didn't even know what it was," Boodram said.

Although there were no grits in Trinidad, there were practically infinite takes on curries and an interpretation of African stewed chicken, simmered with coconut milk and spiked with Scotch bonnet and habanero peppers. That childhood dish still holds Boodram's heart.

As culinary director of The Anvil, Boodram interprets British food through his own multifaceted lens and executes it with Southern ingredients. Now, he has the grits down pat. The corn sauce is kicked up with habaneros. There are apples in the tikka masala. The collards are braised in dashi. 

A world-spanning approach to British food is a fair take, considering the kingdom's aggressive colonization efforts. "The British at some point practically ran the whole world," Boodram said.

A recent iteration of The Anvil's shrimp and grits came with curry-spiced coronation sauce, a nod to a classic British luncheon entree. It's one that might drive purists to fits. "At the end of the day, it is shrimp and grits, so you can't be too crazy, he said. "But people are loving it."

When you grow up where practically anything goes, boundary-pushing becomes part of your basic nature. Still, Boodram said he's learning to reel it in, at least when it comes to heat.

"I have to remind myself to pull back sometimes," he said. "A lot of my dishes have some element of heat, and I have to remind myself that not everything has to be spicy."

This floral habanero sauce, sweetened and softened with pureed corn and Vidalia onions, is frequently on the menu, served with pork chops as an ode to a dish that's Southern through and through: creamed corn.

Corn and habanero sauce with a bone-in pork chop at The Anvil in Birmingham, Alabama.

Sedesh Boodram's sweet corn-habanero sauce

This recipe, adapted from one used at The Anvil in Birmingham, Alabama, calls for using corn stock. That's simply vegetable or chicken stock simmered with corn cobs that have been stripped of their kernels. You may skip the corn, but if you're using fresh kernels in this recipe, you might as well use the cobs for something. 

Makes: About a quart

Ingredients

For the sauce:

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 tablespoon butter

1 Vidalia onion, chopped

2 cloves garlic, chopped

2 carrots, chopped

3 tomatoes, chopped

1-2 habanero peppers, stems and seeds removed, diced

2 cups corn puree (recipe follows)

1 quart of chicken, vegetable or corn stock

1 sprig basil

2 tablespoons white, granulated sugar

Salt to taste

For the corn puree:

1 cup of fresh corn or frozen

1/4 sweet onion, diced

1 tablespoon butter

2 cups heavy cream

1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme

Salt and pepper to taste

Instructions

For the corn puree: Melt butter in pan. Sauté onions until translucent. Add thyme and corn. Cook for one minute. Cover with cream and bring to a boil. Add salt and pepper, reduce heat to low and let simmer for 8 minutes. Remove and puree in food processor. Adjust salt as needed. Let cool while preparing the remaining ingredients. 

For the sauce: Sauté onions, garlic and carrots in oil and butter. When onion is translucent, add tomatoes and habanero and sauté for a minute.

Add stock and basil and bring to a simmer. Simmer on low until the liquid is reduced by half. Add the corn puree and continue to simmer for another five minutes. Remove from the heat, add the sugar and puree with an immersion blender or in a regular blender. 

Taste and adjust seasoning. 

Mackensy Lunsford is the food and culture storyteller for USA TODAY Network's South region and the editor of Southern Kitchen.

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Reach me: mlunsford@southernkitchen.com