A recipe that has spanned the generations, this dish is perfect for a modern-day dinner party, too.
It’s a dish steeped in tradition.
Popular in many Caribbean countries, rundown is a hearty and healthy stew that is considered part of Cayman’s cultural character.
“It is one of my favourite dishes,” says Rose May Ebanks, a West Bay native famous for her fried fish and fritters, and other local dishes. “I was raised on turtle and fish and conch.”
She recalls her mother cooking the spicy dish on the outdoor kitchen – called a caboose – in her early days growing up in Grand Cayman.
“We had a nice big pot on the caboose that could feed everybody, even with just a little piece of fish,” says Rose May, who has 11 siblings. “You could stretch it to make it go further. My mom would have a lot of gravy in it to make sure the children would get their fill.”
In the Cayman Islands, rundown is made with salt beef or fresh fish, flour or cornmeal dumplings, ground provisions such as cassava, plantain and sweet potato, and is cooked down slowly in a pot with coconut milk and seasonings.
“Rundown is something that means a lot to me because we lived from it,” says Rose May.
“And it was a healthy meal. In years gone by, they used to just call it fish dinner and my momma would say fish stew.”
Long-time Cayman cultural ambassador Eziethamae “Zeta” Bodden says there are several tales on how the dish earned its name.
“The way it was eaten, the gravy would run down the sides of your mouth,” she says.
“Rundown, because all of the ingredients were cooked in the coconut milk. Or, it was so good, it had your mouth watering – you could not wait for it to be done.”
Zeta says the wholesome meal was served on a nice plate or semi-bowl and was cooked on Saturday for the family’s Sunday dinner. It was often accompanied by a glass of homemade lemonade.
According to Zeta, the dish hasn’t changed over the years, although the cooking method has.
“The meal is the same, but it’s changed to cooking it inside your home on a gas or electric stove,” she says.
Rose May learned to cook rundown from her mother, and she makes it without using any measurements.
“I do my cooking by taste,” she says.
Like many Caymanians, Rose May considers rundown to be part of national identity. “That, along with the turtle meat, the lobster and the conch,” she says.
Cooking on the Caboose
Many old-time Caymanian cooks will tell you that even the most modern of kitchens in the most prestigious homes in the Cayman Islands don’t hold a candle to the old-time method of cooking – on the caboose.
Unlike modern barbecue grills, cabooses were made from wood and zinc. According to papers from the Cayman Islands National Archive, a caboose was a homemade oven consisting of a wooden box on legs. Stones and sand were placed in the bottom and pots would typically sit on two long pieces of iron. Every Saturday the ashes were cleaned out and fresh sand put in.
The caboose was housed in an outbuilding – or cookroom – away from the main house because of the heat from cooking and the threat of fire from the flames,
Hardwood – quite often logwood – is used instead of charcoal. Other hardwoods like the sea grape tree, which produce less smoke, and woods from other fruit trees were used. Not only is the taste better than what you can get from charcoal, the smoking woods impart a pleasant whiff of fruit flavour to the food.
The caboose was common in Cayman, right up to the 1950s and 1960s. Even today at special events – especially Easter camping – it is still used to cook entire meals.