The saying “without pom, there is no birthday” should give you some idea of just how revered pom is in Suriname.
A celebratory dish mostly reserved for special occasions, pom is the lovechild of a number of different ethnic parents who – whether by force or of their own volition – ended up in Suriname during the time of the Dutch rule.
Made with grated pomtajer and citrusy chicken, it’s a guaranteed winter warmer that also works very well as a next-day sandwich filler.
THE STORY OF POM
According to the research of Dutch food writer Karin Vaneker, nine out of ten of all the Surinamese people living in the Netherlands whom she interviewed named pom as their favorite national dish. It’s big.. and it’s contentious. There is much talk as to the exact lineage of the dish, which is now accepted as being a Jewish-Afro-Surinamese production.
The story of pom will tell you a lot about the history of Suriname itself from its Colonial era. The Dutch took over control of the country from the British in 1667 and stayed over 300 years until 1975. Plantations and cash crops were established that needed both managers and workers. The bosses and landowners all came from Europe – Germans, Swiss, Hungarians, French Huguenots and Jews – while the slave workers came from West Africa. For a point of reference, the laborers outnumbered their employers and other freemen of the country by around 7 to 1.
FROM THE JEWISH PLANTATIONS…
Of the elite communities, the Jews were one of the largest. After the Spanish Inquisition forced many wealthy Jews out of Spain and Portugal and into England and Holland, there was a second wave of migration to the Americas following the Dutch conquests. Based around the village of Jodensavanne, by 1730 they owned about a quarter of all of Suriname’s plantations as well as a large portion of its slave population.
The Jewish immigrants brought with them their culinary traditions, and it seems that the earliest form of pom was a typical meal baked for the Sabbath.
Taking one look at pom’s cooking methods gives you a good hint at its Jewish origins. One very well known technique of the Jewish kitchen is to clean chicken flesh and neutralize its smell with citrus juice, which we’ll see soon enough with pom.
Another clue is the use of ovens, a technique attributable uniquely to Jewish cuisines until only recently. Jewish cooks, however, baked dishes as far back as the Middle Ages, and their houses were some of the few to locally own ovens in Suriname at the turn of the 19th century.
…TO THE AFRO-SURINAMESE KITCHENS
While clues point towards pom’s Jewish origins, it’s clear that the dish fell under a more local influence once it reached South American soil. For starters, potatoes didn’t grow very easily in Suriname’s tropical soil, and it would have been prohibitively costly to import them in large quantities from Europe. Thus, an easier, more local ingredient was called for.
The kitchens of the Jewish plantation owners were staffed by Afro-Surinamese servants and cooks with extensive knowledge of locally-grown plants and vegetables. The root or corm of the indigenous pomtajer required special knowledge for proper preparation and was labor-intensive, so it was likely the Afro-Surinamese cooks in Jewish kitchens who brokered the replacement for the elusive potato with the grated flesh of the pomtajer.
After slavery was abolished in Suriname in the 19th century, an influx of migrants from Asia – mainly from India, Indonesia and China – immigrated to join the country’s workforce. These families added their own influence to Suriname’s rapidly diversifying cuisine, and their takes on pom are interesting. The Javanese added soy sauce, the Indians piccalilli, the Creoles (West Africans) had a penchant for salted beef in their pom, while the Chinese contributed lychee and ginger to the mix.
Following Suriname’s independence in 1975, tens of thousands of Surinamese citizens emigrated to the Netherlands. Inevitably, Surinamese cooking took root in their new home, and pom was introduced to the Dutch through the kitchens and restaurants of the former colonial immigrants.
Like with other Dutch specialties like the broodje haring and broodje kroket, the local preference for eating pom is between two pieces of bread as a broodje pom sandwich, which we think is an excellent way of recycling next-day leftovers.
ABOUT THE RECIPE
If you feel any anxiety in the face of preparing Suriname’s sweetheart dish, spare a thought for the Surinamese women, on whose reputations rested on their pom.
A wife’s quality can be measured by her success in making pom, and preparing pom for the first time is a rite of passage into adult society witnessed by all members of the extended family. If you find yourself trying your first taste of pom in the privacy of your immediate family and away from open scrutiny, consider yourself lucky.
SOMETHING TO KNOW ABOUT POMTAJER
As we mentioned before, the three key ingredients of a good pom are chicken, orange juice and pomtajer. Now, pomtajer is not an easy vegetable to source outside of Suriname, so you have the choice of switching it out for taro or potatoes if your search bears no fruit. Also, pomtajer has a very particular texture and taste, and as a member of the aroid family, it contains an irritant called oxalic acid.
Tricks to avoid the irritant effects of oxalic acid are to place a nail in the pomtajer while its baking or to treat it with citrus juice. It’s thought that the orange juice used by Surinamese cooks to clean their chicken flesh inadvertently also made the pomtajer also more palatable and digestible.
Like we mentioned earlier, you’ll want to first start by cleaning your chicken in half of your citrus juice. Take some orange juice and salt into a mixing bowl with your mixed pieces of chicken, then massage the citrus juice into the chicken and let rest for a bit.
Next up is Sautéing the onions in a wok. This step serves as a good timer for how long to let your chicken sit in the citrus juice. After ~5-6 minutes as your onions become translucent and start to golden brown, take them out of the wok and drain your mixing bowl of chicken pieces.
In the same wok as the onions, start to fry your chicken for several minutes with a healthy dollop of olive oil and salt and pepper. As the chicken starts to brown on the outside, you can add your onions back in.
Shortly after adding your onions back in, your chopped tomatoes, the chicken stock and the tomato puree will follow. Give everything a really good stir until all of the tomato paste has broken up and absorbed into the liquid.
At this stage, you can improvise a little by adding some more off-piste flavors like a dollop of piccalilli. We personally love the kick that this little addition gives, but we can also suggest a dashes of sambal, coconut sugar, allspice and nutmeg to really amp up the flavor.
Now is the moment to hit your sauce with the rest of your orange juice (fresh, not the one you used to clean your chicken with).
Wait until the very last moment to add parsley before taking the wok off the heat. Mix it in well and spoon the contents of the dish into a non-stick or pre-oiled casserole dish.
Behold! Now this might already look good enough to eat, but hold on… there’s still another step before this gets to go in the oven.
Finally, you need to prepare the potatoes (or whichever root vegetable you prefer). Start by peeling them and then grating them into a large bowl. To help keep the potato from browning, you can also grate a white onion interchangeably with the potato and mix it well together.
Add the eggs, paprika powder, salt and pepper and give it a good mix using your hands to make sure that the mixture is spread out evenly among the potato flakes.
Once the potatoes are properly coated with the egg and the spices, you can begin to lay them out over the chicken stew in the casserole dish. Make sure you cover every square inch as it’s important that the chicken is completely blanketed by the potatoes.
When serving, just remember to leave some leftovers on the side for that next-day broodje pom – you won’t be sorry.
OUR TAKE ON THE RECIPE
When researching and developing this pom recipe, we chose this source recipe because, well, how do you NOT go with a site that’s called “Surinam Cooking?” Even then, we made some adjustments to our own version.
For starters, we had some trouble sourcing pomtajer, so we decided to go with russet potatoes instead and didn’t look back for a second. Also, in lieu of maggi cubes everywhere, we opted for regular chicken stock for the chicken filling and spices like paprika, black pepper and salt for the potatoes to make the recipe more all natural.
To make things a bit simpler, we folded almost every ingredient besides the potatoes themselves into the chicken sauce/filling portion. Things like the coconut milk and the sugar – we used coconut sugar and less of it – were baked into the sauce itself, leaving the high-level components of the dish to be 1) grated potato crust and 2) the chicken casserole inside.
We were curious about the other interesting options for flavoring the dish, like variant recipes that called for piccalilli, sambal oelek and citrus juices as additional flavors to the chicken part. We tried all of them and liked them equally – and we highly suggest you add at least one into your recipe – but we’ll leave it to you to decide what you want to do.
All in all, pom is a delicious recipe that is perfect for feeding a large family in an easy, fast way.