Those who have managed a well run kitchen during a kariosha know that I am about to get into a hot, sweaty and oftentimes thankless territory. It is not enough to have a great sense of taste and to know how to cook during a kariosha (initiation into the Santería priesthood), there are more skills involved to be able to set oneself a cut above the rest when it comes to feeding a small battalion of hungry and demanding people during an kariosha and to cook for the orisha as well.
One of those important skills is to be an olosha and to have under the belt quite a few karioshas worked. This is important because the cook must know the rhythm of the initiation and the timing of when sacrificed animals (cut up in pieces) will start to arrive by bunches to the kitchen. It is crucial also to know how to cook for each of the orishas and how to keep pots and utensils duly separated as every orisha has its own particularities and it would be unacceptable to stir for example Oya’s ashé pot with the same spoon used to stir Yemayá’s ashé pot.
However, setting aside technicalities, here is an overview of what the olosha who manages the kitchen has to deal with for a period of seven days.
7. Cooking for the orisha
8. Cooking for guests and officiating priest
9. Small pay and lots of work
10. Being the bulls eye of criticism and/or the recipient of praise
11. Little help and dishes, cups and plates that miraculously appear in the sink just as you thought you were done doing a pile of dishes.
The job of the cook starts with the planning stage which should ideally be done alongside with the main god parent. Planning includes a careful consideration of budget, shopping, organizing a menu, researching local markets to stretch the budget and taking into account dietary restrictions of officiating oloshas.
Sometimes the cook is fortunate enough to have a member of the ilé run errands and do the shopping, however, personally I like to supervise the shopping of all ingredients I will be using in the kitchen and making sure there are no surprises such as things missing, ingredients that are not up to high quality standard or things I simply did not request.
I have run the kitchen for people who are special to me and that were going to be initiated because I also knew I could have a great deal of creative latitude with respect to the guest menu. Nothing else would entice me to endure this grueling task for the average pay of $500 for 7 days of work, although, many cooks are only hired for a period of 4 days which include the day before the kariosha, the day of the crowning, the Throne or Middle day and the Itá day.
The hardest day for the cook is the crowning day. Most ilés like to start the initiation process as early as possible; this means that there must be a full breakfast served by 7 a.m. By midmorning a snack or coffee break is provided, lunch follows shortly after and it is usually hefty. However, some choose to skip lunch because the sacrifice of animals is normally right after lunch and it is a mighty heavy proposition to see so much blood and guts on a full stomach.
Finally, there is a light dinner served and the cook also prepares the only meal that iyawó will have asides from breakfast. This meal is a squab broth or soup depending on the cooking style selected.
However, cooking for guests and the iyawó is a small fraction of the work that day. The simplest of orisha ceremonies, say for example a kariosha Yemayá, will have a total of 4 four-legged animals, 4 hens, 6 roosters, one squab, 5 guinea hens, 2 quails, 1 duck, 2 male small goats, 1 female goat, and 2 rams. There are other animals involved as well, but this is the list of the ones that must be dressed and prepared during the kariosha day for a massive feast to follow on the Throne day.
The cook must act fast in the kitchen in order to start to prepare the ashé (special dish made of innerds and selected parts of sacrificed animals dedicated to each of the orishas) and also to wash and season the meats that come already plucked and dressed. As I mentioned before, each orisha has its own particularities and each pot must be handled with extreme care.
It is traditional that most meats are done stewed in a standard Cuban or Puerto Rican style sofrito and resembling a fricassee. However, being as picky as I am in the kitchen, I like to surprise guests with special flair and spices that are not the run of the mill blah Cuban or Puerto Rican style. Thus here are some of my choices of seasonings from combined menus during karioshas where I have cooked:
Slow roasted goat in garlic, allspice, ginger and cinnamon
Guinea hen in Cilantro and onion sauce
Duck in Cinnamon and Orange Sauce
Roosters stewed with ginger, molasses and Madeira wine reduction
Roasted Ram cooked with fresh Mango Chutney
Guinea hen in tomato and basil sauce
Spicy Thai Rooster with basil and chilies
Braised Ram in allspice and honey sauce
Guinea hen stewed in Creole sauce
Goat roasted in coconut, dates and cardamom sauce
Slow roasted hens in sage and basil sauce
Guinea hen salad with walnuts and pears
Stuffed Hens topped with an orange and cranberry sauce
Goat stewed in beer and honey sauce
Guinea fricassee with Sherry
Some of these dishes have been received with skeptical eyes but once the flavors and scents get to guests, their taste buds usually are conquered and the result is a deeper appreciation of a feast that truly represents the start of new life for an iyawó. Thus, why not celebrate it exploring alternate flavors and other side dishes that are not the standard black beans and rice that traditionally are served during the Throne Day.
I have nothing against traditional meals, but if you work too many karioshas in a row…you will get to have hallucinations about dishes of black or pink beans and rice and the same old flavors.
In the subject of food, there are many details to be discussed, but what is truly essential is that for any olosha willing to consider cooking for a kariosha to be prepared for long hours, to be open to criticism, to select a team of helpers that you can depend on and to be open to feed with love and a touch of creativity those who will be working pretty hard in their own tasks to help and bring a new iyawó into the Santería community.
If you have questions about particular details regarding the process of organization and cooking for a kariosha, drop me a line and I will do my best to share tips and tricks with those interested.
Oní Yemayá Achagbá