Take taste buds on Caribbean vacation at Big Bamboo near Yokota AB

Photos by Mike Van Hoecke
Photos by Mike Van Hoecke

Take taste buds on Caribbean vacation at Big Bamboo near Yokota AB

by Mike Van Hoecke
Stripes Japan

Through a wild series of events, a piece of the Caribbean Island Dominica has landed on Japanese shores. Just across from Yokota Air Base Gate 2, two Dominican sisters grill jerk chicken and simmer curry oxtail for ramen-weary diners who want something a little special. That’s not all, at the Big Bamboo, Enang, one of the sisters is vegetarian and can conjure up a good selection of jerked and spiced vegetables, legumes, rice, and non-alcoholic tropical drinks made from flowers, coconut, almond essence, ginger root, natural fruit juices and spices. Her White Gold drink even has a component of seaweed. 

I have never known seaweed to taste so good. Enang said White Gold is considered an aphrodisiac back in Dominica. I replied that I may need six glasses as I am 66, and she broke into a broad smile that you see a lot at this restaurant. Her sister, Marcella, who often goes by her maiden name Casey, has the same warm smile, even though her life has taken some very strange turns to leave her on this non-tropical island.

Both sisters spent their youth in Dominica, (not the Dominican Republic) a small very lush volcanic island with a boiling lake, hot springs, 365 rivers, and lots of bamboo groves. Casey said the groves were cool places to rest. She also said limes and lemons grew so abundantly that local people considered lemonade a poor person’s drink.

Rich or poor, there was one custom that could not be ignored, “Visitors must always be fed good food. To not prepare something delicious would be shameful,” Enang said. “Even people who just followed you home for the first time had to be fed.”

This custom of feeding stragglers did not always work out well. During Enang’s own wedding, she tried to limit invited guests to about 30. She went up the aisle, got married, and when she turned around, she said the church was filled with people who had straggled in. True to custom, about 200 people now had to be fed well at the reception. “By the time we changed from our wedding clothes and returned, the food was all gone,” she said.

Enang said much of her cooking skills were learned while living with her grandmother Marianne Harney, and through trial and error while using her husband as a taste tester. She said the first year of their marriage he went from 170 pounds to 205 pounds – on a vegetarian diet. The second year he put on 45 more pounds.

Casey is no vegetarian. She is a confident, meat-eating, Ph. D.- holding, Gulf War Marine veteran who once was asked to work at the United Nations, and who once ran a 12-second 100-meter sprint. Animal protein is certainly in her diet and on the menu. If it were not for a series of strange events, her life may have turned out much differently.

While teenagers, the two sisters lived in Hoboken, New Jersey. Enang eventually opened the original Big Bamboo Restaurant in New Jersey.

Casey, after getting a bachelor’s degree and majoring in French, went to France and worked for six years.  “While I was traveling in Europe, I would frequently see the Embassy Marines dressed sharply in dress blues. I was so impressed, I wanted to become one of them,” she said.

Casey went to the recruiter and asked to go to Officer Candidate School. She said he told her that the person who handles officers would be gone for about a month, so she joined as an enlisted person in the open enlistment category.  She ended up a supply troop who was sent to Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War. At most every stop along the way, seniors would review her record and ask why she wasn‘t an officer. Worse, at boot camp she had gotten word that the United Nations had accepted her application to work for them. Casey knows French, Creole and English well. Upon learning both that the United Nations had accepted her and that the Marines were making her a supply troop, Casey said she cried. 

After serving in the Marines, after having Iraqi scud missiles fly overhead, and after getting a Master’s Degree in Human Resources while concurrently serving in the Marines, she went back to school and got a Ph. D. in Higher Education from Capella University of Minneapolis.

So why is such a multitalented person helping run a popular restaurant about 56 travel hours from her origin? It can only be because diners living in Fussa are extremely lucky.  And, of course, her son works as a computer engineer at Yokota. In fact, his coworkers are repeat customers fond of the curry oxtail. For that reason, the oxtail sometimes runs out. Should that happen, there is salmon cooked in coconut milk, Jerk chicken and tofu, Creole Chili, a vegetarian platter and sometimes curried sheep shank and curried goat.

Charmaine Dunn of Yokota had the veggie platter on a Sunday and came back the same week for the Salmon Delight. “Both meals were a true delight,” she said. “This place understands how to properly season food … I can’t wait for my next bite.”             

Oxtail is next on my personal list of things to try – though it will be hard not to order the chicken and jerk tofu again. If the sisters can make a delicious drink out of seaweed, I suppose they can do wonders with the back end of a cow.

Things to know
Address: 2271 Fussa, Tokyo 197-0011
Tel: 042-513-5206
Hours: Wed. through Sat.  11 a.m. - 2 p.m and 5 - 9 p.m.  Sun 11 a.m. - 2 p.m.
Other information: The restaurant can cater groups up to 50. Takeout options available.

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