Text and photos: Javier Pinzón
Just as the indigenous, Spanish, French, English, African, Indian, and Caribbean cultures have fused together to create a singular identity and language, architectural styles have combined to create unique places like Savannah and its Magnificent Seven, and the rhythms of the north and south have come together in the steelpan, so have ingredients from around the world blended in Trinidad and Tobago to delight the palate with the authentic flavors of Creole cuisine.
The contrasting landscapes, lime-green valleys, and many-hued mountains framed by the turquoise Caribbean and deep-blue Atlantic serve as a sort of gigantic pantry for Trinidadian food culture; people are accustomed to enjoying delicious food in their homes and at fine restaurants, as well as at simple street stalls accessible to all.
The secret of Trinidadian cuisine lies in its use of fresh ingredients, the perfect balance of sweet, bitter, and spicy flavors, and above all, the fact that cooks here dare to experiment with new combinations and ingredients that are not part of the diets of other cultures. Tamarind, coconut, grains, curry, cilantro, pineapple, fresh spices, and any and all sea creatures are essential components of the recipes.
An ordinary day in Trinidad begins with a succulent Creole breakfast at Femmes du Chalet, known as the “Breakfast Shack.” Located on the seashore, this small plaza houses several tiny establishments that offer traditional breakfasts to hundreds of people; they serve more than a dozen combinations of chopped vegetables, meats, and salsa inside one of three bakes (fried dough): floured and fried, or roasted with coconut or potato. Tourists and busy workers come here during the week; Sunday is the day for families that would rather not cook.
The big fast-food chains have lost the battle on this island of refined palates. The streets are full of vendors offering take-away doubles (filled flat-bread), an interpretation of the Indian dish chana bhatura adapted in true Creole fashion. The dish consists of two layers of bara—fried flatbread—wrapped around chana, a mixture of chickpeas, mango, cilantro, thyme, cucumber, coconut, and tamarind (and chile, if you like). Knowing how to eat this snack is essential: pick it up in your left hand and simultaneously bring a bara to your mouth with your right hand, allowing the chana on the first bara to spread over the second.
Jenny’s on the Boulevard is also a good example of the mixing of cultures in Trinidad, where ingredients are combined but not blended into uniformity. The Indian owner offers some of the best Chinese food around, served in a lovely colonial building with African decorations. One thing that is uniform is the local affection for the thousands of possible ways of using the sauce made from chadon beni, a green herb that accompanies everything from mango, pineapple, and golden apple in a kind of chow or relish, to sandwiches, soups, curries, and meats, in other words, any kind of food, whether savory or sweet. Coconut powder and this herb are indispensable ingredients in any Trini dish.
Part of the secret to these delights is the use of fresh ingredients. Trinis do not like packaged, bottled, or canned food. They make use of “pantries” like Paramin, a farming town high in the mountains, just twenty minutes from Port of Spain. Every square inch of earth is planted with foodstuffs: papaya, tomato, cocoa, lime, ginger, mango, bell pepper, coffee, avocado, banana, plantain, cabbage, and any number of flavoring herbs, all comprising an edible mosaic.
San Francisco’s famed Lombard Street is no match for the long, narrow, steep streets of Paramin, where the kitchen gardens exude the crisp scent of salad, and the vehicles are old Jeep trucks that transport crops and farmers. The residents enjoy the coolness of the high mountains and the fog and sea view as they carefully roll essential herbs together to sell in the markets at the foot of the mountains.
St. John’s Market, as yet undiscovered by tourists, harbors the secrets of subtle seasoning; it is the best place to find genuine ingredients for Trini recipes, from dried smoked fish and pig tails and snouts to balls of cocoa with cinnamon, the fragrance of which whets the appetite. Also available are all parts of the dasheen shrub, used in several recipes; morbi root for making a traditional beverage; and sea moss, which is added to fruit smoothies. According to tradition the sea moss is good “brain food” for children.
Another traditional island dish is bake and shark, but the only way to really enjoy it is to spend a day at Maracas Beach. As you might guess, the main ingredient is shark; it is immensely popular because the shark meat is marinated in lime and garlic for a long time before being plunged into boiling oil. The meat is eaten wrapped in a fried bake (fried unleavened dough) filled with a variety of extras, including tamarind sauce, chadon beni, lettuce, and pineapple. This now traditional dish was developed at a small eatery during the 1970s. Today, Mrs. Dedoy, of the famed Richard’s Bake and Shark, prepares thousands of bake and shark by hand every day for residents and visitors. The open-air restaurant surrounds diners with Caribbean rhythms. Although the dish might not sound very environmentally friendly, the entire shark is used, unlike in other regions where people engage in the deplorable practice of using just the fins and discarding the rest.
Port of Spain provides innumerable ways to savor the flavors of Creole life through culture, art, and music. Veni Mange is a pleasant Creole restaurant that provides context for its food: dining here is like eating in a very colorful art gallery. Every corner of this restaurant, including the tables, pays tribute to the gourmet inclinations and mix of cultures that is so typical of Trinidad and Tobago; the vegetarian cuisine here is also exquisite.
Visitors seeking a more intimate culinary experience in Port of Spain should take a “food-hopping” excursion into the street stalls of Savannah. All the flavors of the islands are collected in a dozen stalls: Samuel Henry’s authentic chicken wings with Creole sauce; roti, the Creole version of crepes filled with baked potato, curry, and chicken or meat; a delicious corn soup, the secret of which, according to one of the diners, is its perfect consistency, and the spiced fried dough balls called phoulori, to name just a few dishes. These delights can be washed down with fruit juices and smoothies. Dr. Fresh specializes in fruit mixes with Creole ingredients such as sea moss and the famous Angostura bitters.
Although the doubles of Trinidad have been available in Tobago for some time now, this small island of paradisiacal beaches has its own dishes. As in Trinidad, delicious food is found at both fine restaurants and street stalls. Just five minutes from the airport, Store Bay serves up the famous crab and dumplings, or crab with a bake made of wheat flour and corn bathed in curry sauce. According to Meisha Trim, daughter of one of the inventors of this dish, “You cannot experience Tobago without trying crab and dumplings, because the culture resides in the food and you can be part of it by tasting the flavors.” An afternoon in Store Bay should not end without savoring the homemade coconut or coconut and cherry ice cream as the sun drops into the Caribbean.
Like in Trinidad, food in Tobago is very fresh. The Kiriwak restaurant, for example, has its own garden which, for the last thirty years, has been growing most of its vegetables and flavoring herbs, many of them organically. These are used to prepare traditional island dishes and a delicious artisanal chocolate that is so fresh it exudes cocoa butter.
Not only is the food delicious in Tobago, but the atmosphere makes each moment special. An unforgettable lunch can be had at Jemma’s Tree House, where a simple lettuce and tomato salad takes on a new personality with a touch of ginger and sweetness is found in a wonderful breadfruit pie. In the tree house, diners eat over the waves that break on the golden sand that fringes the turquoise Caribbean; there is no need for air conditioning because the sea breeze refreshes diners from all directions.
To finish your meal on a sweet note, Trinis offer multiple ways of enjoying coconut, tamarind, and sweetened milk in different shapes, colors, and sizes. More urbane palates will enjoy homemade Cocobel bonbons that wrap a coating of dark chocolate around various Creole flavors, resulting in an irresistible sweet treat.
Trinis are very fond of good food and they have borrowed the best elements of different cultures, blending them together to create their own unique culture that can be felt, seen, heard, and tasted.