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Homegrown Tobago Dishes
Flames in a traditional clay oven at Castara, Tobago. Photographer: Skene Howie
A culinary tradition passed down through generations
Many of Tobago’s indigeneous culinary delights reveal just how much our ancestors valued nature’s produce and how much they recognised that nothing should be wasted.
Years ago, every family had a garden where invariably corn and peas were grown. Pigeon peas stewed in coconut milk is a favourite and when the peas get hard, you make soup with it. Corn is boiled when it’s tender and when it gets hard, you grate it to make cornmeal for pone and porridge (used to be called “corn pop“). Parched corn was grated, pound and sifted, then mixed together with sugar and a little black pepper to make “Sam Sam“. There is even a game that children used to play with roasted corn: while eating the corn, a few grains are removed to play “ship sail“. Fresh fish is easy since the ocean is always near, but before the modern convenience of refrigerators, we had smoke fish: the fish, especially bonito, was filleted, salted and smoked to help preserve it.
There was of course the usual ritual associated with the preparation of some foods: coconut oil for cooking was prepared according to the phase of the moon when it is said the most oil is yielded.
When stocks in the kitchen were at the lowest, all the “odds and ends” were mixed together to make a pot we call “Yabba“. It’s like a very thick soup with any and everything in it – whatever was left over in the kitchen, you’d put in: dumpling, fish, pigtail, potato, breadfruit, cassava, dasheen, green banana, and more. You can’t go wrong with that; every food group covered!
We still have a few dirt ovens in yards around Tobago, and many village groups have made a living from baking traditional treats in the old traditional way. The Castara Heritage Bakers bake a variety of breads, tarts, sweet breads, and buns at the dirt oven on the Castara Beach facilities, close to the Castara Government School. So every Thursday and Saturday, one can buy freshly baked delights from 11am to 4pm.
Our teas are picked and brewed from the many wild plants that grow in the yard and the bushes. Many we now know have medicinal properties. These were part of the daily beverages that accompanied breakfast and dinner, and of course, we still have our homemade chocolate tea.
TASTE THIS: Some traditional Tobago dishes and sweets
In Tobago there are lots of colourful and interesting names for food.
Some of them you may already know, while others are there for you to sample. Here are a few:
- Baked pig: the whole pig is cooked in the earth, most often at the Saraka Feast in the Tobago Heritage Festival
- Benne balls: a delightful, if somewhat jaw-breaking, confection made of sesame seeds
- Blue food: any ground provision or root vegetable (dasheen, eddoes, sweet potatoes, cassava, tania, et al). Dasheen is one of the hearty root vegetables popular in local cuisine. It has a bluish tinge, and is usually eaten boiled
- Bush tea: brewed from herbs and plants like graterwood, trumpet, bois canot, lemon grass, lime bud and fever grass
- Coconut bake: a type of bread made with grated coconut, often eaten at breakfast with buljol or cheese
- Conch souse: large sea snails boiled and served cold in a salty sauce with lime, cucumber, pepper and onion
- Crab ’n’ dumpling: a savoury dish in which the crab is stewed with curry and coconut milk and served over flat flour dumplings. Tobago’s signature; delicious and extremely filling!
- Oildown: breadfruit is the main ingredient here, combined with salted meat and boiled down in coconut milk. Called “rundown” in Jamaica
- Pacro water: a purported aphrodisiac made by boiling chiton or “sea cockroach” (a local crustacean). An acquired taste, for sure
- Pigeon peas: No relation to the bird. Pigeon peas-and-rice is a popular Christmas and New Year dish, said to bring good luck and bounty. In season around year-end, they’re available frozen and canned throughout the year.
- Squash: drink made from lime and lemon juice
- Sweets: toolum, guava cheese, pawpaw balls, shaddock candy, tamarind balls, benne balls, sugar cake, cashew cake, cassava pone, coconut sweetbread, black cake, ice cream and desserts flavoured with fruit, coconut and even Guinness… how many pounds have you gained?
- Tom tom: cooked half-ripe plantain pounded in a mortar, making a kind of pudding
- Yabba: thick soup with dumpling, fish, pigtail, potato, breadfruit, cassava, dasheen, green banana and anything else the chef feels moved to include. Other popular soups are sancoche, cowheel and fish broth.
More Local Delicacies…
- Snacks : doubles, souse, pastelles, roti, corn soup
- Soups : callaloo, sancoche
- Fillings: saltfish buljol, tomato choka, black pudding
- Baked goods : cassava pone, coconut sweetbread, fruitcake/black cake, coconut bake
- From the river : crayfish, crab, oysters & cascadura
- From the sea : crab, lobster, mahi mahi, marlin, conch, king fish, shark, red snapper, tilapia, shrimp, chip chip, squid, oysters. [*If you can, opt for the most sustainably produced fish, or a vegetarian option – some fish stocks are dangerously low in our local waters, and the balance of our eco-system at risk as a result]
- Roots : yam, eddoes, dasheen, sweet potatoes, cassava, tannia, potatoes, topi tambu
- Fruit : mangoes, passion fruit, cashew, grapefruit, orange, portugal, shaddock, pommerac, pommecythere/golden apple, chennette/guineps, guava, melons, five fingers/carambola, sapodilla, soursop, pawpaw/papaya, pineapple, tamarind, peewah, chataigne.
- Vegetables : breadfruit, avocado/zaboca, plantain, callaloo bush, pumpkin, christophene
- Sweets : toolum, guava cheese, pawpaw balls, shaddock candy, tamarind balls, benne balls, sugar cake, ice cream, desserts flavoured with fruit, coconut and even Guinness
- Drinks : sorrel, mauby, ginger beer, coconut water, seamoss, barbadine, soursop, rum punch, wines made from local fruits, rum, beer
- Condiments : chows and chutneys made from a variety of fruits, pepper sauce.
- Herbs and spices : nutmeg, clove, garlic, ginger, chadon beni, peppers, roucou/annatto, bay, anise, thyme, lemon/fever grass, spring onion.