Dining in Trinidad
Fine Food, Finger Food Street Food, & Everything in Between
So yes, Trinidadian food is amazing. You could, in theory, never eat the same thing for a month in Trinidad. From creole to Caribbean fusion, Indian to Italian, the smorgasbord of cuisines on these islands is staggering.
Trinidadians love their food, and it’s easy to understand why. Drawing on the culinary skills and traditions of all the many ethnic groups on this cosmopolitan island, Trinidad’s cuisine can’t help being distinct, tasty, and full of surprises.
In fact, in Trinidad, it’s as if every day is a feast. To enjoy the feasts of Trinidad, come with an open mind and an adventurous palate. From haute cuisine to roadside hut cuisine, Trinidad takes gastronomes on a culinary world tour.
Trinidad’s varied local cuisine reflects the country’s multi-ethnic heritage, which includes African, Indian, Spanish, French, British, Chinese and Syrian-Lebanese traditions. When it comes to eating in Trinidad, you’re likely to be thoroughly spoilt for choice.
The restaurant scene has been blossoming in Trinidad in recent years. Most of the fine dining restaurants are in and around Port of Spain (mainly Woodbrook) and San Fernando, with a few in the east and central Trinidad. The finer chefs at the top restaurants have worked internationally, and tend to experiment with local ingredients in Caribbean fusion dishes, while others are content to take the traditional Creole cuisine to dizzying heights of delectability.
European styles include Spanish, French, English and Italian. Lebanese, Japanese, Thai, Korean and Hakka (Indian/Chinese) have also been added to the never-ending list of culinary options in T&T. Even health nuts are catered for, with salad bars cropping up on the every-trendy Ariapita Avenue in Woodbrook (a suburb of Port of Spain). In a culture that adores wild meat and rich gravies, things like olives and spinach have always been bystanders to the main course. Nowadays though, words like organic and vegan are being bandied about, and more menus are tapping into the many fruits and veggies available year-round.
You can come across some magnificent establishments tucked away from the hustle and bustle of major towns, but Ariapita Avenue is considered the island’s restaurant mecca. Delicious Asian, Creole, European, Middle Eastern, Jamaican and American food is conjured up here by superb qualified chefs.
Trendy combination restaurant/sports bars are a fashionable choice for dining and liming, especially when big sporting events such as football and boxing are on.
There is another world of elegant dining around Port of Spain and San Fernando. You’ll discover the inviting choices of Italian, Thai, African, authentic East Indian, Mexican, Syrian, Creole, European nouvelle cuisine, or maybe an international buffet offering food of a different country or continent each week. Take a tour around the world: try each in turn. Many new restaurants have opened in graceful buildings, preserving traditional style and architecture.
One Plaza at One Woodbrook Place
At the base of this iconic skyscraper, which is perfectly perched on the edge of Woodbrook and St James, a virtual one-stop shop for foodies has been created. Just minutes away from Ariapita Avenue, One Plaza at One Woodbrook Place is now a haven for restaurateurs – with its central location; tonnes of free, secure parking; Digicel IMAX complex; and celebrity clients (residents of apartments in the high-rise block, or their friends).
It was only a matter of time before Pizza Hut, for years the sole food outlet on site, got some serious competition. Now, the rapidly growing list of restaurants and cafés jostling for space at THE ‘des res’ in Trinidad include Chaud Café and Wine Bar (its highly rated big brother, Chaud Restaurant, is located around the Queen’s Park Savannah); The Port; Shesha Café & Lounge; Urban Oasis Café; Svaada; Samurai and Annie’s Chinese Restaurant, offering Middle Eastern (everything halal), Mediterranean, vegan, vegetarian, sushi, salads, sandwiches, pasta, gourmet burgers, tartines, strip steak, scallops, shrimp, octopus, squid, mussels, clams and the list is endless. And we haven’t even mentioned the desserts, which include warm apple crumble, banana beignets and chocolate espresso mousse.
What more could you want? Ah, yes, a little after-dinner conversation — over a hookah. Shesha Café & Lounge also provides the increasingly popular hookahs, complete with tobacco in flavours like grape, lime, apple and lemon mint.
If you are wondering where to find typical Trinidadian meals, you may have to be invited home! Simple menus include a starch (rice, potatoes, or ground provisions), small portions of meat, generous helpings of stewed peas or beans, and vegetables. Tradition dictates a Saturday soup (known as Sancoche), a thick and hearty combination of split peas, dumplings and ground provisions (roots such as yams, dasheen, eddo, cassava) flavoured with a piece of salted pork or beef (sometimes even turkey or chicken, for the health-conscious). Saturday evenings, you might expect souse or steaming black pudding. Sundays are time for callaloo, stewed chicken and macaroni pie.
At the Port of Spain port there are a number of local cooks well-known for their “sweet hand” in preparing local fare at Femmes Du Chalet (formerly known as the Breakfast Shed, and few Trinidadians call it by its new name). You’ll find fish slices stewed in tomatoes, served with coo-coo (a cornmeal paste, like Italian polenta) and callaloo; stewed red beans; and slices of yams, plantains and breadfruit.
Everywhere in Trinidad you’ll find down-home eateries where you can sample home-style Trinidadian cooking. Popular items include stewed chicken, callaloo, ground provisions, pelau, ochro-and-rice, cou-cou, breadfruit oildown, pigeon peas, macaroni pie and curried meats and vegetables. Buljol, black pudding and souse are traditional breakfast items. And don’t leave Trinidad without trying our famous roti — sada roti served with choka is a breakfast favourite. If it’s around Christmas time you’re likely to find items like pastelles on the menu as well.
Street Food & Finger Food
Street food is a big part of our culinary culture. In fact, some of the best foods in Trinidad are bought from roadside vendors and eaten with your hands. Doubles is perhaps the leading roadside delight, a favourite of the breakfast and late evening crowds. Your visit would not be complete without eating a doubles streetside. Vendors set up at designated places like Piarco Airport, St. James, Woodbrook, Curepe, on Long Circular Road, etc., to offer this savoury of curried chick peas between two barra. You’ll find the most popular doubles vendors surrounded by a crowd between 8 and 9:30am. If you have a sensitive pallet or stomach, make sure to tell them no pepper. If you’re on the fence, ask for “a doubles with slight pepper”.
Roasted corn, corn soup, oysters (careful with these, though), coconuts and souse can be found around the Queen’s Park Savannah at night. Local fruits, once in season, can be bought at supermarkets, on the sidewalks and even at traffic lights, where some vendors ply their trade at your car window.
In some areas (notably St. James and San Juan) you’ll also come across interesting vegetarian selections, including an array of milk-based punches. Chase your street meal with some fresh coconut water, drunk straight from the nut, and for dessert, try a cup of home-style ice cream — flavours include coconut, Guinness (yes, the drink!) and soursop.
Another popular Trini on-the-spot food is roti. It is a kind of Indian flat bread sometimes filled with finely ground split peas cooked on a tawa (griddle), then used to wrap a serving of curried meat, shrimp and/or vegetables. Many offer this already-wrapped version, or serve the vegetable and meat sauces on the side to be dipped up with pieces of paratha (also known as buss up shut), a large silky roti that is pummelled and torn into soft flaky shreds. Be willing to use fingers instead of a fork! Go easy on the pepper sauces or chutneys which may be offered. Trinis like their food peppery! There’s also the plain bready kind, sada roti, which can be stuffed with choka (sautéed and simmered tomatoes), baigan (eggplant), bhaji (spinach), or smoked herring. A wider variety of Indian snack foods is available from vendors at the old trainline in Debe (on the Siparia-Erin road).
Other enterprising street peddlers offer pies: spicy meat pies, fish pies, aloo (potato) pies, coconut tarts or currants rolls. When you meet the pie-man, ask him what he’s offering that day.
If you become hooked on this Trini “street food”, you can haunt all of the places mentioned and really dig in to the variety of offerings. Take a walk in St. James along the Western Main Road. At different street corners, in addition to roti, you will find lots of that home-made ice cream, fresh baked bread or barbecue. Around the Savannah, you can also buy coconut water straight from the shell, fresh fruit, phulorie balls, boiled or roasted corn (in season), and barbecue. On the highways and byways, especially in the countryside, look for fresh fruit, vegetables, honey and local delicacies.
NB: Authorised vendors display food badges which certify official health inspection and approval.
Maracas Beach is the “shark-and-bake* centre of the world”. It is here that the art of seasoning fish fillets in a tangy lime marinade, then deep frying them to be stuffed into a fry bake and spiced with your choice of garlic, pepper or shado-beni (cilantro) sauce, was developed and perfected. Not many other beaches have developed either the connoisseurs or the tradition of cooks to challenge Maracas for the best shark-and-bake* feast! To other beaches, or on river limes, Trinis go prepared with their own pots, which usually means pelau (a rice dish with meat and peas cooked together and topped off with a flaming hot congo pepper). Or you might expect a pot of curried duck cooked over a coalpot right there on the bank or beach. Rum is never far away.
*Sharks are no longer plentiful in Trinidadian waters, and efforts are being made to curb overfishing. As such, popularity and fame notwithstanding, shark and bake may no longer be in the best interest of Trinidad’s fragile marine ecology. In addition to man’s appetite for delicious things, there is another threat to Trinidadian sea life: the lion fish. This invasive species lacks predators in Caribbean waters and its numbers are rising rapidly. There are ongoing initiatives to persuade locals and visitors across the Caribbean of the lion fish’s potential as a tasty snack. Man’s appetite for delicious things could yet be a solution rather than a problem. If the opportunity arises, do your bit for Trinidad’s environment: eat a lion fish, not a shark.
Festivals and family celebrations are always occasions for feasting. If you have the good fortune to be invited to a Hindu wedding, you will have at least three days of feasting, if not two weekends. The bride’s family hosts one feast; the groom’s another; and the final feast, bringing everybody together, is likely to include the whole village as well. Meat and alcohol are not usually served at Hindu weddings, though. It is tradition for the food to be served on banana leaves.
Other festivals have their trademark foods, as well. At Christmas, turkey, ham, pastelles, ginger-beer, sorrel and garlic pork are traditional. For Carnival, pelau, ham and hops, buljol or smoked herring and bake. Beers and other alcoholic beverages are available streetside. Fetes and calypso shows attract street vendors opening fresh coconuts, ladling out cups of corn soup, or offering boiled corn on the cob. Lent still signifies a period of fasting and many fish meals. Steaming tangy fish broths are favourites during this period.
A weekend visit to the Central Market in Port of Spain off the Beetham Highway, or the Chaguanas Market, presents the cornucopia of fruits, vegetables, and seafood in season. Trinidad’s seasons are marked by fruit as much as by food. From May to August, mangoes are plentiful: tiny golf-ball sized Dou-douce (as sweet as its French name suggests); Starch (not at all starchy); smooth fleshy Julies; enormous Grahams (also called “bellyful”); and a huge assortment in between. Mangoes, however, do not last a long time after they’ve been picked, ripening quickly in the tropical climate. Avocados ripen in this season, too. Forest fruits include balata, sapodilla, sugar apples, all characterised by smooth black seeds like a plum’s. Pawpaws (papaya), watermelons and pineapples are available all year round. Pommeracs (a fragrant, juicy, pear-shaped red fruit with a single seed) usually bear in two seasons, mid-year and at Christmas.
But don’t be dismayed if you’re into the more conventional. There’s a variety of pizza, burgers, fried chicken, fries, doughnuts, and even bagels. Trinidad has several international fast food chains supplying the familiar burgers and fries, as well as local chains like Royal Castle, Mario’s Pizzeria and Pizza and Burger Boys. Eating Chinese may well be Trinis’ favourite dining out experience. Trinidadians often boast of having the best Chinese food outside of China. Flavours run the gamut of sweet-sour, pepper spicy, earthy with dried mushrooms, black bean sauces, fresh chives and ginger. Choose a basic meal of Char Sue Kai Fan (roast pork, roast chicken and fried rice), or more luxurious fare that includes jumbo shrimp, fish and lobster.
All in the Location
Sometimes it’s as much about the where as the what. In St. James, on the western edge of Port of Spain, nightfall brings out sidewalk vendors selling grilled fare, burgers, roti, corn soup, souse and ital food. People trek from all over the country to San Fernando to partake in Halal meats barbequed over coals and served with fries, salad and garlic rolls. In Debe village, just outside San Fernando, people throng to small wooden huts for sumptuous Indian delicacies.
Local Food Favourites
These are some of the easy on-the-spot foods sold by roadside vendors
- Accra: fritter of flour or grated yam flavoured with saltfish, thyme and pepper (African origin)
- Barra: a soft shell made from flour, split peas and turmeric
- Blue food: a range of starchy vegetables including dasheen (blue-tinted yam), cassava, breadfruit, plantains, yams
- Buljol: Salted codfish shredded and seasoned with pepper, onions, tomatoes and olive oil served in hops or bake
- Callaloo: Made from spinach-like dasheen leaves, with okra and other ingredients that may include coconut and pig-tail
- Corn soup: A split peas-based soup with corn and dumplings
- Cou-cou: Often served with callaloo, this mixture of cornmeal, okra and butter is boiled and stirred till firm enough to be sliced
- Daalpurie: a type of roti with a filling of ground split peas
- Doubles: A popular Indian snack consisting of a soft, fried flour-and-split pea shell filled with curried chick peas
- Float: Also known as fry bake; leavened dough cooked in hot oil “floats” to the top
- Ginger-beer: a non-alcoholic beverage made with ginger root and spices, sweetened with sugar
- Hops: A roll of white bread, similar to a hamburger bun, only crisper
- Macaroni pie: This macaroni, milk and cheese dish is baked and often accompanied by stewed meat and peas
- Pastelles: A Christmas specialty similar to Spanish tamales — spiced ground meat with raisins and olives wrapped in a casing of cornmeal and steamed in banana leaves
- Pelau: A one-pot dish of rice, pigeon peas and meat, often cooked in coconut milk
- Pulori: Small, deep-fried balls made of a highly seasoned mixture of ground split peas and flour, served with spicy chutney
- Roti: A hefty flour wrap (often filled with ground split peas) filled with your choice of curried vegetables and/or meat. Sada roti is a slightly stiffer, greaseless variation, commonly served with choka, vegetables sautéed Indian-style
- Shandy: blend of beer with lime juice; now prepared commercially with ginger, sorrel and lime flavours
- Shark-and-Bake: Richly seasoned shark fillets stuffed into a fried leavened bread (bake) and dressed with a variety of condiments, including pepper, garlic and chadon beni (cilantro) sauces
- Sorrel: a red drink made from the fruit of the same name
- Sweet drink: sweetened carbonated beverage, known in the US as soda
- Tamarind balls: A sweet (sometimes peppery) made from the stewed pulp of the tamarind fruit, rounded by hand and rolled in sugar.
The secret is in the sauce. Trinis love to douse their food with condiments such as pepper sauce, ketchup, garlic sauce, tamarind sauce, barbeque sauce, chutney and pickled fruits and veggies. Wash it all down with local juices, a cold local beer, freshly brewed coffee, fruit smoothies or some local rum.
- Adam’s Bagels (Maraval): casual dining – salads, baked goods, light soups and sandwiches. 622-2435
- Angelo’s (Woodbrook): restaurant offering authentic Italian fine dining, from Calabria-born owner and chef Angelo Cofone. 627-5551
- Driftwood Restaurant & Bar (San Fernando): 652-9463, www.tradewindshotel.net
- Flambeaux (Port of Spain): 627-5555, www.marriott.com
- Hyatt Waterfront Restaurant (Port of Spain): 623-2222, www.trinidad.hyatt.com
- Ithaki Restaurant (St. Ann’s): 623-3511, www.cascadiahotel.com
- J. Malone’s Irish Pub & Restaurant (MovieTowne & Trincity Mall): Irish-style pub with food, drink and entertainment to match. 624-9828, 640-5080
- Mt. Plaisir Estate Restaurant (Grande Rivière): 670-8381, www.mtplaisir.com
- Roustica: 640-5080
- Snappers (Trincity Mall): casual restaurant where seafood is the specialty. 640-5080
- Sweet Lime (Woodbrook & La Romaine): open-air bar and restaurant, with local and international dishes. 624-9983, www.sweetlime.co.tt
- Subway (nationwide): international chain serving healthy soups, salads, sandwiches and snacks. 662-5716,www.subway.com
- Tiki Village Restaurant and Bois Cano Bistro & Bar (Maraval): 622-5765, www.kapokhotel.com
- Trader Jack’s Island Grill & Bar (MovieTowne): seafood is the hook here. 222-2571
- Veni Mange (Woodbrook): restaurant serving delicious creole food; featured by the New York Times. 628-5254, www.venimange.com
- The Verandah (St. Clair): restaurant serving Caribbean food, known for its executive lunch menus. 622-6287
- Zanzibar (MovieTowne): restaurant serving a wide variety of food, with vibrant decor and entertainment. 627-0752