How to Enjoy Food Like a Trini
Pretty much everything we do revolves around food. Out for drinks? Yes but we’ll stop for doubles/roti/gyros after. It’s Christmas! Midnight mass, love to your fellow man, wrap presents. The reward: pastelles, ham, ponche de crème, black cake. Beach! Where’s the shark and bake*? Cricket! Who’s bringing the pelau?
Trinidad & Tobago can be complicated. But our united, delighted appreciation of food is our society at its simplest and most artless. Where there be food, there we go. There’s always talk about the diversity and complexity of the country: ethnicity, religion, politics, preferences in Carnival bands. If there’s something that really holds us together though, it is our love of food.
Everybody eats; we are no different: but some of our favourites may be unfamiliar, or variations on a theme, passed through the history of this country, and adapted to the particular conditions of the Caribbean, where is it difficult to simply mimic the great cuisines of Africa, Europe, India and the Middle East. We will even tell you our fried chicken is a little different from that found elsewhere.
One example, the unifying aspect of our devotion to food: green seasoning. A blend of chive, chadon beni, garlic, onion, celery, pimento pepper and thyme is the thing that gives the unique taste to dishes across cultures.
Restaurants are plentiful, from the internationally noted to the dives known only to those living nearby. Fine dining restaurants with celebrity chefs are often located in converted traditional city houses, drawing ambience from memories of old Port of Spain. If you like Chinese food, you’ve come to the right place, oddly enough. The number of Chinese restaurants, mostly Cantonese, is in insane disproportion to the actual Chinese population. Not that we’re complaining. And there are some divine Indian, Thai, Italian, and Creole restaurants too.
But Trinidad is, above all, the land of street food. There are areas famous for this, like the Western Main Road in St James, or the southeast corner of the Queen’s Park Savannah. In Tobago, Store Bay stands in the winner’s circle for having so much good food in one place.
Here’s the challenge: eat your way across the sheds, tents, carts, mobile units, stalls and basketed bicycles of this country and then go out into the world and try to match the experience.
P.S. About green seasoning … Wonder what that flavour is that seems to make its way into all local dishes? Referred to simply as “green seasoning”, it’s a minced mix of chives, thyme, onions, garlic and celery. Many home and professional cooks keep their special variations fiercely guarded.
Amerindian, Spanish, French, English, Dutch, Africans from many places on that continent, Indians from disparate parts of the sub-continent, Chinese, Lebanese, Syrians: a long list of people and cultures who have settled here at one time or another, and it is hardly exhaustive. At least one person reading this will wonder at the exclusion of Tobago’s oft-ignored Latvian connection; and there are doubtless graver sins of omission. The point is simple: many peoples bring many foods.
Here are some of the more common categories of cuisine you will encounter in Trinidad and Tobago:
A catch-all term for, largely, Afro-Caribbean foods: stews; roasted, grilled or fried meat and fish; pelau, the mix of rice, legumes and meat that is so much more than the sum of those parts.
That is, West Indian Indian food. It bears only a dim resemblance to its sub-continental relations. Curried meats and vegetables are wrapped in roti (thin, flexible flatbread – which you’ll find everywhere), or served with the roti on the side or with rice.
Doubles, that hard-to-hold, impossible to resist, fried bread filled with curried chick peas has put us on the culinary world map.
Mostly of the Cantonese variety. It takes a special talent to be able to NOT find a Chinese restaurant. They come in a variety of incarnations: Fancy, Nice, Convenient and Out-of-a-Van. Don’t scoff at any of the options.
Off the grill
Burgers of beef, lamb, chicken or shrimp. Barbecued chicken, ribs, fish and pig-tail. The sauce and glaze are thinner and more tart than the thicker American version. At fetes and festivals, the air is often thick with the aroma of expertly charring meats.
We mentioned the chicken. There are great and many local food options, as well as restaurants specializing in just about every culinary variety imaginable. A doubles vendor can produce a chutney made with as much invention and understanding of flavour as an award-laden chef. So why mention the country’s least remarkable fast food staple?
Because it is a thought held by many citizens of the Republic that our chicken is different. It doesn’t always get mentioned in polite company, or the presence of visitors, but ask the right questions and you may uncover the local conviction that the standard fast-fried, chicken-in-a-box offering simply tastes better here than anywhere else. KFC is the litmus test, since it is a global chain, and many will swear the chicken they serve in T&T is manifestly superior to their offerings abroad. Is it true? It’s a matter of opinion, and you are welcome to add yours to the mix.
All the categories of food mentioned are amply represented across the country’s restaurants. You want elegant, opulent, fine dining fit for a head of state (literally: chef Khalid Mohammed has cooked for the Presidents of at least three countries)? Try Chaud (www.chaudkm.com), on the edge of the Savannah in Port of Spain, or young chef John Aboud’s Aioli (Ellerslie Plaza, Port of Spain; 868 222 3291). The simple pleasure of well-prepared crayfish or crab and dumplings? Call ahead to Arthur’s Grocery & Bar to reserve a portion of Ms. Jenny’s popular signature dishes (868 351 0234; Toco Main Road, Rampanalgas), or simply stop in and see what’s available. Want to let fate decide? Olive Tree in San Fernando (868 652 1277) serves a different themed menu every night.
The capital in particular abounds with restaurants that run the gamut of global cuisines. French? Zazou Bistro Moderne in Maraval. Italian? Emiliana Osteria near Woodbrook. Japanese? More Sushi has outlets in Woodbrook and San Fernando.
There are plenty more, but we have three specific recommendations.
Amainstay of the Trinidad restaurant scene since it opened in 1980, Veni Mange in Woodbrook is an unapologetic champion of Caribbean food. A refined yet relaxed atmosphere – local art on the walls, breeze flowing through louvered windows – and the unfussy confidence that comes from having been in the business of feeding people well for more than 30 years, make this a popular lunch spot, although it also opens twice-weekly for dinner.
If it’s on the menu, try the chip-chip cocktail. Chip-chips are small shellfish: they look like very tiny clams. They can be scooped out of the sand on Mayaro beach at the right time of year, but it takes patience to prepare sufficient quantity for a meal. Enjoy the fact someone else went to the trouble for you. (www.venimange.com)
The Chaguanas-based establishment is, as you may have guessed, an Indian restaurant, serving high quality, yet affordable, curries and tandoori in what many consider to the capital of Trinidad’s East Indian community.
But the Trinidadian enthusiasm for food often boils down to two simple impulses: if something is good, why not have more (this is the story behind doubles); if two things are good, why not combine them (the reason green seasoning finds its way into almost every type of food prepared here).
Delhi Palace’s best-kept secret may be one of its lunch specials: the Hakka combo. Hakka is a spicy Chinese cuisine, popular in this country where spicy things have an appreciative audience. There are plenty of Chinese restaurants serving excellent examples of the genre, just as there are plenty serving good Indian food. Why mix the two? The answer is at Delhi Palace. Find out for yourself, for less than US$10. (www.delhipalacett.com)
Patraj Roti Shop:
Head down the Eastern Main Road toward San Juan. Tucked away on Back Chain Street is the Patraj Roti Shop (868 638 2479). In much the same way American cities are dotted with Starbucks, Trinidad has no shortage of roti shops: this little corner of San Juan has three right next to each other.
We recommend Patraj in part because it has an outlet in Port of Spain, where the same no-nonsense service can be found. Pick a filling and a bread (wrapped in smooth, thin dhalpouri; or served in a box with a side of “buss-up shut”, shredded paratha), submit to an interrogation about your vegetable and spice preferences, and enjoy the simple pleasure of Trinidad roti. Does Patraj serve the best roti in the country? Its portions are among the biggest, but we will not be drawn into that debate. Fortunately, as mentioned, you can begin to form your own thoughts on the matter by simply crossing the street to one of this establishment’s neighbouring competitors.
And a word of advice: eat in. A serious roti requires both hands and full attention to consume, and place to wash hands afterwards.
There isn’t much, food-wise, Trinidad won’t try to load into a cooler or onto a grill and sell on the side of the road – certainly there is more than we can adequately describe in the space here. Making the assumption you don’t need to be told how to drink coconut water, and you are familiar with many of the delicious things that can be done with meat on a grill, here are few highlights from Trinidad’s thriving street food scene.
In Port of Spain, there are two places you can go to get close to the full range of Trinidadian street food options. St. James has a reliable assortment of vendors, catering to the appetites of patrons of the area’s many bars. At the Savannah, you can always find snow cones, doubles and coconuts by day; and at night, “The Strip”, a paved area on the southeast side (look for NAPA, and you’re in the right sort of area), is where you will find grilled meats, gyros, curried things, and variety of local juices and punches.
But generally speaking, in Trinidad where there are streets, there is food. The usual rules apply – if you see a line, you’re probably on to something good.
Highlights of the Trinidadian street food scene include:
Curried chickpeas, served with one or several sauces and chutneys (ask what the options are, or simply let the vendor give you what is available), and a dash of hot pepper sauce if that is your preference, on a flatbread called a “barra”. There will be two barras, hence the name “doubles”.
Reliably cheap, vegetarian, and quick to eat, doubles are most popular as an on-the-go breakfast item or an after-bar night snack. But there is no bad time of day to try them.
Note: for the uninitiated, a sloppy handful of chickpeas on a small circle of bread can be tough to eat efficiently. Any popular doubles vendor will have a small group of patrons eating alongside the cart, and you can get some useful instruction from simply watching others eat.
In the context of Trinidadian street food, a “pie” is a slender pocket of fried bread, containing a savoury filling. Think of a flattened doughnut. Now imagine that to be delicious: Trinidadian pies.
Of course, not all pies are made equal. Some are disappointing, some have been standing around too long. But they are cheap, plentiful and a bad pie experience is merely the precursor to a better one.
Aloo, (Hindi for potato), is the most popular variety – usually split open in front of you and stuffed with chutney, sauces, or fancier fare such as the channa used in doubles or even, occasionally, meat or stew. Whatever the options are, you will be offered them.
The only limitation on what can be put in a pie is the imagination of the pie maker, but the standard varieties are beef, fish and cheese.
If you are buying your roti on the street, give careful thought to how you will eat it. Most street-roti is served wrapped (rather than as a some-assembly-required meal kit, which is the “buss up shot” model), and most vendors are expert at delivering the right balance of filling and roti to ensure you are not essentially purchasing a curry bomb, timed to explode on your shirt within 30 seconds of the first bite.
Still, forewarned is forearmed. Watch the patrons ahead of you, anticipate any difficulties, and if they appear insurmountable, head for another option. There are many ways to serve roti; you will find the one that works for you. (Remember: many people may buy their roti on the street, but they may not necessarily intend to eat it there.)
Beef and chicken are the most popular varieties, often supplemented with potato. Also appearing: shrimp, goat, duck, conch – if it will stand still, we will curry it. A variety of additional fillings are usually offered as optional company for the meat inside the roti: channa (chick peas), pumpkin, spinach, mango (yes, mango) to name a few.
Note: “Chicken” in the context of a roti filling generally connotes chicken on the bone. This is cheaper than its easier-to-eat cousin, “boneless chicken”. Be aware of the distinction. A chicken-on-the-bone curry stuffed into thin wrap can be a challenging proposition on first acquaintance.
What is roti?
Leave it to Trinidad to use one word to describe a multitude of meal options. The word “roti” describes a particular type of unleavened bread, part of the spectrum of Indian breads that includes chapati and naan. That is roti: a type of bread.
In Trinidad, it is also a type of meal. There are three basic approaches, all of which are distinct variations on the theme of bread and curried foods.
Wrapped/Dhalpouri: a thin bread (dhalpouri) folded around a curried meat and vegetable filling. Depending on the preparation, this can be handheld, sandwich-like experience. But generosity often stretches the bread’s capacity to breaking point.
Buss up shut: curry and vegetables and bread presented as separate portions. The bread is usually paratha, shredded and frayed and generally bearing a resemblance to a particularly mangled shirt. Busted shirt = buss up shut.
Saada: the outlier. Saada roti is a thicker, firmer bread – more like a stiff pita – and lends itself to a dip-and-spread approach to eating the meal, as opposed to the fold-and-dab technique the other options tend to encourage.
This being Trinidad, there are other types of roti – but we can’t tell you everything. You’ll know them when you see them.
Corn soup is the most frequently seen on the street, and is just one of the ways corn is presented for casual consumption (boiled and roasted being the other methods). A large, white Styrofoam container is the traditional serving, and the soup itself tends to a consistency somewhere between “paste” and “stew”. Corn is just one of several ingredients in a good corn soup, not even necessarily the main ingredient.
Other commonly served soup types are oxtail and cowheel, though both are less often served on the street than their cheaper, corn-based cousin.
Or sno-cones, street food lacks a dictionary of record. It’s a simple premise: crushed or shaved ice, crammed into a Styrofoam cup, and liberally doused with sweet syrup. The syrups usually represent specific fruit flavours – mango, guava, tamarind. But it is equally acceptable to identify them by colour: there will almost always be red, orange and yellow varieties on display. Say nothing, and you will usually get them all.
The big question: do you want milk? Sweet, sticky, thick condensed milk, which adds a creaminess to the mix, and is a necessity for some and a frippery for others. Either way, something cool and sweet pairs well with a Caribbean afternoon. A Savannah snow cone pairs particularly well with a stroll past the Magnificent Seven – it takes about as long to walk by them all as it does to finish off the cup.
Served in a shot glass, accompanied by a tangy red cocktail sauce. If it seems oddly casual to treat the oft-prized oyster as street food, consider Trinidad also has one of the world’s highest per-capita consumption rates of Jonny Walker whisky. You can buy bottles of the stuff from almost any bar, no matter how improvised. And if you are throwing back top-shelf liquor with carefree abandon on the Savannah, what other than oysters would you choose to keep hunger at bay?
More street food highlights:
- Barbecue: in our version, the sauce is thinner and more heavily seasoned than, say, its sweet and tangy American cousin
- Chow: fruit, especially young ones, pickled in vinegar, salt and pepper. Add as much hot pepper as you can stand. Favourites include mango, pineapple, West Indian plums
- Coconut water: straight from the nut
- Corn: boiled, roasted or in soup
- Curried crab and dumplings: a Tobago speciality, in which the steamed flour dumpling offsets the dense curry of the crab
- Gyros: the traditional Arabic wrap of grilled meat and unleavened bread has been gaining popularity outside clubs, bars and parties
- Oyster cocktails: fresh oysters served in a tomato-based sauce, sold by the glass
- *Shark and bake: the bake is the mellow, fried round of dough that houses the sandwich. Add deep-fried slices of shark or other fish. Fresh vegetables, pineapple, and an array of condiments complete it. [If you can opt for another more sustainably produced fish, or a vegetarian option, please do – shark supplies are in short supply in our local waters, and the balance of our eco-system at risk as a result. Ask the vendor about lionfish and bake!]
- Souse: the brined feet of pigs or chickens served with lots of hot pepper
Two great sites for descriptions, definitions and desires: