fruit stand in a rural setting

How Indian Spices Became a Foundational Ingredient in Trinidadian Cuisine

Trinidad & Tobago may only be 7 miles off the coast of Venezuela but the country that's had an outsize influence on its food is India. Foodways historian Ramin Ganeshram explains how that came to be.

The best part of the childhood summers I spent on my father's home island of Trinidad was trailing behind him on his visits to the market to shop for his older sisters. All around us, tables were laden with the riotous hues of red Scotch bonnet peppers, orange pumpkins and mangoes, yellow bananas, rich purple eggplant, green long beans—called by their Hindi name, bodi—bitter melon, spinach and other edible leaves. Sometimes the colors were so bright they hurt your eyes.

Close-up on a bunch of peppers
Credit: Tarique Eastman

My favorite stop, though, was one particular spice stand—I've long forgot­ten the name, it was 40 years ago, after all—with its huge barrels of spices: carda­mom, turmeric, cinnamon, cumin. The owners, three brothers of East Indian de­scent, sold their wares with a singularly Trinidadian marketing technique—by freestyling calypsos (storytelling songs native to the island) about the superior­ity of their spices. In those days, many folks were still mixing their own curry— a key ingredient in much of the island's cuisine. The brothers had their own spe­cial blend, a recipe that had been a part of their family since their ancestors first arrived in Trinidad as indentured labor­ers in the 19th century.

close up on a sign in a city scape
Credit: Tarique Eastman

Their story is similar to my family's. At least three of my father's grand­parents traveled from Punjab, India, to Trinidad in the 1850s. As bonded field workers, they farmed sugar and cocoa fields for the English who, needing an­ other cheap source of labor following the end of slavery in their colonies, looked to other brown nations like India and China. Along with half a million others, theirs was a story of British imperial hegemony, which moved Indian people across the globe as indentured laborers to places like Trinidad and Guyana in the Western Hemisphere and Fiji and Mauritius in the Southern Hemisphere. In the Caribbean, my Indian ancestors took over where slavery left off.

My great­-grandparents' immigration was a forced one, the details of which are murky. Poverty, starvation, oppres­sion and deception all surely played a part. Once they arrived in Trinidad, they suffered the brutality of the plantation system. Still, they found ways to sustain their heritage by retaining their languages (which became pidginized in later generations), wearing native clothes and worshiping their gods.

A beach landscape

India remained a distant memory kept alive by the foods they eked out despite desperate poverty. Curry be­came a stand-­in for Indian­ness at large. Ingredients like rice, turmeric, carda­mom, yogurt and ghee, along with typi­cal Indian cooking techniques, melded with local produce in new ways.

Today, nearly half of the population on the island claims Indian roots. In both its people and its cuisine, Trinidad is an organic fusion. Here, the flavors from the subcontinent have married with those from West Africa, China and Syria and of the Indigenous people. Curry is still a foundational flavor, and everything from fruits and vegetables to meat, fish and wild game gets equal opportunity in the curry pot.

Credit: Tarique Eastman
Jars of food on a tablecloth
Credit: Tarique Eastman

For most Trinidadians, Indian culture is simply part and parcel of the nation. Colette Cyrus Burnett, a chef and CEO of Global Food Warrior, which strives to make local food systems more affordable and accessible, grew up in Chaguanas, an area in central Trinidad that is known for its strong Indian roots. Although largely Afro­Caribbean, she recognizes Trinidad­Indian food as core to the national identity. "We never saw any distinction in our kitchen. It was never 'East Indian' food to us," she says. "It is just home food, a part of our collective culture that warms our hearts and bellies." 

two sandwiches on a blue tray
Credit: Tarique Eastman

And so it is for me. When I cook a dish that I learned from my father, I'm transported back to those summers on Trinidad. The tangy tamarind sauce spooned over fish, the aroma of curry in doubles and the smoky flavor of roasted eggplant, all speak to this diverse nation's deliciously complex history.

Recipes to Try

A boat next to a water front storefront
Plan Your Trip

Due to the complicated nature of travel during the pandemic, check local travel restrictions before you make arrangements.

Credit: Tarique Eastman

Where to Eat

Seek out the food truck that frequents Carlsen Field in Chase Village, Chaguanas. What to order? Try saheena, fritters made with dasheen (taro) leaves plastered in a spiced chickpea batter that are rolled, sliced and fried; or baiganee, deep-fried battered eggplant similar to Indian pakora. 

For the nation's most popular snack, head to Araby Ali's Doubles in Barataria. The Alis have been cooking them up since the 1930s. 

Krishna's, in Debe, is known for its sweet treats. A few to try include coconut fudge; toolum, a specialty of the island made with sweetened spiced tamarind pulp; and kurma, crunchy finger-size crackers dipped in sugar syrup. 

A statue in a park
Where to Visit

For a crash course in Indo-Caribbean culture, head to Chaguanas' Main Road where you can visit a variety of jewelry stores selling locally made Indian-style gold designs. India Heights offers costume jewelry as well as puja items for Hindu rites, such as incense, diyas (small clay lamps), statues of Hindu gods and more. 

Don't miss the Hanuman Murti in Carapichaima, an 85-foot-tall statue of the Hindu Monkey Headed warrior god, the largest outside of India. 

Credit: Tarique Eastman

Where to Stay

Experience traditional charm with a stay at Pax Guest House, at Mount Saint Benedict in St. Augustine. Located on the grounds of a Benedictine monastery, this mountaintop boutique hotel is known for its tea service and commanding views of the island. Just 30 minutes west of the capital city of Port of Spain, the guesthouse is located ideally for travel north or south.

RAMIN GANESHRAM is a Trinidadian American culinary historian and author of Sweet Hands: Island Cooking from Trinidad & Tobago.