How Indian Spices Became a Foundational Ingredient in Trinidadian Cuisine
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.
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.
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.
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."
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
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.
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.