A Taste of Trinidadian Culture

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I generally shy away from writing about food.  It’s well-covered ground, and really do we need another travel blog dedicated to the culinary arts out there?  But there is one country that just doesn’t seem to get enough attention when it comes to gastronomy.  And it’s a shame, because not only is the history and culture of its cuisine utterly fascinating, its damn good too!

Unless you live in a major metropolitan city like New York, you probably have never stepped into a Trini restaurant.  That’s OK, neither had I until visiting Trinidad.  But if you drink cocktails, it’s likely they‘re dashed with a bit of Angostura bitters, one of Trinidad’s oldest companies.

In many ways, Angostura is an excellent place to begin a culinary tour of the island, a representation of Trinidad’s multicultural heritage.  The infusion of herbs, spices, and ethanol was developed in the Venezuelan town of Angostura by German-born Johann Gottlieb Benjamin Siegert before the distillery was moved to British controlled Port of Spain in 1875, where it has remained ever since.  Even today, ingredients are first routed to England before making their way to Trinidad, passing uninspected through the island’s custom’s house, to be mixed in a special room by five people who are the only ones who know the secret recipe.

Angostura is probably Trinidad’s most famous export.

But Trinidad’s cultural heritage runs far deeper than European émigrés.  When full emancipation was achieved in 1838, British colonial plantation owners needed additional sources of labor for a growing cacao industry.  They found it in Indian indentured labor.  By 1917, 145,000 Indians had immigrated to Trinidad. It’s this blend of African and Indian cultures that has created some of the best food this side of the Atlantic.

Work on the cacao plantations was intense, and labors needed an easy way to pack in calories during the day.  Field hands found the answer by mixing traditional techniques with local ingredients.  Roti is the name for a flatbread that is ubiquitous in India.  On the subcontinent, roti is used in place of utensils to pick up meat and soak up curry. In Trinidad, roti is a full meal that uses the enliven bread as a wrap. The filling usually contains a meat stew of local produce, including potatoes.

Roti came about to bring lunch into the field.

Trinidad also owes a big debt to India for the creation of its most popular street food: doubles.  A simple concoction of chickpea curry called channa slathered between two pieces of fried flatbread (baras), doubles are a messy high-calorie staple that isn’t quite Indian but certainly feels like it could be. You can find these sloppy snacks being sold at pretty much any city street corner.

Doubles are a favorite street food in Trinidad.

Soups are also popular in Trinidad, and Oxtail soup showcases Trinidad’s African roots.  This humble stew uses the tail of a cow to create a powerfully tasty concoction of local vegetables and spices.  It takes hours for the stew to break down the fats and allow the flavor of the bones to seep into the mix.  The result, though, is divine.

Oxtail soup is usually served on Sundays.

And a great way to accompany your oxtail soup is with some Trini black pudding.  Traditionally, black pudding was made around Christmas time, when poor families would slaughter their pigs.  Not wanting anything go to waste, the blood was collected and salted to prevent clotting.  Heavily seasoned with chives and other herbs, blood putting became something of a holiday treat, but today, you can sample this deliciously year round at one of Trinidad’s numerous barbeque joints like Charlie’s.

Trinidad black pudding is spicier than varieties in other countries.

Finally, a lime (hanging out) at Trinidad’s famous Maracas beach wouldn’t be complete without a bake and shark.  No, it’s not getting high and then riding the back fin of an apex predator, but there is some doubt about what exactly this staple of beach food consists.  Many years ago, sharks were literally caught right off of Maracas and fried along with some dough to make a delicious sandwich.  Today, there is a bit of debate among suspicious Trinis over whether or not shark is actually making it into the bake.  But to be perfectly honest, I don’t care what they are using because it’s one fine sandwich.

Is that shark in that sandwich?

The history of Trinidad is a story of a heritage that is as chaotic as the island’s annual carnival.  It’s a story of the people who came here, some by choice others through coercion, but all struggling to survive and prosper in a new land. The traces of different cultures can be identified in the island’s cuisine, but it is the combination of these elements that have produced something extraordinary, distinctive, and truly its own.

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