Trinidad food trail
Two days into my stay on the twin-island republic of Trinidad and Tobago I realise it’s impossible to overemphasise the role that food plays in Trinbagonian culture. At a party at cricketer Brian Lara’s opulent home, I am struck by the diversity of food on offer. An exquisitely turned out cross-dresser drapes herself around a pillar, points at the sushi and sashimi, barbecued meats, roti and pelau (a Creole chicken dish) that she sees heaped upon my plate, and says, “That mix of food is edible heritage.” Thanks to all the people who colonised, settled or were brought in as slaves, ‘local’ food in Trinidad can mean anything from African to Indian, Japanese to European, or just a happy blend of all. The chowmein roti is a classic example.
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Some of my new friends are evangelical in their desire to get me to do a street food trail. “Street food is to the land what pizza is to Italy. While you’ll usually get much of what you’re eating on the streets at fancy restaurants too, the food is wrapped in euphemism and advertising,” says Mr M.
We spend a day trawling through roadside stalls and rum shops. We find there’s real comfort in doubles that comprise a pair of barra with a channa filling. There’s also true decadence in half-a-dozen oysters camping in little plastic glasses for just under a dollar and satiation in a bag of pholourie, a smallish ping-pong sized ball made of ground split peas and flour. But what tickles our palate most is pepper sauce over which someone said, “If we were a country given to organised violence, wars might have been fought over it.” Pepper sauce is made from some of the hottest chillies in the world that are pickled or ground with onions, garlic and other seasoning. There are stories of people who found it so hot they could taste it behind their eyeballs.
Mr M insists we wind up the day at a rum bar. Over Trinbagonian rum punch — created using blended fruits, syrup, bitters and a generous topping of nutmeg and cinnamon, Mrs Bartender invites us home for Sunday lunch. “What will you serve?” I ask, expecting some of the island’s sweet homemade wine, a main course of pelau followed by brightly-coloured sweets made from sugar and coconut. But Mrs Bartender sticks a pin firmly into my fantasy. “On Sunday morning, all you’ll get is hearty Creole soup made from leftovers. In traditional Trini fashion, I clear out my icebox and then I’m ready to restock my fridge at the local Sunday market,” she says cheerfully.
Besides the thriving past, the fact that Trinbagonian cuisine will always seek out freshness and new flavors is what makes me genuflect. Where else but here could I have a meal of chicken feet in brine with sharp black pepper sauce followed with an evocatively-flavored, hand- churned Guinness ice-cream?
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