A Passage to Trinidad

Sahni is a leading expert on the cuisine of her native India

As I entered the Central Market on Beetham Highway in Trinidad, I was assaulted by the aromas of cumin, coriander, tamarind and curry coming from the countless spice shops lining the market. I closed my eyes, breathed deeply, and for one fleeting moment it was as if I were home in New Delhi in northern India, sitting under a shady jack fruit tree and eating spicy goat curry, roti bread and chutney.

When I opened my eyes again, I found myself unmistakably in the Caribbean. But because of the many similarities between India and Trinidad, I was as close to home as I could be.

In the Caribbean, Trinidad stands out. Although British, French and Spanish influences are widely evident throughout the area, it is the Creole culture that dominates all of the Islands--all except Trinidad, where it shares the stage with the East Indian culture. The Indo-Trinidadians form the largest single ethnic community (40%) on the Island.

When slavery was abolished by the British on the sister islands of Trinidad and Tobago in 1834, all those of African descent immediately abandoned the sugar and cocoa plantations, causing a severe labor crisis. The planters, suddenly hard-pressed for cheap labor, were forced to look to distant countries to fill this critical shortage. The British colony of India, with docile subjects who had just experienced a great depression and widespread famine, provided the ideal solution.

Between 1838 and 1917, about 144,000 Indian men, women and children were transported to Trinidad under a form of limited-term slavery called indentureship. Having arrived with culture and religions relatively intact and functional, the Indians adapted relatively well to their new environment.

The Indians taken to Trinidad were predominantly from the farming communities of eastern India--Bihar and Uttar Pradesh--and they brought with them seeds and cuttings of many vegetables, fruits, herbs and spices indigenous to their native land. Soon after their arrival on the island, small Asian gardens full of baigan (eggplant--also known in the Caribbean under a Provencal French name, melongene) , bodi (butter beans), bhaji (spinach), aam (mango), katahar (jackfruit), karapeele (curry leaves), hardi (turmeric) and jeera (cumin) were blooming behind their barracks.

When the terms of their indentureship expired, many Indians opted to stay on as hired help on the farms; some were even able to purchase small parcels of land, which they farmed themselves. Today Trinidad's agriculture is monopolized by Indo-Trinidadians.

The Indians were also skilled craftspeople, and with the tools they had brought to Trinidad they made tavas-- the iron griddles on which they baked their traditional roti bread--and carved swizzle sticks out of jackfruit wood, with which they pureed their dhal (lentils). The Indians introduced the other Islanders to the art of extracting coconut cream and coconut oil and of harvesting rice.

Indo-Trinidadian cuisine evolved by borrowing elements from the island's environment, and gradually assuming a character of its own. One of Trinidad's favorite dishes is pelau , a spicy mixture of rice, pigeon peas and vegetables cooked in coconut milk. And the two dishes that have put Trinidad on the culinary map, curry and roti, are both of Indian origin.

Actually, the only thing Trinidadian roti shares with East Indian roti is its name. In India, roti is a plain, peasant-style flatbread made of whole grain. In Trinidad roti is a complete meal in itself--a folded bread pocket stuffed with a savory filling.

The roti of Trinidad is prepared by first making a bread called dhalpourri. Leavened dough layered with spicy split peas, ground as fine as silk, is rolled into 12-inch circles and baked on a griddle. Next, a curry is prepared by combining and cooking any number of ingredients, the most popular of which are goat, shrimp, chicken or mixed vegetables with a highly seasoned mixture of onions, garlic and the ubiquitous spice blend known as curry powder. The roti is then assembled by wrapping the dhalpourri around the curry, burrito-style. Served with the accents of a mango-mustard relish called kuchila and fiery hot Trinidad pepper sauce on the side, Trinidadian roti is pure pleasure.

My favorite Trinidad roti is served at the Monsoon restaurant, a cheery self-service eatery in Port of Spain. Its version of roti is presented with chana-aloo (spicy chick peas and potatoes), curried pumpkin, curried bodi, curry mango and kuchila. As I sat devouring the buttery layers of roti, a young Chinese man came by my table to ask, "Do you like my food?" I was startled to discover that he was the cook, but this epitomizes the true rainbow character of Trinidadian culture and cuisine.

Indo-Trinidadians celebrate many eastern Indian religious festivals. "During Divali (the Hindu New Year) celebrations, I prepare very elaborate dishes that are strictly vegetarian," says Savitri Mohammed, whose Hindu grandparents were among the first Indians to arrive in Trinidad. Mohammed, who runs a bed-and-breakfast inn in St Augustine, often invites guests to share in her celebration. After the traditional rituals--lighting lamps filled with coconut oil and cotton wicks, a trip to the temple-- comes the real highlight, a grand feast of spicy chana (chickpea), braised pumpkin, kari (dumplings in sauce), curry mango, the elaborate dhalpourri, a rice pudding called kheer and a selection of sweets.

"Sweets are a must on Divali because they symbolize success," explains Mohammed, who works for days to prepare a mesmerizing array of traditional treats using milk and nuts. Unlike East Indian sweets, which are laced with exotic cardamom and rose water, West-Indian sweets are typically flavored with cinnamon, nutmeg and vanilla. She also prepares candy made with benne (sesame seeds), coconut and tamarind mixed with raw cane sugar.

Another festivity associated with feasting is Phagawa, celebrated by Hindus to commemorate the beginning of the harvest. Amid much singing, dancing and merrymaking, there is a day-long food feast of savories made with split peas laced with cumin, cayenne, turmeric and chives called pholoori.

Long ago an entrepreneurial Trinidadian chef struck on the clever idea of selling these universally appealing finger foods from his easily accessible road-side stand. Now it has mushroomed into a national obsession. Today snack stands offer an assortment of these concoctions the year round: In addition to pholoori you find sahina (stuffed dasheen leaves in the shape of pin wheels), kachauri (chive-flavored dumplings), bara (cumin-scented dumpling), and baiguni (eggplant fritters). They are all eaten with tamarind and mango sauces.

Another snack that is sold at stands is "doubles": An spicy Indo-Trinidadian mixture of stewed chick peas is spread between two (hence the name "doubles") small layers of fried bread called bara and served with mango and tamarind sauces. Doubles stands provide a quick and dirt-cheap breakfast or lunch.

The island's own abundance also contributed to Indo-Trinidadian cuisine. Crabs from the teaming coastal waters are used to make curried crab, a dish that has, over the years, become so infused with French, Spanish and Creole elements that the dish now bears little resemblance to the original.

The seasonings most commonly used by Indo-Trinidadians are onion, garlic, congo (hot chile) peppers, "Indian saffron" (turmeric) and cumin. But two ingredients considered essential to creating dishes with a characteristic Indian flavor are bandhania and Trinidad curry powder. Bandhania is a local herb with a coriander-like aroma; its name is derived from the East Indian ban, meaning "forest" or "wild," and dhania, meaning "coriander." It was discovered by early Indo-Trinidadians because the coriander seed they brought to the island did not take to the local soil.

Trinidadian curries, which are manufactured on the island, are milder and more herbal than traditional East Indian curry powders. In fact, curry has become such an integral part of Trinidadian cuisine that its origin has been completely forgotten. I was amazed when a saleswomen approached me in one of the curry factories and asked, "Are you from India? Do they also have curry powder in India?"

JULIE SAHNI'S TRINIDADIAN ROTI

Dhalpourri Bread

Trinidadian Curry

Place 1 Dhalpourri Bread on plate. Spoon 1 serving portion of curry in middle. Fold top and bottom portion of Dhalpourri Bread until they overlap slightly. Fold 2 side flaps over in same way to form rectangular envelope. Makes 6 servings.

Dhalpourri Bread

1 cup yellow split peas

1/2 teaspoon turmeric

1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic

1 tablespoon ground cumin

2 teaspoons salt

3 cups water

3/4 cup oil

3 cups all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

1 cup warm water

Combine split peas, turmeric, garlic, cumin, 1 teaspoon salt and 3 cups water. Cook until peas are very tender and water is completely absorbed into peas, about 25 to 30 minutes. Puree cooked peas in food processor.

Heat 2 tablespoons oil in medium-sized skillet pan. Add pureed peas and cook until mixture looks dry and crumbly, about 20 to 25 minutes. When completely cool, turn mixture into powder.

Place flour, baking powder and 1 teaspoon salt in large shallow bowl and mix well. Stir 2 tablespoons oil in water and pour in slow stream over flour, until flour adheres and forms single mass. Knead dough until smooth, dusting with flour. Rub oil over dough and set aside to stand 30 minutes.

Divide dough and filling into 6 portions. Roll 1 portion of dough into 4-inch circle. Spread with 1 portion filling. Bring sides of dough over filling and enclose completely. Dust patty with flour and roll into 8- to 10-inch round circle. Continue with rest of dough.

Heat skillet until very hot. Spread with 2 teaspoons oil and add 1 bread. Cook until underside of bread is lightly browned, about 2 minutes. Turn bread and add 2 teaspoons oil around bread. When second side is fried and browned, remove bread and keep covered. Continue with remaining breads.

Trinidadian Curry

4 tablespoons oil

2 cups finely chopped onions

1 tablespoon minced garlic

2 tablespoons Trinidadian curry powder

2 pounds lean, boneless goat or lamb shoulder or beef round, cut into 1-inch cubes

1/2 pounds potatoes, peeled and cubed

1 cup rich meat broth

1 cup coconut milk

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

2 tablespoons chopped fresh bandhania (Trinidadian coriander) or cilantro

Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in heavy-bottomed pan. Add meat and sear until browned. Remove meat to platter. Add remaining 2 tablespoons oil. Add onions and cook until tender and glazed. Stir in garlic and curry powder. Return meat to pan, add broth, coconut milk and salt.

Cover and cook curry over low heat until meat is tender, about 1 1/2 hours. Add liquid as needed. Curry should not be runny but have consistency of burrito filling. Add potatoes during last 20 minutes of cooking. Stir in chopped bandhania.

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