|Pigeon's Point, Tobago|
Well, I have officially been back from my Trinidad & Tobago adventure for almost two weeks (this post took me days to complete between other obligations, so please forgive the delay). It was tremendous! The people are diverse, friendly and beautiful. The scenery offers views of the sea, tropical vegetation, white sand beaches and several symbols of their largest industry, gas and oil. The music is eclectic, festive and vibrant. So yes, you can count on the fact that their food reflects all of the things that make Trinidad & Tobago what they are.
In this section, I'm going to share a few Trini food must-tries and a few short restaurant experiences (all of which I recommend). I'll also talk a little bit about Angostura (a Trini distillery that produces some of the world's best rum and cocktail bitters) and talk a little bit about coconuts and cocoa.
Roti is popular all over the Caribbean and any country that has a Caribbean community living there. Roti is one of my absolute favourite things to eat. It is originally an Indian dish which was brought to the Caribbean in the 1800's. Since then it has evolved with the Caribbean's multicultural background. It's basically a curry or savoury filling placed in the middle of a round, pliable flatbread and rolled up into a kind of sandwich. Roti refers to the flatbread and the sandwich itself. There are different kinds of roti but the most common one in Canada and T&T is called 'dhalpuri' which is a roti dough filled with channa (chickpeas cooked until just al dente and then ground in a mill) and cumin. The dough is then rolled flat, distributing the filling through the bread. It's just thick enough to hold everything together but still thin, soft and delicious.
I took another photo mid-way through my lunch to show you the different layers of roti with yellow channa paste inside. You can also see the saucy goat stew in there as well. Other common ingredients for roti are chicken, fish, pumpkin, and potato. Chicken and potato (or aloo) is another favourite of mine.
It can be a little messy, but in a good way. You can easily find West Indian roti in the Toronto area but you will often find it served in a styrofoam container to be eaten with a knife and fork. I guess they're trying to cater to the way most Canadians eat. Personally, I prefer it wrapped up in paper and eaten with bare hands. It was nice to find it without having to look.
Doubles are a very popular street food in T&T. While roti is popular all across the West Indies, doubles are uniquely Trinidadian. It is most commonly eaten as breakfast but can also be obtained for lunch or as a late night snack for people leaving the bars and nightclubs. Doubles are also derived from Indian cooking.
They are made up of two bara (fried dough) made with flour, baking powder, salt and turmeric. Then they are topped with curried chickpeas (channa) or sometimes dahl (split peas). You can get it as is or topped with tamarind sauce (sweet) or pepper sauce (hot). Other toppings may include mango, cucumber, and chutney. These are delicious but very messy. They are harder to find in Toronto, but when you can, they are usually served wrapped tight in paper for easy eating to appeal to a broader spectrum of Canadians. These were also very reasonably priced. My friend and I would get a set of doubles each and two bottles of water. That would keep us full until lunch and only set us back sixteen Trinidadian dollars each (a total of less than $3 CAD). Your visit to Trinidad & Tobago is not complete until you try these.
Bake & Shark
Also called Shark & Bake, is another sandwich made up of fried bread (referred to as bake) and a fillet of breaded & fried shark. The sharks used are a small and populous variety common to the area. The flavour and texture is kind of a cross between chicken and fresh fish. To those who think they don't like fish, good quality fish at its freshest does not taste fishy at all. If you do not like fish, I bet you would still like bake & shark. If you are going to try it, you must go to Richard's Bake & Shark in Maracas Bay Village, Trinidad. It's a short and beautiful drive from the nation's capital, Port of Spain. Maracas Bay is a beach on the island's north coast and is possibly the most beautiful in Trinidad.
Richard's Bake & Shark is a tented vendor facing the beach, with its back to tropical mountains. When you get there, ask the vendor for a bake & shark and you will be presented with one of these:
It's a plain bake, sliced into an envelope with a breaded fillet of shark. Then you will proceed to a large buffet of sauces and toppings for your sandwich. They have lettuce, tomato, cucumber, onion, cabbage slaw, pineapple, chutney, pepper sauce, cilantro sauce, tamarind sauce, creamy garlic sauce, and so many other options. This being my first bake & shark and not knowing when I'll get to have another, I went a little wild with toppings, making a monstrous sandwich.
You are in total control of your bake & shark. You can make it as complex or as simple as you want. I do recommend that you tear a little piece of the breaded shark and try it on its own. Just so you can appreciate it for what it is before you add up to a million other things. It's very delicious.
I'm not lying when I say this was the best sandwich I've ever had in my life. It is well worth a trip to Trinidad just to try it.
Curried Crab & Dumplings
We were told that curried crab & dumplings was a must when traveling to Tobago. Tobago is the smaller, less industrialized and more picturesque of the two islands. We only had one day in Tobago (big mistake - when I return I will spend more time there). To make the most of it, we spent the day on a glass bottom boat checking out the Buccoo coral reef, the Nylon Pool and the beach at Pigeon's Point before heading out for supper. Tobago is very laid back and the sun sets earlier there than it does in Canada this time of year (due to their proximity to the equator). At a time when the dinner rush would be bustling in Canada, we came to find that the curried crab & dumplings were basically all gone. All that was left were the knuckles and legs which don't have much meat to them. Determined to try it, we accepted to eat the scraps. If you go to Tobago and get to try this dish, plan to make it a lunch item so that you can get the meaty part of the crab's body. As delicious as this was, it was more work than was worth it in terms of the meat output.
Rest assured, I would absolutely try this again under better circumstances. The sauce was so scrumptious and had a beautifully spiced flavour that lingered on the tongue. Curried crab will almost always come with the shell still on but you might be able to find shelled crab curry. You can break the shell with your teeth with very little effort. The shell gives the sauce a sweet, brothy flavour. The dumplings were flat slices of boiled dough which helped to sop up some of the sauce and fill you up.
Restaurants in Port of Spain, Trinidad
The Hyatt Regency
We stayed at the Hyatt during our visit to Trinidad. They have a bar which caters a typical North American menu and a sushi bar. There is a Waterfront restaurant in the hotel as well.
I can't seem to remember the name of this place but one afternoon we stopped for lunch at restaurant with a patio on Colville Street near Ariapita Ave. We both ordered the lunch special which was tender pieces of chicken in a sweet and spicy barbecue sauce, calypso fried rice and callaloo. Callaloo is a popular side dish of braised greens (usually Taro) with coconut milk and seasonings. Some variations also include other aromatic vegetables and/or seafood such as crab or conch. It's really quite delicious. You may also have noticed a bottle of beer in the photo with "Stag" on the label (pronounced 'Stahg' by the locals). Stag is my favourite Trinidadian beer. I haven't been able to find it here in Canada. Another popular beer in Trinidad is Carib, which is exported here and can be found if you look for it.
That's right, Kentucky Fried Chicken. But not just any, KFC. This particular KFC, right in the middle of downtown Port of Spain is the busiest KFC in the world, or so I was told by a local tour guide. What makes this KFC special (aside from the fact that it has two floors and is packed with customers all day every day) is that they only use fresh, local chicken that has never been frozen. Fast food chains that have franchised on a global scale need to alter their recipes to appeal to locals (I've heard that in Japan their McDonalds has a teriyaki chicken sandwich worthy of a nice diner). Caribbean folk tend to like their food with lots of spice and seasonings. At the end of the day, this was still fast food fried chicken, but it was far superior than the KFC that I've had in Canada & the US. Very crispy, very juicy and much more flavourful. Might be something to check out if it tickles your fancy.
On our last night in Trinidad we went to Port of Spain's Apsara restaurant. Apsara is located at #13 Queens Park East downstairs from a popular Thai restaurant, although Apsara specializes in Northern Indian cuisine. I have to say in all honesty that this was the best Indian food I've ever had in my life. The photo above is of their Afghani Murgh, which is pieces of chicken marinated overnight in yogurt, ginger, garlic, an almond & cashew paste and spices then roasted in a tandoor oven. It was sensational!
We ordered duck curry, aloo gobi (curried potatoes and cauliflower) and a dish of okra onion, tomatoes and chilies in curry spices. Before our food came out, they brought out three metal bowls filled with hot coals. When our curries came out, they placed them on the bowls so that they would keep warm. We also ordered a crispy, buttery naan bread which was rich and flavourful. every table gets three chutneys as well. One is mango (sweet), tamarind (sweet and sour) and a chili chutney which was so hot. I barely dipped a single prong of my fork to try the hot chutney and the burning sensation lingered for several minutes. I'm so glad I chose to be cautious or else my mouth would have been on fire. I love spicy food but that was a little too hot for my taste. I think it would have completely overpowered anything I could have tried it with so we stayed clear of that one. The other two sweet chutneys were phenomenal though.
Please, please give this place a try if you have the opportunity. Like I said, it was the best Indian food I've ever had. The decor of the restaurant is really spectacular too. All the designs on the walls are hand painted (in great detail). I was taking a look at their web-site and they have another location in Barbados too. So if you can't make it to Trinidad, but Barbados is on your list, don't miss out on this dining experience. My only complaint is that their menu is 20 pages long! I couldn't imagine working in the kitchen of a restaurant with a 20 page menu. On the good side, that means you can go there as many times as you like and probably never eat the same thing twice. It can be overwhelming though.
House of Angostura
On our way back from our visit to Maracas Bay, where we had our Bake & Shark lunch, we stopped at House of Angostura in Port of Spain. It's an enormous factory that makes several varieties of Trinidadian rum and a wide array of bitters used famously by bartenders all over the world. The air around the building smells like candy. You can sign up for a tour of the facilities through your hotel or travel agent if you get a chance to visit. We didn't take the tour but we did get to take a stroll through the gift shop and make a few purchases. lol.
I bought a bottle of the single barrel reserve limited edition rum (right). It was aged in an oak casket for 5 years so it has rich, woody notes with vanilla and dried tropical fruit. It's full bottled and has a smooth finish. I have a little over half of it left. lol
My friend splurged on the Angostura 1824 on the left. It is aged in charred American oak bourbon caskets for 12 years and also limited edition as only a certain amount of batches can be made available. This is the premium stuff right here.
We also picked up a bottle of Caribbean rum punch, which they offer in a few different varieties. They are essentially flavoured alcoholic beverages used to make mixed cocktails. They average at 17% alcohol. We bought a bright red wild sorrel berry flavour at the recommendation of a local who showed as around. We both found it to be incredibly sweet (too sweet) but a splash of it in club soda is really nice.
In Trinidad, Tobago, and many other places in the Caribbean it is not uncommon to find coconut vendors at beaches, parks, and city streets. They collect young coconuts and sell them to thirsty patrons. They take a sharp machete and shave the stump in a few swift slices until the stoma is pierced. The fresh coconut water is then drunk right out of the coconut. Not only is coconut water a powerful thirst quencher but it is delicious and packed full of electrolytes.
We were told that you can tell a local from a tourist by observing how one drinks the coconut water. A local will place the coconut to their mouths and drink straight from the drupe. A tourist will drink the water from a straw inserted in the coconut like in all the photos in the travel ads. We didn't learn this until after we tried it. So we were the obvious looking ones with the straws. lol
|We put da lime in da coconut|
I now conclude this blog post with a few interesting facts about cocoa. A cocoa pod, seen above grows from trees, starting out red, orange, yellow and then turning green before they ripen and drop from the branches. Cocoa is the main ingredient that chocolate is made from. Interestingly enough, the seeds from a cocoa pod don't really taste anything like chocolate, in fact, they are intensely bitter. I still don't entirely understand how chocolate is created from cocoa pods. The seeds are fermented, dried and roasted. The shell is used to make cocoa nibs, which are ground into pure chocolate mass. The mass is then liquefied and blended with other ingredients such as milk, cocoa butter and sugar to make the chocolate we all know and love.
Cocoa grows all over Trinidad, though because most of their economy goes toward oil and gas, chocolate is only made by few local connoisseurs in small supply. Most of the cocoa that is harvested is shipped to other countries in Europe and North America where chocolate is made. An interesting fact about cocoa pods: They can be harvested shortly after they've fallen from the branch or they can be removed at a particular stage of ripeness. Although, if the pod is yanked off the branch, no other pod will ever grow in its place again. The pods have to be hacked off with a machete in one clean slice in order for the pod to grow again.
Well, that only took me a few days! I hope you enjoyed this post about my stay and exploration in amazing Trinidad & Tobago. I was only there for one week so it was impossible to experience all of their other culinary wonders but I think we did a good job with the time we were given. I can't wait to go back... maybe next time for Carnival!
Stay tuned for a Trini inspired meal and lots of other spring/summer posts to come!
Until next time,