The Tangled Tastes of Trinidad

With a name like Trinidad (Spanish for Trinity, as in Holy) and a capital called Port of Spain, you’d expect this Caribbean island to be the most pure-bloodedly Spanish place this side of Madrid. Yet history speaks loudly in Trinidad, filled with African slavery, south Asian immigration and pots that tend to melt. You can hear this history speaking every time you take a bite. 

Turns out, Trinidad is no simple, happy tale. 

The faces here are mostly dark, reminding us of the region’s role in the slave trade that “seasoned” many of its captives with labor on its sugar plantations before shipping them onward to the American South. Yet the dark faces also speak of other origins, as does the subtle whiff of curry coming from virtually every recipe. India played a profound role in populating today’s Trinidad. Today, only our enjoyment of its varied, and often colorfully named, dishes seems a simple, happy tale.

Our own Culinary Adventure Cooking School will explore the cooking of Trinidad and its sibling island Tobago on May 31, inspired and enlightened by not one but two natives of the island: Amala Thorne (who has lived in Fredericksburg for four years after stints in Ohio and California) and Tricia Gomez. The two culinarians met years ago while cooking at a resort hotel in Trinidad, with the latter now paying an extended visit to the former in the Texas Hill Country.

“Every island has a different history,” offers Thorne, “and therefore every island has a different cuisine. We use many of the same ingredients, but we use them in different ways. I want my students to feel as if they are visiting me at my home. The hospitality part is very important to me.”

This is the second class Thorne has taught at the cooking school in her native cuisine, and while her first focused primarily on foods contributed by workers from India when they were brought to the island after African slaves were emancipated, the upcoming class will be quite different. The evening’s appetizer, a savory fried dough called pholourie, is Indian, but the rest of the menu hails from Trinidad’s combination of African, British, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Chinese and Syrian  cultures. It’s a mix natives call “Creole,” though today we might think of it as some serious “fusion.”

The entree on May 31 is pelau (as in: rice “pilaf”), a hearty chicken or beef stew cooked with rice – structurally similar to paella or jambalaya, and for that matter Indian biryani,  but quite different in flavor. Dessert is an island favorite called simply Sweet Bread, a baked item filled with raisins, other dried fruits, coconut and spices. 

In the Caribbean, and especially in the melting pot of Trinidad and Tobago, spices aren’t only for savory dishes, you know.   

TRINIDADIAN BAKE & SHARK

The flavor key to this version of a colorfully named favorite from the Caribbean island of Trinidad is the wonderful spin on mayo. Call it an aioli, if you must. As for the condiments you can build in, or let your guests apply their own, think about mango chutney, thinly sliced red onion, cucumber and, for those so inclined, extra hot sauce. Obviously from the name, shark is the traditional fish here, but catfish or tilapia is fine too, as are cod or haddock.

1 cup prepared mayonnaise

3 tablespoons Dr. Foo’s Bali BBQ Sauce

4 tablespoons lime juice 

1 pound firm, white fish fillets

3 tablespoons fresh lime juice

3 tablespoons finely chopped green onion

3 garlic cloves, minced

1 1/2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme

3/4 teaspoon minced seeded Scotch bonnet chile or habanero chile

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

All-purpose flour

6 pita bread rounds, warmed

Chopped lettuce leaves

Chopped tomato

Chopped cucumber

Assorted condiments

To make the mayo, whisk the mayonnaise, all but 1 tablespoon of sauce and about ½ the lime juice together in a bowl. Arrange fish in single layer in 13x9x2-inch glass baking dish. Mix the remaining sauce, lime juice, green onion, garlic, thyme, and chile in small bowl; season with salt and pepper. Spoon over fish; let stand at room temperature at least 20 minutes and up to 1 hour. 

Heat oil in large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Sprinkle fish on both sides with salt and pepper, then flour. Working in batches, add fish to skillet and cook until golden and opaque in center, about 2 minutes per side. Transfer fish to paper towels to drain. Cut off thin slice from each warm pita bread round, forming opening. Open pita pockets and stuff with fish, lettuce, tomato and cucumber. Serve with desired condiments. Serves 6.


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