Trini Carnival: Roti, Curry Chicken and Dal

rotiOur final dinner course was the classic Trini meal of roti and curry.  “Roti” in Trinidad refers to both the Indian flatbread and the bread wrapped around a curried filling to make a handheld meal, the equivalent of a burrito.  At our dinner, we served the roti on the side with the classic Trini-style chicken curry and its partner in crime, a yellow split pea dal.  For the story on what roti means to a Trini, please read, my story here, originally published in Smithsonian Magazine.

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Ravenous for Roti

Ask any Trinidadians what they’re hungry for, and the answer will be “roti.” This refers not only to the Indian flatbread itself, but the curried fillings which make Trinidadian roti the best hand-held meal you’ll find. Curries in Trinidad are served with either dhalpouri roti, which is filled with dried, ground chick peas, or paratha, a multilayered, buttery flatbread. You wrap the roti around some of your curry filling and eat it like a burrito. It’s sold as a common “fast” food in Trinidad (the cooking of the curry is not fast but the serving of it into freshly prepared rotis is) but also prized enough to be served at family gatherings and celebrations. For members of the Trinidadian diaspora, like my husband, the hunger for roti is profound. If you live in New York, it is not too far of a trip to find yourself a decent roti—Richmond Hill in Queens is home to a large Trinidadian and Guyanese community. Trinidad itself is only about a five-hour flight away. But if you are on the West Coast, you’re out of luck. Visiting Trinidad requires almost a full day of air travel. Last time we checked, there was only one Trinidadian roti shop in our area, over in Oakland. It was a musty, dim (as in unlit until customers rang the buzzer) shop, and the owner was equally dour. Even as I paid for our lunch, I felt the need to apologize for intruding. The rotis were pallid, dry and lifeless.

They were nothing like the roti I had devoured in Trinidad. On my first trip to my husband’s home, my future mother-in-law (herself a Chinese immigrant to Trinidad from Canton) served me some curry tattoo. What’s tattoo? Better known around here as armadillo. Despite having recently completed a vegetarian phase, and despite the still visible markings on the flesh of the armadillo’s bony plates, I tasted it. You could call it a taste test, under my mother-in-law’s watchful gaze, with the emphasis on “test.” This taste was the beginning of what was, on that visit to my husband’s home village in the South of Trinidad, an eye-opening journey to a land of culinary delights I had never imagined. On this trip, which happened over Christmas, I was led from home to home, eating a full meal at each stop. I was presented with plate after plate of curried dishes, condiments (including kuchila, tamarind sauce and fiery Scotch Bonnet pepper sauce), pastelles (similar to tamales, but with a savory-sweet filling of minced meat, olives, and raisins) and the rice dish pelau. Since then, I’ve learned to cook a pretty mean curry myself. But I have not yet mastered the art of roti making, and this is a cause for sorrow. We make do with eating curry and rice when we are without roti, but whenever we can find time and an excuse to go to New York, we have one mission: procure roti.

There is no such thing as “going too far” to sate the hunger of the expatriate. When it is for something as tasty as Trinidadian roti, a cross-country flight is not considered unreasonable. So we go to New York for a Christmastime visit to my New York-by-way-of-Trinidad in-laws. There is no Christmas goose or ham on the dining table at this Trinidadian Christmas celebration. When we announce our plans to visit, our family knows to make the obligatory run to Singh’s for curry goat and chicken, aloo pie and doubles, to bring it over to my mother-in-law’s for a welcome feast. But they have also learned over the years that they should check in with us for our “to go” order of unfilled roti. We’ll order half a dozen each of dhalpouri roti and paratha, carefully triple wrap them individually, and freeze them overnight to bring back with us to San Francisco. By the time we get back, they are starting to defrost, but they’re the first thing we unpack (and refreeze), because this is some precious loot. The handful of homesick Trinidadians we’ve collected over the years here is always thrilled when we organize a curry night, and there is never enough roti.

Read more: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/inviting-writing-trinidadian-roti-12513815/#Zl0Lt1or9MlkZfP3.99

Trinidad-style Chicken Curry

Curry lovers will find the Trinidadian-style curry to be quite different from Indian or Southeast Asian curries in that no coconut milk or cream is added to the sauce.   The result is a more intense curry flavor and a thinner sauce.

Ingredients

-2-3 # of meat on the bone, cut in 2”-3” chunks: can be chicken (only dark meat), goat, or even tattoo if you’ve got some

-Curry powder, Trinidad blend if at all possible

-Rum, such as Trinidad’s Vat 19

-Green seasoning (a homemade blend of various herbs including cilantro, culantro, chives and others)

-Salt

-Black pepper

-Pepper sauce (Scotch bonnet or habanero)

-Garlic, 2-3 cloves, minced

-1 Onion, coarsely chopped

-3 Potatoes, cubed

Technique

1.  Marinate cut up meat in rum, green seasoning, salt pepper, pepper sauce, garlic, and onions, all to taste, for at least an hour and up to a day in advance.

2.  Saute marinated meat in a hot pan with copious oil.  Brown on both sides.  Once meat is browned, add potatoes and continue to stir.

3.  Stir curry powder- a few tablespoons up to ¼ cup- with enough water to make a pourable thick slurry.  Add to the browned meat and stir.

4.  Lower heat and add water to cover. Simmer until well cooked, like a stew.

Serve with an Indian flatbread, or roti, of your choice. Curries in Trinidad are served with either dhalpourie roti, which is distinctively filled with dried, ground chick peas, or paratha, a multilayered, buttery flatbread.  Both are difficult to obtain outside of Trinidad.  You can substitute naan or paratha from your local Indian or Pakistani place. The way you eat this is to wrap the roti around some of your curry filling, and eat it like a burrito.  The curry can also be eaten with rice. Wash it down with sorrel or Carib beer.  Play some calypso, soca or steel band in the background, and enjoy your fete.

Trinidadian Dal

Dal, which can be made with pretty much any legume, can be enjoyed as a soup or a side dish, depending on how thick or thin you make it.  In Trinidad it is made with yellow split peas and made on the watery side, served as a sauce alongside roti and curry.

Ingredients

1 cup yellow split peas

2 cloves garlic

2 tsp saffron, tumeric or curry powder

sa;t and bloack pepper to taste

½ sliced onion

5 cups water

½ teaspoon cumin

Technique

1.  Bring water and a pinch of salt to a boil.

2.  Add the rest of the ingredients except the cumin seed, bring back to a boil then simmer, covered, for at least 30 minutes until the split peas are soft.

3.  Use a swizzle stick or an immersion blender to thicken slightly.

4.  In a small frying pan, heat a tablespoon or two of oil, then add cumin seed.  Pour the spiced oil on top of the dal before serving.

Hope you enjoyed this! Come back next week for the final course in our Trini Carnival supperclub– dessert!

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Trini Carnival: Project Runway Pelau

pelau

 

The next course was one of my husband’s favorites, chicken pelau.  We’ve named our version Project Runway Pelau.  To understand why and what it is, please read the story below, originally published on Spicebox Travels.

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As a Trinidadian by marriage, I am proud of the authentic Trinidadian food I have learned to cook for my Trini husband.  At this point, PCH has lived in the US for longer than he lived in Trinidad, but that is where his palate was formed, and its food is what he craves.  Trinidad, for those of you not so sure, is the Southeasternmost island of the Lesser Antilles of the Caribbean islands, just across the sea from Venezuela.  Its population is diverse, with about half descended from African slaves, and another half from indentured laborers from India.  There’s also a smattering descended from the British colonists who presided before independence, the adventurous Chinese who sailed over from Canton to make their fortunes, the native Arawaks and Caribs, and various combinations of these.  It’s fascinating to look at my husband’s family photos, which are a personal reflection of Trinidad’s diversity.

sydney-knox-1896Photo caption: In the back row, the first man on the right (posing at a jaunty angle in the black boater hat) is my husband’s Scottish great-grandfather, Sydney Knox, who was the longest serving Town Clerk of San Fernando, Trinidad, from 1905-1939.  This photo was taken in 1896.

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Photo caption:   Left to right, my husband’s grandfather Henry, who sailed from Canton, his Indian-Scottish grandmother Ivy Knox, and her brother, great uncle Randolph.

Trinidad’s cuisine reflects its diverse cultural heritage.  Nothing is quite “authentic” to its roots, and everyone, regardless of their ethnic background, cooks and devours the variety.  Chinese food is given a kick of fiery Scotch bonnet pepper, and Trinidadian Indians developed a type of roti found only in the Caribbean, with a filling of smashed chick peas.

Pelau, a rice, bean and meat (usually chicken) dish, is thought of as an Afro-Trinidadian dish.  However, anyone familiar with Indian cuisine will note the remarkable similarity of its name to the Indian rice dish known as pulao, or in other derivations, pilaf.  In fact, pelau’s history can be traced back even further.  According to http://www.ifood.tv, pilau is related to Persian polow:

“The earliest known mention of dish is during the reign of Alexander the Great, who was served the dish during his stay in Bactria – formerly a province in eastern Iran. Alexander’s army popularized the recipe and dish throughout Europe. The British mastered the recipe from fellow Europeans and refreshed their pilaf making skills in India and introduced it to much of Africa and later Trinidad.”

The basic ingredients of rice, beans, vegetables, and meat, are indeed similar.  But the flavorings used in pelau are distinctly Trinidadian.  The meat in caramelized in a manner thought to be brought over from Africa, and the coconut milk is a common broth used in Caribbean cooking.  The type of beans used, pigeon peas, are also a hallmark of Caribbean cooking not found commonly in Indian cuisine.  Pelau is widely loved and served at special occasions, including Carnival.

It was a while back when food blogger Lucy Mercer (A Cook and Her Books) emailed me asking about pelau.  ”Do you watch Project Runway?” she asked.  I told her I didn’t, and wondered why she was asking.  (We tend to discuss food and children, not so much fashion.)  ”Well,” she explained, “the winner is, like your husband, Chinese Trinidadian.  You should watch it.”

That Chinese Trinidadian would be Anya Ayoung-Chee, who won Season 9 of Project Runway in fall 2011.  She’s a beautiful (former Miss Trinidad and contestant in Miss Universe in 2008), graceful and talented designer.  And, brace yourselves… she is my niece.  That’s right! OK, she is actually the cousin-of-the-best-friend-of-my-husband’s-niece, but, I think I can still claim her as one of my family.  (I’m so proud of her!)

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Photo caption: Anya Ayoung-Chee, via Wikipedia

And it so happens that Anya’s comfort food is the same as my husband’s: pelau.  In an interview on Trinidad’s Jay Blessed Media, she was asked about her favorite Trini food:

“JB: What’s your favorite Trini food dish?

Anya: Pelau. HANDS DOWN!  A close second would be any kind of curry, doubles is way up there. But when you talk about comfort food, pelau any day!”

So pelau, this humble dish of rice and beans, has associations with both Alexander the Great and my husband, and could be called the official food of Project Runway Season 9.  What more could you ask for?

Without further hyperbole or ado,  I present you Project Runway Pelau.

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Project Runway Pelau

This recipe is adapted from The Naparima Girls’ High School Diamond Jubilee: Trinidad & Tobago Recipes, affectionately known by Trinis worldwide as the “Naps Girls’ Cookbook.”  It’s a community cookbook of recipes from students’ families and was originally published in 1988.  It’s not fancy, definitely homestyle, and has made an honest Trini cook out of me.

Ingredients

2 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs (or to be more authentic, 3 pounds skin-on, bone-in chicken thighs)

1 tsp freshly ground black pepper

1 tsp ketchup

1 small onion, diced

1 tsp soy sauce

1 tsp Worcestershire sauce

1 tablespoon dark rum

1 tsp Trinidadian pepper sauce (made of Scotch bonnet peppers; commercially available online from Matouk’s); habanero sauce can substitute in a pinch

3 tsp cilantro, finely minced

3 tsp fresh thyme, finely minced

4 garlic cloves, minced

2 tsp canola oil and 1/4 cup sugar to make browning (see below)

4 cups Uncle Ben’s or other parboiled rice

1 can coconut milk

3 cups water

1 bell pepper, diced

1 can pigeon peas (available from Goya)

2 tsp salt

Technique

1.  In a large bowl, stir together the marinade: ketchup, onion, soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, rum, pepper sauce, cilantro, thyme, and garlic.

2.  Add chicken to the bowl and coat evenly with the prepared marinade.  Allow to sit for a minimum of 30 minutes.

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3.  After chicken has marinated, warm 2 tsp of oil in a heavy pot over medium heat.  Then add the sugar and allow to cook until almost black, stirring occasionally.  This is the “browning.”

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4.  When the browning is liquid and almost black, carefully add the chicken one piece at a time (beware, it may splash).  Reserve any remaining marinade.  Allow to brown on each side, about 5 minutes.

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5.  Next add the rice, and stir for a few minutes.

6.  Add the pepper, pigeon peas and the remaining marinade, and stir until well combined.

7.  Add coconut milk, water and salt, and stir until all ingredients in the pot are well combined.  Cover pot and bring to a low boil, adjust salt if necessary, then lower heat to low and allow to cook for 30 minutes, stirring about every 10 minutes.  The dish is ready when the rice is cooked.  Add additional water and stir if needed to fully cook the rice.

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Hope you enjoyed this! Come back next week for the next course in our Trini Carnival supperclub!

Trini Carnival: Callaloo with Macaroni Pie

callaloo

Callaloo is part of what is known as “creole food” in Trinidad, among other foods served by the descendants of those African slaves, including macaroni pie and pelau (rice with pigeon peas).   It’s eaten alongside these other foods, served with rice.

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Callaloo 

Callaloo, despite its humble origins, is as smooth as a French bisque.  True callaloo uses taro leaves, which are carried by some Asian markets.  If unavailable, whole leaf spinach makes a good substitute.  The salt pork and crab add depth of flavor but can be omitted to make a vegan version of this stew.

callaloo leaf

Ingredients

1 pound taro leaves (about 12 leaves, stripped from tough stem), roughly chopped

8 okra, diced

4 chives or two green onions, minced

1 onion, minced

3 garlic cloves, minced

1 Scotch bonnet or habanero pepper, minced

3 sprigs fresh thyme, stem removed

2 tbsp butter

1 cup chicken or vegetable broth

4 cups unsweetened coconut milk (2 cans)

salt to taste

Optional: 1/4-pound salt pork, and/or 1/2 pound lump crabmeat

Accompaniment: steamed rice (in the Caribbean, parboiled rice such as Uncle Ben’s is typical) or roti

Technique

1.  Melt butter in a stock pot and then add all vegetables.  Saute until onions are fragrant and translucent.

2.  Add broth and coconut milk and bring to a boil.

3.  If using salt pork, add now.

4.  Simmer for 30 minutes, until all vegetables are very soft.

5.  Puree with an immersion blender or in a standard blender. (Remove salt pork first, if used.)

6.  Return puree to pot.  Add salt to taste.

7.  If using crab, add to soup and bring to a boil.  Cook for a few minutes until crabmeat is cooked.

8.  Serve over hot rice.

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Film trivia: Bhaji, the Trinidadian name for spinach, is also part of the title of “Bhaji on the Beach” (1993), the first film by Gurinder Chadha, who later brought us “Bend It Like Beckham.”

A version of this post was published February 28, 2011 on Salon.

Macaroni Pie

mac pie

This is basically Trinidadian mac and cheese, baked into a casserole and sliced so that you could eat it by hand, if you wanted.  In Trindad, one way to enoy callaloo is to use it as a gravy on top of a slice of macaroni pie.  For fanciness for the Spicebox Supperclub, we’ve inverted the ratio so and used a small slice of macaroni pie as a garnish in a bowl of callaloo.

Ingredients

1 tsp salt

1 pound macaroni—in Trinidad this long type of macaroni is used, but you can substitue elbow macaroni if you can’t find it. We’ve found it imported from Mexico and Italian bucatini is similar.

2 Tbsp butter

1 Tbsp flour

1 12 oz can evaporated milk

1 egg, beaten (2?)

4 oz grated cheddar, plus another 4 oz for topping. Cheddar is the most widely available cheese in Trinidad, and when Peter was growing up , the only one.  For the right taste, use Irish cheddar, preferably Kerrygold, which is now widely available here, including at Trader Joe’s and Costco.

Technique

  1. preheat oven to 375. Butter an 8 inch square dish and set aside
  2. Brig a lg pot of salted water to a boil.  Add the macaroni and cook until al dente, about 15 minutes.  Drain and rnse with cool wter.
  3. Melt the butter in a frying pan over low heat, then add the flour and cook , to form a roux until very light brown, about 1 minut.e  Tne whisk in the milk, add salt and peper to taste.  Simmer until thickened.  Let cook slightly, then slowly whisk in the beaten egg.
  4. Put the cooked macaroni into the prepared pan and pour the sauce over it.  Mix well.  Then put additional cheese on top and bake for 40 minutes, until top is light brown and bubbly.

Thanks for coming by! This is the 5th post in our series on our Trinidadian-themed meal.  Come back next week for the next course! It involves the spirit of Anya Ayoung-Chee, from  Project Runway.  Intrigued?

Trini Carnival: Eggplant (Baigan) Choka with Coconut Bake

eggplant

We began the sit-down (but informal) portion of our meal with a starter of roasted eggplant choka on a round of coconut bake (a quick bread that can be either baked or fried).  Choka is a common Trinidadian Indian preparation of many vegetables, most commonly eggplant (known locally as baigan or melongene), tomato or pumpkin.  I love them all.  It’s the kind of dish you should be able to find anywhere, but on our recent trip home to Trinidad, whenever I tried to order one as the filling for my roti at the roti shop, they were out.  Trinis, I’m afraid, love meat and anything deep fried, and come to think of it, the only vegetables I ate for a week were deep fried.  Not always a bad thing, but enough is enough!  So arm yourself with this technique, and you won’t be faced with a similar fate of meat and fried things.  Apologies for the bad photo– eggplant is never photogenic, and in mood lighting? Even worse.

And for a lively tale of bake and more on another Caribbean island, St. Vincent, read Francis Lam’s article in Afar‘s May 2013 issue.  The Trinidadian couple he mentions (thankfully anonymously) are Mr. and Mrs. Spicebox Travels!

Baigan Choka with Coconut Bake

choka bake

Choka

Ingredients

1 Eggplant

2 cloves garlic

1 onion, chopped

1 teaspoon cumin seed, toasted

oil

salt and black pepper to taste

Technique

1.  Preheat oven to 300 F.

2.  Wash and dry eggplant.  Cut in half lengthwise and place, cut side up, onto a parchment paper-lined baking sheet.  Use a paring knife to cut deep diagonal slices into the flesh, but not through the skin, of the eggplant halves.  Repeat at a 45 degree angle in the other direction until you have diamonds.

3.  Brush each eggplant half with a few tablespoons of olive oil.  Sprinkle on a bit of salt and freshly ground black pepper.

4.  Roast in oven for 45 minutes to an hour, until the flesh is soft when pierced with a fork, and the eggplant loses its shape

5.  Use a spoon to scoop out the roasted eggplant flesh and put it into a bowl.

6.  Heat some oil in a pan and add chopped onion, garlic, salt and black pepper.  Cook for a minute until onion is just softened, then combine entire mixture along with the toasted cumin seeds into the roasted eggplant.  Add salt to taste.

Coconut Bake

coconut-bakeIngredients

2 cups flour

2 tsp baking powder

¼ tsp salt

4 Tbsp margarine (butter may be substituted but would not be authentic)

¾ cup coconut milk

Technique

1.  Preheat oven to 350 F.

2.  Sift together dry ingredients in a medium mixing bowl.

3.  Work in margarine with your fingertips until crumbly.

4. Add coconut milk, first stirring with a spoon and then your hands to form dough into a smooth ball. Depending on your kitchen’s humidity, you may need more coconut milk or more flour; add a tiny bit at a time. Allow dough to rest for 30 minutes, covered with a damp cloth.

5.  After dough has rested, roll out onto a floured surface to a 1 inch thick circle. Transfer onto a parchment-lined baking sheet and bake for about 30 minutes, until golden.

6.  Bake be eaten on its own, or split horizontally to make sandwiches with choka, buljol, smoked herring, or for more familiar flavors, avocado, tomato and onion, ham or eggs.

Thanks for coming by! This is the fourth post about our recent Trini Carnival Supperclub.  Please visit the preceding posts on the menu, the Spicebox Cocktail, and nibble on fried plantains.  Come back soon for our next course!