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 \o7 baigan \f7 (eggplant--also known in the Caribbean under a Provencal French name, \o7 melongene)\f7 ,\o7 bodi \f7 (butter beans), \o7 bhaji \f7 (spinach), \o7 aam \f7 (mango), \o7 katahar \f7 (jackfruit), \o7 karapeele \f7 (curry leaves), \o7 hardi \f7 (turmeric) and \o7 jeera \f7 (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 \o7 tavas--\f7 the iron griddles on which they baked their traditional \o7 roti \f7 bread--and carved swizzle sticks out of jackfruit wood, with which they pureed their \o7 dhal \f7 (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 \o7 pelau\f7 , 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 \o7 roti, \f7 are both of Indian origin.
Actually, the only thing Trinidadian \o7 roti \f7 shares with East Indian \o7 roti\f7 is its name. In India, \o7 roti \f7 is a plain, peasant-style flatbread made of whole grain. In Trinidad \o7 roti \f7 is a complete meal in itself--a folded bread pocket stuffed with a savory filling.
The \o7 roti \f7 of Trinidad is prepared by first making a bread called \o7 dhalpourri. \f7 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 \o7 roti \f7 is then assembled by wrapping the \o7 dhalpourri \f7 around the curry, burrito-style. Served with the accents of a mango-mustard relish called \o7 kuchila \f7 and fiery hot Trinidad pepper sauce on the side, Trinidadian \o7 roti \f7 is pure pleasure.
My favorite Trinidad \o7 roti \f7 is served at the Monsoon restaurant, a cheery self-service eatery in Port of Spain. Its version of \o7 roti \f7 is presented with \o7 chana-aloo \f7 (spicy chick peas and potatoes), curried pumpkin, curried \o7 bodi, \f7 curry mango and \o7 kuchila. \f7 As I sat devouring the buttery layers of \o7 roti, \f7 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.