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A Passage to Trinidad

April 30, 1992|JULIE SAHNI | Sahni is a leading expert on the cuisine of her native India

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.

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