Brickelia Street in Rancho Penasquitos blends into the other suburban homes that dot the hills of this north San Diego community. But on this pre-Christmas weekend, the street sways to a Caribbean rhythm.
Inside Carl and Sita Chan's home, a dozen friends are busy cooking. Some are oiling banana leaves. With the moves of a masseur, a Trinidadian man is kneading a ball of dough from superfine corn flour. And the host, Sita Chan, is stirring a pot of seasoned meat. The aromas of thyme and fat red peppers accompany the jumpy Caribbean music as it wafts out to the other cookie-cutter homes.
The people at this gathering are mainly from Trinidad, the Caribbean island where locals will tell you that the three most important things in life are music, fellowship and food, especially at the holidays.
On the island, throngs of carolers take to the streets to serenade their neighbors with parang, a Spanish-Trinidadian type of music with a tradition dating back five centuries. Visitors drop in unannounced, and hosts are expected to feed them well. So most Trinis, as people from Trinidad are affectionately called, keep on hand an abundant supply of holiday food, including Trinidadian black Christmas cake; poncha crema, a version of eggnog; and pastelles, corn meal patties cooked in green banana leaves.
For many Trini expatriates, the holiday season is a time when homesickness strikes like a nasty flu bug. While their West Indian island is shimmering under the weight of festivities and seemingly endless Christmas parties that usher in the Carnival season, Trinis abroad feel marooned, some battling freezing cold in their new homes in New York, Toronto and London.
In Southern California, one group of Trinis has sought to cure their homesickness with an annual pastelle-making party, the Trinidadian equivalent of the Mexican tamalada.
Trinis are a global gumbo of ethnicities and religious faiths. In Trindad, Muslims, Hindus and Christians join to celebrate Christmas. Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott, an adopted son of Trinidad, calls them fragments from the continents of the world: Asia, Africa, Europe, with a dash of South America thrown in.
Carl Chan, the host, is a first-generation Trinidadian whose own history sounds like something out of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel. His father, Soo Chan, and two other men were on a Chinese freighter docked outside Port-of-Spain in the early 1940s. The three decided to swim ashore and make a new life on this island where Sir Walter Raleigh once came searching for El Dorado's gold.
Like Raleigh, the two other swimmers never found it. They were rounded up by the authorities and returned to the ship. Soo Chan fared better. The local Chinese helped to hide him, and he ended up working at a Port-of-Spain laundry alongside a beautiful single mother, a descendant of Scots and Africans.
Only two months after their first meeting, Soo Chan went to visit his co-worker, Ruby Mitchell, at her home. He spoke no English, she no Cantonese. And he carried not flowers but a kingfish.
The brief courtship resulted in marriage with six sons and a daughter. All but one left the island to study in the U.S. and Canada. After graduating, they stayed away.
Carl graduated with an accounting degree from a New York university. One weekend he went to Long Island with a friend who promised him roti, a Trinidadian flatbread with a thin layer of seasoned split pea puree in the middle. At that meeting, Carl was introduced to Sita, the great-granddaughter of Indian immigrants to Trinidad.
The two moved to California 20 years ago. But the Chan homestead in Rancho Penasquitos shows that they have never really left Trinidad. The pictures in the Chans' house are of old French-style buildings in Port-of-Spain, ones that resemble homes in New Orleans.
Visitors are immediately greeted by a tall Scotch Bonnet pepper tree growing out of an oak barrel near the front door, plump red, orange and green peppers dangling like Christmas ornaments. In the small backyard, clumps of sugar cane plants bloom near guava and citrus trees. Meaty Portuguese thyme, the variety preferred by Trinis, accents the herb garden.
Inside, the table is set with potluck food. Sita Chan has made her delectable callaloo, a swampy spinach and okra soup cooked in coconut milk. (Trinis prefer their callaloo with crab legs jutting out of the soup, but today Sita has decided to spare the crabs because there are some vegetarians in the house.)
The callaloo is eaten with a dish of rice and pigeon peas. The flecks of Japanese kabocha squash in the dish are worthy substitutes for Caribbean pumpkin, also known as Cubana squash, which is hard to find even in Southern California's extensive ethnic markets.
Guests who don't like their callaloo over rice have a choice: a platter of sweet potato, taro root, white yams and plaintains.