Awaking in Boston to a dark room and the Soul II Soul song “Back to Life, Back to Reality” in my head, I was struck by the stark contrast of my locale, having traveled from the island of Tobago only the night before. The previous day (and the 4 before it), I awoke to the charming albeit jarring crow of the wild cocks outside and the sun streaming in through shuttered doors. A lift of a latch and the shutters swung wide open to reveal a glorious panorama of Caribbean blue, fruiting palms, a charm of active hummingbirds and a hillside of little shack-like structures beyond the deck. The place I called home for five days was one part Swiss Family Robinson, and one part James Bond Dr. No, and hosted by a pair of British ex-pat music industry refugees, who offered a simple yet comfortable respite from the Food & Wine Festival circus I had just come from.
The trip began unmemorably in Trinidad. With the exception of one relaxing day spent at the hotel pool fueled by frozen rum drinks and Channa, a local fried and spiced chickpea sold in screwtop plastic bottles, and unintentionally crashing of the Trinidad & Tobago Film Festival after party, nothing stands out as particularly exciting or motivating reason to visit this industrial island again. The food is predominately fried, served with loads of bread or parboiled rice, and the majority of the landscape is on the industrial side, a little like an island version of Madrid. The best meal I had in Trinidad was from a “doubles” stand just outside the airport, doubles being the Trini special of two pieces of a slightly spongy flatbread filled with spiced and saucy chickepeas, a squirt of tamarind sauce, a splash of spicy scotch bonnet “peppah sauce” and a sprinkle of a shredded cucumber salad, a steal at about $1 US. Truth be told, I would have leaned towards skipping Trinidad and Tobago (or TT as the locals call it), opting to head to Grenada, one of the original spice islands, but the trip was booked and planned by my husband and without my knowledge, in celebration of my “big” birthday, and rather than seem ungracious, I went along for the ride keeping my alternative ideas for a vacation to myself in spite of my type A personality.
For my uncharacteristic go-with-the-flow approach, I was bestowed with what amounted to four of the most relaxing days in my life. Upon landing in Tobago, we drove to “da bess” (the best) market as instructed by our hosts. Interestingly, the offerings of meat and produce were nil, with the majority of shelves taken up by bags of parboiled rice and canned foods. We got some basic staples including a bag of coal for grilling fish, a box of jasmine rice (the only thing not parboiled!), cans of coconut milk, pigeon peas, and an emergency can of sardines in case there was nothing open in the village when we arrived, a couple bags of dried spices and a bag of preground local coffee. We purchased just about every item of produce they had which included the basics- onions and garlic, along with the local “seasoning pepper,” a chile that looks a lot like a scotch bonnet and smells like it will be just as hot, but with little to no heat and a whole lot of flavor, and also managed to find a package of frozen “streaky bacon.” The journey continued with a drive along windy island roads, bespeckled with loose and tethered grazing goats, cows and a whole lot of wild chickens. Periodically we’d come across the odd village dog laying in the street, or a local walking along the road, but the island felt mostly deserted.
We arrived at our destination, settled in and had a couple cold local lagers with our hosts at Carpe Diem, as the Villa was named. We gobbled up the trusty can of sardines with some crackers we’d acquired somewhere on the trip, chatted with the three Danish folks staying in the apartment next to ours, and then turned in, a bit exhausted from the long day. Scroll to the top for the description of morning #1 through 5, which was followed by coffee with coconut milk on the deck. We set out to find more staples and explore the village of Castara, and headed down the hill.
After a coffee and some saltfish with coconut bake (a quickbread made with coconut milk and/or coconut flesh) and eggs, we hit up the local markets. I was surprised that there was no central open air market, finding only personally owned market-shacks where the owners decide to open or close on a whim, and the offerings were in most places somewhat paltry. I later discovered that the reason for limited produce in the stores was the fact that many locals have small garden plots where they grow their herbs and ground vegetables, and the fruits, including breadfruit- a melon-sized potato-like starchy “fruit” all come from local trees on their properties or along the roadside (we were fortunate our hosts shared some herbs and bananas grown onsite with us). I bought a pineapple grown in Trinidad, shado beni, a native herb resembling the dandelion, with a scent and flavor similar to fresh cilantro, and some provisions for making rum cocktails. When I asked the shop keeper about the shado beni, he pulled a tiny bunch out of a plastic bag in a cooler. He seemed reserved about offering more, and trying not to be the American who lives in excess and takes more than they need, I asked for three more bunches, wincing a little, while at the same time knowing that it wouldn’t go to waste. After dropping the goods in my room, the day unfolded on the beach, offering white sands, bathwater temp swimming, a gold and green light dappled undersea adventure by snorkel, and was capped by a rum punch on the beach in the afternoon.
Near sunset we made our way to the fish co-op, a stall where the local fisherman clean and carve the day’s catch for a few fortunate purchasers. Only selling whole fish, we were limited to a large kingfish or a giant kingfish. We opted for what amounted to about a 6-7lb fish, which our man expertly fileted and removed the head and tail. He told us we must buy a bag from the market next door. 13¢ US, or $1 TT and a clear plastic bag later, we were hiking back up hill with our catch, head, tail and bones included, for a humble sum of about $20 US. We invited the Danes and our hosts to dinner and quickly got to prepping what was ostensibly a native-style meal, or a Californian’s interpretation of Caribbean food. The menu included whole marinated and grilled fish filets; fresh pineapple hot sauce; coconut rice with pigeon peas; stewed chickpeas, fresh cucumber salad dressed with a bit of olive oil, white vinegar, salt, pepper and shado beni; and some spiced, stewed mangos made by our host.
Pineapple Hot Sauce
1 tbsp vegetable oil
2 scotch bonnets
6 seasoning peppers/pimento (you could substitute another thin-skinned pepper such as shishitos, padrons or cubanelles), stems removed and rough chopped
½ small onion sliced
5 cloves garlic, minced
½ tsp chopped fresh thyme
2 small bunches chopped fresh shado beni
about ¼ cup white vinegar
Lime juice and zest from 3 limes or 6 key limes
¼ of a fresh, ripe pineapple, core included, skin removed, rough chopped
salt to taste
Cut scotch bonnets in half and remove the seeds and stems. Wear gloves if possible. If gloves are not available as in my case, simply hold the outside of the pepper trying not to touch the inside or cut edge and use the tip of a knife to scrape the seedy bits out.
Heat oil in a small sauce pan and add the peppers, onion, about 2/3 of the minced garlic and half the pineapple. Cook over low heat until soft. Add the thyme and about 1/8 of a cup of water to the pan and cook a few minutes longer. Pour into a blender or food processor and blend until fine. Add the remaining pineapple, garlic, vinegar, ½ of the lime juice/zest, shado beni and salt to taste. Adjust as necessary, adding a bit more water to thin out if needed. Refrigerate for at least 3 hours, until cold before using.
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 small onion, minced
1 Tbsp fresh pineapple hot sauce
Remaining lime juice and zest from the hot sauce
1/8 cup olive oil
½ tsp chopped fresh thyme
1 small bunch shado beni, minced- about 2 Tbsp
1 tsp ground cumin
½ tsp ground chile (the package said chile powder, but I believe it to be hot paprika)
salt and pepper to taste
cut limes to garnish
Mix ingredients together, spread on fish and marinate for up to 3 hours. We grilled these whole skin-side down, then flipped them onto foil to cook the other side. I recommend cutting them into possibly two pieces each, as the whole filets (about 18” long) were a bit difficult to manage on the hibachi-style grill. Sprinkle some fresh minced shado beni on top and serve with limes and pineapple hot sauce.
Coconut Rice and Peas
1 can 17oz Pigeon Peas, including liquid
1 can 14 oz Coconut milk
About 1 2/3 cups water
2 cloves garlic, minced
½ small onion, minced
2 sprigs fresh thyme
salt to taste
1 tsp Black Pepper
2 cups Jasmine Rice (rinsed and drained)
1 whole scotch bonnet pepper
Drain and reserve the liquid from the can of beans into a measuring cup and add the coconut milk and enough water to make four cups of liquid. Add all ingredients except the rice and scotch bonnet to the pot and bring to a boil. Taste for salt and adjust as needed. Add rice and scotch bonnet and boil on high for 2 minutes. Reduce heat to Low and cook covered until all water is absorbed, about 20 min. Remove from heat and let sit, covered for about 5 minutes. Carefully remove pepper and thyme sprigs. Fluff with fork before serving, turning onto a platter in a mound, and place the pepper on the top for color.
Walking around the village and driving around the island, I really got a taste for the local cuisine and culture. While this melting pot of Indo-Afro-European culture was impacted culturally and religiously by its conquerors and colonists, making it decidedly Caribbean in nature, I was a bit saddened to find that some of the Western (American!) influences seem to have had the greatest impact on their current eating habits. Everywhere you look, there are Burger King and other US fast food chains. The lines at KFC often overshadow the patronage of their local fried chicken chain, Royal Castle. The stores are filled with cheap white bread, parboiled rice as previously mentioned, and a whole lot of pasta used in the local dish, macaroni pie, which is essentially a baked mac and cheese. Nearly 35% of the adult population in Trinidad and Tobago have diabetes, fueled no doubt by this emphasis on white, refined carbs and a great deal of sugary beverages which the majority drink over fresh juices from the abundance of fruits growing locally. Additionally, 30 per cent of its adult population are obese, one of the highest rates in the world. Also, apparently rickets, a calcium or vitamin D deficiency and growth stunting due to micronutrient deficiencies is extremely high in children from Trinidad and Tobago.
It hit me that the decisions that we make at our dinner tables not only affect our families and those in our nation, but have an immense impact on the dietary decisions of the inhabitants of other nations. Is my decision to bring home takeout fried chicken once in a blue moon causing a butterfly effect leading to obesity in far away lands? That’s a great burden of guilt, one that I’m not certain I am ready or willing to accept. My takeaway from this trip was to let go, let someone else make decisions once in awhile, and next time I’ll make the fried chicken at home.