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Trinidad & Tobago

Trinidad is much like its cuisine: a rich, slow-cooking curry made up of the sweet and sour that life has to offer. It is a land rich in industry, locally grown foods, and hard working people. Think of all the ingredients that make up our “melting pot” here in the States, and imagine them in a smaller pot with the heat cranked up to High. As you can imagine, things get interesting quick! Steel drums meet professional boxing, rainforest meets industrial sprawl, and striving hard workers walk next to the blithely content. Trinidad is a chutney of cultures, flavors, and humanity that is deeply intriguing and, at times, slightly disturbing.

My perfect vacation spot and my first stop is always the food market. The big, city market is in Trinidad’s Port of Spain, just footsteps from the shipyard and in the valley below the old fort. The hospital is also perched high above where the view is clearer and the air is thought to be healthier. Trinidad’s size, prosperity, and diversity make this one of the most interesting markets in the Caribbean. Trinidad is diverse in geography with rainforests, tar pits, and southern exposure to waters from the great rivers of Venezuela. Hence, coffee, chocolate, and cane plantations abound. Another little known fact is that many of the herbs and spices needed for the classic French liqueur Pernod are grown in Trinidad’s rich, sun-drenched soil. All this bounty coupled with an economy which is strong enough to allow its people to partake in it, make the market a success and a festival.

This place is not for the faint at heart though. You’ll see plenty of things that you would normally find on Fear Factor, especially in the stalls where the beef, pork, and poultry are slaughtered. But armed with a strong stomach, you’ll be fine. My advice is, if you pass something that smells funny to you, breathe through your mouth. Don’t over-drink the night before, eat a good breakfast several hours ahead of the journey, and you’ll be all right.

I like to spend most of my time in the outside area where locals from the surrounding hills and ports bring their goods. These range from cooking and medicinal herbs to a grand king fish sliced into steaks by the proud fisherman’s wife. I love seeing the sweet water crabs “poked” - you must poke your hand in the hole to catch them - from the rainforest rivers. They are all tied up in palm leaves like victims of some type of bondage ritual. Luckily, the buyer isn’t going to be the one devoured.

Fast Food in Trinidad, if you could call it that, comes in eco-friendly packaging. You’ll find large leaves full of everything you need for a meal for 4 and island “bouquet garni,” bunches of wild herbs tied up with twine ready to be added to traditional dishes. This is convenience food of which I can approve. Women with their chutneys, pickles, and sauces sit on the tailgates of their old model American cars, waiting for you to ask for a taste. Go for it. You’ll love the contrast of salty, sweet, bitter, and sour, so wonderfully complex in flavor that catsup is an embarrassment.

The vegetable selection is incredible in both freshness and quality. The Caribbean islands often import their produce because of poor soil. T&T (Trinidad AND Tabago, the smaller sister island) are much luckier. The land is fertile making them exporters. Root vegetables here are big like nowhere else I know of in the culinary world. Look for Dashwa or Dashine, big white or purple roots which are steamed, roasted, or fried. Their huge leaves are used for wrapping foods before steaming. On blankets and in boxes you may also find other herbs, blossoms, and fruits that the Trinis use for drinks. Some are laden with red and green sorrel flowers that are taken home and boiled with cinnamon, bay leaf, and sugar around the holidays. Other drinks include hibiscus wine, guava wine, and homemade soft drinks. They mix citrus, sugar, and spices and leave the concoction out for 3 days until it gets slightly bubbly and very delicious.

Green Papayas are used for both culinary and medicinal purposes. To cure high blood pressure, for instance, they cut around the outside and leave it out overnight before eating. Papayas are also salted and eaten as pickles with other bland or less seasoned dishes. Papayas that are “full,” a word used to describe fruits, vegetables, and women who are ripe for the picking, are added to blender drinks and salads or simply eaten out of hand. Breadfruit or Cachoo is something we don’t see very often at home or on restaurant menus. I asked one stall keeper how to use it and her recipe included coconut milk, pig’s tails, and salt beef. I’m sure it is wonderful, but I think I’ll wait for an invitation to her house before I try that one on my own.

Trucks piled laughably high with coconuts are as plentiful as carnival costumes. Coconuts are ready to be drained of their water (good for hangovers, bladders, and baby diarrhea), scraped of their flesh for candies and curries, and squeezed of their milk for sauces, confections, and shakes. Bananas of all colors, shapes, and sizes are called “figs.” It is only my guess, but it may be that the European settlers thought they were reminiscent of the fruit they already knew. Green figs make an amazing starchy salad, something like potato salad but with a banana finish. French speakers may recognize the word “chatangne,” which means “chestnut.” Here it looks much the same only 20-30 times larger with a sweeter, fruitier filling. Even water is brought in from rainforest springs known for their health benefits.

Of course there are lots of prepared foods at the market, though none you’d expect. Cow heel soup with yellow lentils and bananas. Corn soup with split peas and sweet corn (to get the motor running), jerk pork, roti, oysters, nuts, phulowrie, katchouri snow-cones, and shark bakes are all local favorites. A favorite of mine is “crab dumplings,” which look like big, doughy shoe soles. When topped with the spiced stew of sweet crabs and earthy okra, the dumpling becomes a marvelous starchy canvas for the richly flavored sauce. “Doubles,” bara bread topped with channa stew (chickpeas) and assorted chutneys, spiced cucumbers, or salsa, are a way of life in Trinidad. They are wrapped in pink paper and swung around until there are two knots on the ends of the paper, then eaten for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, as well as after work and after the bar. Sold from bikes, wagons, stands, and stalls, they are best enjoyed out of hand with coconut water.

The main building is circular. It is filled with the stalls of the butchers. As I said before, if you are not used to this kind of thing you can stay on the perimeter. The men and women are incredibly skilled at swinging their machetes. The one tool does a job for which I use 4-5 knives. Ask for a steak and they really swing into it. There are many types of fowl on the island. The common fowl is a “free-range” bird that runs around eating whatever it finds. It is great for stews and lays wonderful eggs. The white fowl is a regular chicken which grows much faster and is used for quick cooking. Although the fowl is plentiful, it is the variety of strangely cut beef and pork that I find most intriguing. The cuts of meat on the islands are very different from the fine butcher shops of Manhattan; as is the setting.

With all this bounty it hard to understand how anyone could be “poor,” the Trini word for skinny. In a land where they say, “Wake up with noth’n, got someth’n by bedtime,” the local spirit seems strong, generous, and helpful. In a land so culturally diverse, a real Chutney Soca (Indian Calypso), people have found a way to gather around the table and enjoy each others’ music, culture, and food. Everyone gets at least a small bite of the “fig.”




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