Trinidad and Tobago, a culinary diversity Mecca in the Caribbean

Indian cuisine
Indian Cuisine (Photo credit: Barun Ghosh)

Welcome to the diverse food capital of the Caribbean where unique cultural heritage has given rise to a vibrant culinary tradition. Trinidad and Tobago boasts of its diverse people with its equally diverse cultures. This resulted from the many colonizers, as well as labourers and enslaved people who were brought to our twin island republic. The twin-island nation was colonized by the Spanish, French and British, with each power leaving an indelible legacy on the nation’s food culture. Moreover, roughly 80 per cent of the population is of either African or Indian descent, with the remaining share being either mixed or of European, Chinese or Middle Eastern extraction – all adding distinctive elements to the country’s cuisine. Trinbagonians even use food as a metaphor for their national identity, referring to T&T as a “tossed salad” nation.

As a result, our cuisine has been greatly influenced by our many ancestors. In recent years, there has been a surge in foods originated in the Syrian and Lebanese community. Cuisine in Trinidad and Tobago is, therefore, ethnically branded. Although these migrants brought great food, they also introduced elements of their language, culture and, more importantly, their love for food from subcontinents. Consequently, T&T’s cuisine is heavily influenced by Indian-inspired dishes, particularly its distinctive curries. The all-time favourite Bangladeshi fuchkas (panipuri) doubles are an inexpensive, vegan street food that is omnipresent on the islands. This curried chickpea snack is also a breakfast delicacy and is served with several sauces and chutneys, between two fried flatbread aka “baras” and topped with each seller’s signature pepper sauce. In addition to very hot peppers, green sauce – a blend of chives, cilantro, garlic, onion, celery, pimento and thyme – is ubiquitous in the nation’s food offering. In addition to doubles, baigan choka (roasted eggplant), damadol choka (mashed roasted tomatoes), pakora (fritter), and aloo pie (fried dumpling), and kachourie (chickpea fritter) are all popular delicacies in T&T.

In the plantation era, owners of enslaved Africans on the island sought to feed the enslaved as inexpensively as possible. Thus, their diets consisted mainly of beans, starches and the cheapest cuts of meats. Africans also brought with them the technique of ‘one-pot’ cooking combining  vegetables, meats, beans and starches. This influence can be clearly seen in signature Creole dishes like pelau, callaloo, chicken and stew peas and of course, our many soups. However, local dishes were created with the infusion of foods such as plantain, pigeon peas, taro or dasheen, breadfruit, ackee, dasheen bush (taro leaves), okra, mango and saltfish. These ingredients are used to make some popular African dishes such as coo coo, callaloo, fish cakes and soups.

Let’s not forget the mouth-watering cuisine of the Chinese. A Chinese meal, typically, consists of a carbohydrate or a starch, and meat or fish and vegetables. The predominant cooking style is Cantonese, and spices such as ginger, garlic and spring onions are used in food preparation, as well as to preserve foods, and give the food a distinct flavor. The Chinese, because of losses experienced by farmers in China, developed food preservation techniques such as smoking, salting, pickling, and drying to extend the shelf life of many foods.

This wide array of influences and unique cuisines have made the twin-island nation a leading destination for food enthusiasts from the region and around the world. This position was affirmed in June 2018, when the T&T national team was the overall winner of the Taste of the Caribbean Awards – organized by the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association – for the seventh consecutive year. Trinidad and Tobago is blessed with a diversity of culinary options that are the envy of most developed markets.

 Food continues to evolve in T&T because the life in the Caribbean is not the same as it was, not the same even as far back as 10 years ago. We need to preserve our diverse food culture and unique flavours by keeping small businesses financially stable and protected from monopolies that will only hurt our economy.

Undeniably, Trini food is a direct reflection of the diversity of the people.

Subrina Hall-Azih is a Trinidadian educator living in New York.

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