Our cuisine like our peoples, over time has become a melting pot of indigenous, Spanish, British, French, African, Indian, Chinese, Lebanese, and in more recent times, German and Italian influences. However, this article pays tribute to the culinary creativity of our African ancestors who crossed the Atlantic in chains, with meal preparation a distant memory.
They came from lands rich in starchy root crops, the resourcefulness of using the dark green leaves of most vegetables, black-eye peas, okras, the mortar and pestle for food preparation and the technique of a cooking base: onions, tomatoes and peppers. They also brought with them the ubiquitous ‘one-pot’ meal: vegetables, meats, beans, and starches, and memories of their well-loved ‘akara’ fritter.
African slave owners literally scraped the barrels to feed their slaves on the estates. Their diets consisted mainly of beans, tubers like cassava, yams, sweet potatoes, and eddoes, and the throw-away bits of meat and fish left over from ‘the big house.’ These ends of pig-tails, trotters, and hog face were kept in brine vats, hence the name ‘salt-meat’. Pieces of cod-fish were salted and dried and doled out carefully.
Fast forward two hundred years and this culinary legacy has triumphantly emerged as a rich thread of Trinidad & Tobago’s multi-cultural culinary tapestry.
A Christmas morning breakfast usually consist of salt-fish buljol, a tantalizing blend of de-salted dried cod-fish, olive oil, tomatoes, olives, capers, onions, thyme, and scorpion peppers for those who can tolerate it. Boiled sliced eggs usually top it off. This is usually eaten with bake—a fried pita-like bread. Fried plantains is a great foil for the palate after the heat of buljol! The African Akara fritter has metamorphosed into the Trini Accra, made from a batter of seasoned dried cod-fish.
Souse is another staple on Christmas morning. Here the pigs trotters and face parts are thoroughly cleaned, boiled and marinated in a brine blend with onions, cucumbers, black-pepper, and dressed with water-cress. Callaloo, usually served at the main meal of the day, is made with the thick dark leaves of the dasheen tuber, coconut milk, and bits of salted meats, crab meat, onions, thyme and seasoned to taste with salt and an aromatic whole scotch-bonnet, is served as a soup with corn cou-cou. Traditionally this is made from mortal-and pestle-pounded corn and blended with okras, peppers, salt, butter and water or milk. Along with the array of baked or roasted meats, pigeon peas stew with pumpkin and dumplings is another Christmas favorite.
Shark and bake comes right along with the holiday fare as Trinis usually head for the beach on Boxing Day. Maracas Bay would be the beach of choice to pick up a shark n’bake sandwich. This is an unholy combination of battered fried shark wedged between two slices of bake, and laced with any combination of a variety of ‘fixins’: pineapple, cilantro chutney, onions, cucumbers, tomatoes, chopped half-ripe mango, or tamarind sauce. Another beach option would be the well-known favorite: pelau, a one-pot delicious blend of rice, pigeon peas, coco-nut milk, with carrots, celery, and that African base of onions, tomatoes and peppers.
The New Year is heralded in to bring good luck and abundance, with stewed black eye peas or that infamous one pot pelau: black eye peas and rice. Our African ancestors have surely transformed their journey of pain into a banquet of delight!
by: Rubyha McKenzie
Born in Trinidad and Tobago, Rubyha after much travel, study, and teaching, settled in Canada. Her first published work was “As the Canque Flows,” in a 1970 SAG publication; the second, “Rahattan’s Necklace,” appeared in the NAAC magazine. She has, over the past three years produced a collection of poems, short stories, and commentaries, reflecting the rich diversity of her experiences, her unique rhythm, and an idiom that is anchored in the imagery of a Caribbean woman. Rubyha currently facilitates a creative writing group in Mississauga, Ontario.