If you travel to Moruga, you will see hills of a lost variety of wholegrain rice that’s not only delicious, but enriched with fibre, iron, potassium, calcium and vitamins, that was brought to Trinidad in 1815 by the Merikins. The Merikins were African-American marines who fought in the War of 1812 on the side of the British against the Americans and after initially serving in Bermuda were given land. These former slaves from the Trans-Atlantic trade would settle in six Company villages in the south of the island, and as landowners they and their children would become pioneers in several professions including: farming, business, science, medicine, the arts and academia. Today, farmers like Mark Forgenie, have improved the harvesting methods for this uniquered, organic wholegrain rice that has become a staple in restaurants across the country.
Miles away in the lush valley of Lopinot, lies the home of the infamous Charles Joseph Comte Lopinot de la Fresilliere (1738-1819), a Lieutenant-General in the French Army, who fought with the British, he petitioned the British Secretary of State for compensation for lands lost in another island and was granted over 400 acres in Trinidad. Arriving in 1800in Trinidad with his family and about 100 slaves he was not granted the initial request and instead purchased a sugar estate. However, he later gained more land as he rose in rank to Brigadier-General in the Militia. A few years later, he planted cocoa in the serene valley of La Reconnaissance estate, that is now owned by the Government and houses the Lopinot museum. But Lopinot is just one of many cocoa and sugar estates that once made Trinidad a world leader. Here is where it gets even more interesting. Although the cocoa industry declined in productivity over the years, there has been a re-surgence, buoyed by innovative research and training at the Cocoa Research Centre at The University of the West Indies led by Professor Umaharan, which also houses avast gene bank; in addition a new generation of farmers and chocolatiers have invested in this global passion for our high grade, Trinitario chocolate, in an industry that’s expected to grow exponentially over the next decade. You can buy local milk or dark chocolates, cocoanibs, and cocoa powder in stores nationwide. Some of the most delectable award-winning brands include Brasso Seco Chocolate Co, Coco bel Chocolates, Cocoa Republic, JB Chocolates, Omaribeans Organic, Sun eaters Organic, TT Fine Cocoa Company and The Lopinot Chocolate Company, among many others. Several estates also offer tours and tastings.
For most Trinidadians, food has always been at the centre of family life. There’s an historical connection to every meal and its preparation is both unique and universal. It’s about keeping ancient traditions alive during times of hardship, remembering loved ones and celebrating milestones.
So it’s not unusual that on an island of over 700,000 people living in cosmopolitan communities that have age-old traditions from the Caribbean, Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Europe, South and Central America or the First Indigenous Peoples, the cuisine is absolutely delicious and varied.
The rich soil, tropical climate, with seasonal rainy and dry seasons, cool nights (21 degrees Celsius) and warm days (31degrees Celsius), moderated by the North East Trade Winds, make a haven for quality farm fresh produce.
From the street food of Doubles – a curried channa that’s topped with pepper, mango chutney and sandwiched between fried Bharra, to Callaloo – a popular soup made from the blended leaves of the plant cooked with ochroes, coconut milk, pepper sand then the final touch of crab meat - the choices are vast. But don’t leave without trying a local staple, Roti, an East Indian traditional ‘bread’ made from flour, chick peas and butter, that’s used to wrap the most delicious combinations of curried chicken, duck, goat, shrimp, beef, conch, potato, pumpkin, mango, chickpeas or even lobster – the possibilities seem endless, as are the flavours. You will find Roti shops throughout the island so ask for recommendations. And of course there’s these a food offerings from lobster to fresh fish, best enjoyed in restaurants or cafés near to an ocean breeze. If you visit Maracas Bay make sure to order a Shark and Bake, or you may prefer Shrimp or King Fish; don’t forget to add your choice of toppings from lettuce and pineapple to mango chutney or pepper and drizzle the garlic or tamarind sauce for a delectable lunch.
Over the years, waves of migrants have come to Trinidad from across the world: some kidnapped and brought as slave labour, others as indentured workers, many seeking new opportunities, others fleeing religious persecution, poverty or war, while others were given opportunities to gain “free” land through the 1783 edict, the Cedula of Population. Whatever the reason, the island’s culinary offering is a complex, rich brew that’s made from an innovative mix of quality ingredients and a fusion of cooking techniques.
As the gateway to the Americas, Trinidad is located just seven miles off the coast of Venezuela, you can find some of the best Arepas stuffed with cheese or meat as well as, Empañadas filled with avocado, chicken or cheese in restaurants in Woodbrook, Santa Cruz or Paramin. The picturesque hills of Paramin, where the Afro-French and Spanish heritage is alive and well, not only in the language but also in the Parang music and harvests of seasonings including chives, peppers and Shadon Beni, that form the base of many traditional meals including Pelau, is well worth the trip. Visit during sunrise or sunset and enjoy the view of the north coast and the valleys as you travel along the ridge. And during the Christmas season enjoy tasty Pastelles filled with pork or minced beef, currants, olives and pimentos and rolled into a cornmeal casing which is then wrapped in banana leaves. And a Christmas celebration is never complete without the cocktails that can range from Sorrell, a delectable drink made from the leaves of the plant, boiled and flavoured with cloves and sugar that goes perfectly well when mixed with Prosecco, to the Ginger Beer, Ponche-a-Crème and Petit Ponche.
From people who were intent on surviving and protecting their heritage by cooking memorable meals, on an island where fresh fruit hangs idly in so many gardens and a trip to the beach or river will often reap a rich harvest of fish and lobster, where chefs are intent on creating masterpieces, you won’t leave your new home-away-from-home hungry.