Trinidad & Tobago:
Roast or fry bake?
“Where did souse come from,” asks Anu Lakhan, “and why won’t it go back?”
Lakhan is the editor of Macmillan’s new series on Caribbean street food. A former food editor of Caribbean Beat, she also wrote this flagship book in the series, on the tempting roadside morsels that Trinidad & Tobago has to offer.
Lakhan’s disdainful comment on souse (pickled pigs’ trotters) is typical of the tone – as light as the dough in a good fry bake, and unwilling to give credit where credit isn’t due. She doesn’t pretend all local street fare is equally delicious.
But if the quality varies, it’s clear from this book is that Trinidad & Tobago has the widest variety and quite possibly the best street food in the region. Certainly it has more indigenous kinds than its neighbours – about the only borrowed one is jerk, from Jamaica. This book covers almost all, literally from soup (corn) to nuts (salt or fresh), though I couldn’t find geera horse – to my relief. In between there are pies, oysters, doubles, snow cone, Chinese preserved fruit – “almost uniformly a deep dark red,” writes Lakhan, “owing to the deep dark red thing used to preserve them.”
Some culinary mysteries are best left unsolved.
But Lakhan reveals other local secrets: how to grapple with a coconut, and how Trinis get their heads around such semantic paradoxes as roast and fry bake. There’s grammatical advice: don’t embarrass yourself by asking for “boiled corn”, it’s “boil corn”. Lakhan herself avoids bacchanal by recommending certain vendors without claiming they’re the best, which might have led to fights.
The book features large helpings of appetising photos of the food and typical venues where it’s to be found. All in all, for locals and visitors alike, this is a mouth-watering read.
Steppers and dunks
Once you’re past the conceptual objection – half the delight of street food is stumbling upon it oneself – Macmillan’s Caribbean Street Food, Barbados, will be useful to visitors.
Certainly it’s comprehensive, with everything down to dunks and barbecued pigtail getting in. The writing is solid, too, author Peter Laurie capturing the informal, come-hither style, imparting information while producing regular grins and the odd guffaw. The Bridgetown section (pp 90 – 98) constitutes his and the book’s best interlude – though, after ten years of trying to persuade restaurants it’s a cliché, I would throttle anyone who grilled anything “to perfection”.
On the street, food presentation doesn’t matter much; in a guide book, presentation of information does. Series editor Anu Lakhan, the best food writer I’ve read, opted to leave out an index or detailed table of contents and rely on an “alphabetical” listing – which presumes visitors know “buljol” comes before “ital” and “chicken feet” are filed under “steppers”.
The other faults of the book are not al dente but to the eye. The font suggests graffiti, easily read on city walls, but frown-inducing in a jacket-pocket-sized book. Reading difficulty is compounded by bright (one supposes, “Caribbean”) colours used for both pages and text. Struggle with the blue-on-blue of page 60 in an unlit ZR-minibus, even in daytime, and decide, “Well, I didn’t want to try octopus, anyway!” (Perhaps the font was chosen to make a small book bigger; the “Ital Food” section, spread over pp 54 and 55, contains 160 words, including the headline.)
Again, if the designer had his wits and/or mise en place about him, the green-and-yellow of “Ital Food” would have had the ites, green and gold given to the pages of “Macaroni Pie”, only two pages on.
The faults of the book, then, are found in what it looks like; which is what Peter Laurie himself said of the boiled chicken feet.
Nice it up inna Jamdown
Okay, I’ll admit it: the first time I flipped through this book, I was rather dismissive. “Doughnuts?” I scoffed. I was outraged that anyone would even consider doughnuts as Caribbean food. But – and I hear a collective suck-teeth from the Yardies and a “Lard, dat Trini nuff eeh!” – forgive me, mi bredrin. I was too hasty. (Call it sour grapes, if you will.) I’ve had to eat my words.
Because though we Trinis are used to a smorgasbord of street foods, from tongue-blazing doubles to aphrodisiacal oysters and chicken-foot souse – what Jamaicans lack in quantity, they always make up for with a rich history, and their biting sense of humour.
Where else is the world but Jamaica would a menu boast of “Fried Chicken Back”? This, you will discover, on page 70, is what has been dubbed, in true Jamaican style, ghetto steak. As writer Kellie Magnus points out (beneath a mouth-watering photo of said ghetto steak), there is an old saying in Jamaica, “Tun yu han’ make fashion”: making something out of nothing is one of this island’s trademarks.
And this is what makes this book so colourful – in addition to its glossy pages, beautiful layout and lovely photos: the language and love with which Magnus describes the setting and the history of dishes like jerk pork, pan chicken, crabs and pepper shrimp. She adds the essential Jamaican ingredient, a liberal dash of lyrics and street vibes, to nice it up.
Caribbean Street Food: Trinidad & Tobago Anu Lakhan (ISBN 978-1-4050-8426-0, 96pp)
Caribbean Street Food: Barbados Peter Laurie (ISBN 978-1 4050-8427-7, 112pp)
Caribbean Street Food: Jamaica Kellie Magnus (ISBN 978-1-4050-8425-3, 112pp)