Trinidad and Tobago has a rich culinary tradition and their burgeoning food scene is exploding with new flavors and passionate chefs. There are food festivals, culinary competitions, TV shows and chic hot spots opening up everywhere. At the heart of Trinidad and Tobago’s delicious and unique cuisine are the Indian Trinbagonian chefs, whose ancestors brought their culinary heritage with them to T&T and changed the island nation’s food forever. Many of the famous dishes that lure people from around the world have Indian spices and influence. These chefs tell their family’s stories, their influences and how an Asian nation gave birth to modern Trini food flavors and traditions.
Wendy Rahamut, a vivacious and multi-talented chef, is the host of the weekly TV series, “Caribbean Flavors”, a writer for the “Trinidad Guardian”, editor in chief of “Caribbean Gourmet” and operates a cooking school from her studio. Cooking with Wendy is like having a favorite cousin sharing her secret recipes while relaxing and eating at home. She loves spices and scours the markets for the best herbs as well as pulling from her own herb garden. “In Trinidad we use wet spices”, she explains, “I adore local Caribbean ingredients and try to cook farm to table”. Rahamut’s ancestors sailed on the ship S.S. Indus in 1872, emigrating from Utter Pradesh India to Trinidad and Tobago for a better life. Many Indians arrived at that time to work as indentured servants, with the promise of eventual freedom and land. Wendy’s family became successful dry goods merchants and Wendy, after business school in Canada, returned to the warm breezes of the Caribbean to pursue her love of cooking. “My new class ‘Learn to Cook’ is very popular. People are going back to traditional cooking and flavors” she notes. Traditional means Indian-Caribe, what Trinis call Creole. Wendy’s famous Callaloo Soup with Crab combines different spices with Creole influence for a unique flavor.
“Chef Amit Raval offers classic Indian dishes filling a surprising void, given that roughly 40 percent of Trinidad & Tobago’s is of Indian origin.” says Marie Clark, the editor of Trinichow.com and THE food website for T&T. Amit himself admits that fusion is great but the classics are best. Descending from six generations of Halwis in India, sweetmeat sellers and cooks to the kings and royal family, it is no surprise that Raval is a star chef. Growing up around “food, good food”, Amit says it was “a beautiful marriage” both culinary and otherwise between his Trini mother and father’s African and Indian influences. Amit founded Amtar Fine Foods Catering with the help of his parents and friends. “We have been able to fuse our traditional Indian dishes with local and international flavors to create something a bit different, a bit interesting and a bit creative.” Amit’s passions extend beyond the kitchen. He is a devoted athlete who can be found surfing, diving and swimming in the ocean during his free time. His hipster hobbies don’t distract from his love of old and classic traditions, though. “I love making the classics… I feel that they can be forgotten and generations ahead may not be able to taste the foundation that was set by classic curries and tandoori dishes”, Amit explains regarding his Indian heritage. To further insure the survival of these traditional flavors, Amit fuses Indian spices and taste into everything he can, using fresh spices, old recipes and old methods that can take days to prepare. The results are mouth-watering creations like Chicken Tikka Masala with Chili and Coriander Polenta, Paneer with Mango Pickle and Roghan Josh “My Way”.
If there is persuasion in culinary prowess then Gail Mohammed influences many people through her tantalizing meals. Hired by businesses to feed and impress their clients as well as big corporations for team building events, Gail cooks to put smiles on faces, especially for her friends and family. “You must cook with love, stir your pot gently, treat your pot well and it will treat you well”, Gail emphasizes, “Cooking is about getting to know people through taste and senses.” Gail grew up in a big extended family where the cooking was done over an open fire in the yard, with everyone liming (hanging out) and enjoying food. Her family came from India in 1845 as indentured servants. Before they immigrated to Trinidad they were goldsmiths and jewelers, after their servitude was over some went back into gold, some real estate and some the food business. Gail remembers the open flame in the yard and the curry duck roasting over it during her family gatherings. The wood and stone added to the flavor of the duck, with hot pepper mixed in for spice and Trinidad’s unique curry for personality, a combination of masala, cumin and curry powder. Fast forward a few years and Gail is the owner of Gail’s Exclusive Tour Services, showing Trinidad to visitors in unique ways by not only creating specialized tours but also by cooking for them in her own home. “Friends are made through cooking, they never forget the memory of how the food tastes. They always remember the meal and they always come back for more.” Her secret? Angostura Bitters. Every dish gets a dash. Gail doesn’t use oil but heats the pot to smoking and lets the duck cook in its own juices. The result is her famous curry duck: moist, delicate and succulent.
The most accomplished chef in Trinidad and Tobago is Khalid Mohammed of Chaud. After cooking in restaurants around the world and for numerous international dignitaries he arrived at his mantra for Trini food: “We want to clean up Creole cuisine: Less fats; healthier; stop overcooking everything; rethink the meats. Foie gras and ox tail are equal. It’s only in our minds we make them unequal. In Italy, their restaurant food is their home food, too. Sada roti and ox tail are our food and there’s no reason we can’t celebrate it.” Spearheading the competitive Trini culinary spirit, Khalid has competed and won in a number of competitions from the United States to Mexico. Khalid detests food snobs and focuses on what he loves rather than what people think is best. Truffles versus chadon bene versus tomato choka, every ingredient has equal validity to him. Mohammed introduced Trini flavors to French cuisine and brought the dusty basics back to life. The ambience at Chaud is surpassed only by the food. Corn soup sipped inside the gorgeous, intimate converted home/restaurant is still corn soup, but it is also the best corn soup you’ve ever tasted. The result is a restaurant that would dazzle French gastronomes, if only they had the audacity to visit. “The best thing about the new Trinidadian cuisine is it’s so original. It’s not fusion. It’s new. It’s not a play on fish broth; it is fish broth.” And a rose is a rose is a rose by any other name, is it not?
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