A unique and addictive blend of African, Indian, Chinese, European and Latin American influences, the fantastic cuisine of Trinidad and Tobago is a highlight of any visit to the islands. It’s hard to overemphasize the centrality of food to local culture; a true Trinbagonian would never lime (the local word for socializing) without a full stomach, and many leisure activities – beach days, river limes – revolve around the preparation and consumption of food and drink. It’s rare to visit a private home without being offered something to eat, and you may be regarded as rude if you refuse, though it’s not very likely that you’ll want to.
Even in T&T’s larger hotels and international-style restaurants, Trinbagonian cuisine hasn’t been dumbed down for visitors, and you’re likely to be offered dishes from the vast array of local food. Due to the islands’ diverse heritage, “local” can mean anything from Indian curry and roti to Creole coocoo and oil down or Spanish and South American-style pastelles (cornmeal patties filled with ground meat or fish, olives and raisins, wrapped in a banana leaf and traditionally eaten at Christmas time).
Cooks in T&T have a far lighter hand with hot peppers than you might expect, preferring the delicate flavours of fresh herbs such as chives (aka spring/green onions), thyme and the ubiquitous coriander-like chadon beni. Heat is usually added later at the table, in liberal dashes of fiery hot-pepper sauce. If you don’t like things too hot, remember to say so when buying takeaway, or your meal may be automatically smothered with pepper sauce. If you like things just a little spicy, ask for “slight pepper”.
There’s a burgeoning restaurant culture in Trinidad’s urban areas, with Port of Spain and San Fernando in particular replete with everything from casual diners to world-class gourmet establishments, as well as some stylish places to enjoy Indian, Creole, Chinese and international cuisine. You’ll also find a huge lunchtime variety in Trinidad’s larger shopping malls, where food courts offer delicious curries, roti, Chinese staples, macaroni pie and lentil peas, potato or green-fig salad, Creole-style fish, chicken and the ubiquitous pelau alongside burgers, grilled meats and sandwiches.
In Tobago, Crown Point has a decent spread of restaurants, from Italian pizza joints to seafood, Creole cooking, curry and roti. If you’re here in the low season (mid-April to mid-Dec), bear in mind that many kitchens close at around 9pm, or even open up for bookings only. Away from the southwest, most restaurants are small-scale affairs serving strictly seafood and Creole cuisine, though hotels do hold some more upmarket places to eat.
Breakfast is traditionally a hearty meal, designed to stand you in good stead for a hard day’s work. Staples include spicy fried fish, smoked herring cooked up with onions and peppers (and sometimes egg), or buljol, a delectable blend of flaked saltfish, fresh onions, tomatoes, lime juice and sweet peppers, usually eaten with avocado and a couple of light, airy rolls called hops, or with coconut bake, a flat round bread made with grated coconut. It’s ideally washed down with a steaming mug of sweet chocolate tea: fresh cocoa, spiced up with nutmeg, cinnamon and sugar. The most popular breakfast on the go, however, is doubles: vendors do a brisk trade from as early as 5am.
T&T offer the best street food in the Caribbean, with everything from Indian specialities to gyro wraps, fried chicken and, of course, roti; and as vendors are subject to stringent hygiene checks, eating on the hop doesn’t constitute a health risk. In Trinidad, Port of Spain’s street-food hotspots (all best after dark) are the Western Main Road in St James, Ariapita Avenue, the Queen’s Park West end of the Savannah and Independence Square. In Tobago, there are a few doubles and roti vendors in Crown Point and Scarborough.
The most popular Indian snack is doubles, two pieces of soft, fried bara bread sandwiching a runny channa curry that’s dressed with cucumber, pepper sauce and kucheela mango chutney, and usually sold in the mornings from streetside stalls noticeable for their long queues and stripy umbrellas. Aloo pies (flattened fried doughballs filled with spiced potato) are another popular snack, as are cheese, beef or fish versions. A little less substantial are the addictive pholouri (fried split-pea-flour doughballs served with tart and tasty tamarind curry sauce) or sahina, a ground channa and dasheen leaf fritter. Port of Spain’s Savannah and most junctions along the Eastern Main Road are flanked by vendors selling small local oysters, served in a cup with a peppery, vinegary tomato sauce.
Creole street delicacies include corn soup, a thick and satisfying split-pea broth with vegetables, chunks of sweetcorn and mini dumplings. Accra is a peppery saltfish fritter, while bake and shark is available far beyond its traditional home, Maracas Beach.
Though international fast-food chains – particularly Subway, Pizza Hut, Burger King and McDonald’s – are part of the scenery, local outlets still manage to draw the crowds: chicken chains Japs and Royal Castle are the Trinbagonian KFC equivalent, using a tasty blend of spices and herbs in the batter and serving flying-fish sandwiches and veggie burgers. Joe’s Pizza (Trinidad only) is another good option, and also delivers.
In T&T culinary terms, Creole refers to African-style cooking which has picked up many other influences along the way. Often served with coleslaw and a slice of zaboca (avocado), pelau is a classically Creole chicken dish, utilizing the “browning down” tradition of caramelizing meat in burnt brown sugar. Rice, pigeon peas, garlic, onions and pumpkin are then added and cooked down in coconut milk to delicious effect.
Browning is also used to make traditional Sunday lunch of baked chicken, usually served with rice, stewed peas, macaroni or potato pie and potato, pasta or green fig (banana) salad. Another Creole staple is callaloo: chopped dasheen leaves cooked with okra, pumpkin, coconut milk and occasionally crab meat, into a tasty, pleasantly slimy mixture that’s sometimes puréed. It’s often served with coocoo, a kind of cornmeal polenta flavoured with okra. Two dishes not for the squeamish are the highly spiced local black pudding, and souse, pigs’ or chickens’ feet marinated in lime juice and peppers, and served cold. A classic accompaniment to main meals is oil down: vegetables (particularly breadfruit or cassava) stewed in coconut milk and flavoured with pig tail.
Though increasingly rare these days, “wild meat” such as iguana, agouti, lappe, manicou, tattoo and quenk are considered a delicacy, and end up in the pot where available. Though a 2013–2015 hunting ban made it temporarily illegal to kill, eat or sell wild meat, it was still sold illicitly throughout the banned period; and though you could theoretically try it once the hunting season is reinstated, as it’s slated to be in 2015, you might bear in mind that as many of these animals are endangered, it’s more ethical to steer well clear.
Creole soups include corn soup; san coche, a lentil soup cooked with pig tail; and cow-heel soup, thick with split peas and slowly cooked meat. Fish broth is a thin and delicious fortifying soup padded out with boiled green bananas and dumplings, while pacro water is similar but substitutes pacro (a mollusc known as chip-chip in Trinidad) for fish, and is touted as a strong aphrodisiac. Soups made from pumpkin, callaloo or pulses (red peas, black-eyed peas etc), often flavoured with pig tail, are also classic Creole creations.
Seafood is extremely popular and unfailingly good: from thick steaks of dense and delicious kingfish, grouper, tuna, cavalli, carite, barracuda and mahi-mahi/dolphin (the fish also known as “dorado”, not the mammal), to smaller fillets of “red fish”: moonshine, snapper, parrotfish, flying fish and tilapia. (Note that of these, mahi-mahi, flying fish, carite and tilapia are the most sustainable choices.) Creole-style fish is usually fried or stewed in a peppery tomato-based marinade of onion, sweet and hot peppers and garlic, while curry crab and dumplin’ (crab cooked in its shell with a coconut curry sauce and served with boiled dumplings) is a marvellous Tobago speciality. Local lobster is usually doused in a lemon, garlic or herb butter, or sometimes curried.
Though the obvious staple of Indo-Trinidadian cooking is curry, the T&T version is somewhat different to that served in India, using fresh hot peppers rather than chilli paste and a blend of curry powder that’s unique to the islands. One of the most popular curry dishes is duck, which forms the centrepiece of the ever-popular Trini tradition of a “curry duck lime”. Another mainstay is the vast array of chutneys, ranging from super-sweet to tart or peppery. Sweetly curried mango or pomme cythere on the seed, peppery anchar and kucheela, a hot mango pickle, are universally plopped into rotis, doubles and aloo pies.
The unofficial national dish, roti is a stretchy flat bread (“skin”) used to wrap curried meat, vegetables or fish, a style of preparation that originated in Trinidad but is now popular across the Caribbean. There are several variations of roti skins including basic dhalpuri (with seasoned split peas layered into the dough); sada (more like a flatbread, it’s cooked on a hot griddle, usually in the early morning, and served with sauteed fresh tomato or aubergine “choka”); and buss-up-shut, a thin, tasty shredded skin that resembles a torn cloth shirt and is used to spoon up mouthfuls of curry sold in “snackboxes”. Paratha or dosti is a plain roti skin.
Roti fillings range from curried chicken and beef to conch, goat and shrimp. Most vendors include meat on the bone – if you don’t fancy sucking out the marrow as the locals do, ask for “boneless”. Common vegetarian fillings (also used to complement the meats) are channa (curried chickpeas) and potato, sweet pumpkin, bodi (green beans) and bhaji (local spinach). In a restaurant, you may be offered a bowl of peppery lentil dhal as an accompaniment.
Good roti shops abound in the capital, but most locals agree that the best roti is to be found in the Indian heartlands of Central or South Trinidad.
Fruit and vegetables
Local fruit and vegetables are plentiful and cheap, particularly if you buy from large markets. Some unusual local fruits include the super-sweet and extremely popular sapodilla, grey-brown and globular with gritty, sweet pulp, while cherry-sized chenets (also called guinep) have smooth green skin and a large seed with sweet, slightly acidic flesh. The knobbly green-and-brown skin of the soursop surrounds a delectable milky white pulp, often made into ice cream; its smaller cousin the sweetsop is less common. Look out also for the scrumptious kymet, a round, deep purple fruit with seeds that form a star shape when the fruit is cut in half. The round pomme cythere (or “pomsitae”) is sweet and yellow when ripe, but is often eaten green with salt and hot pepper as “chow” – as is the star-shaped carambola (five finger), pineapple and unripe mango.
Green-skinned with a soft, aromatic orange flesh, pawpaw (papaya) is best eaten with a squeeze of fresh lime, while bananas (often called figs – look out for the tasty, tiny finger variety or young green bananas boiled and eaten as a savoury), watermelon and pineapples are all very common. Citrus is ever popular; you’ll see lemons, limes and exceptionally sweet oranges and grapefruit, while portugals are easy-peel, thick-skinned mandarins.
Many varieties of mango grow profusely in rural areas, perfuming whole communities with the distinctive aroma of rotting fruit from April till August. The most popular (and expensive) type is the rosy, medium-sized julie, while the long stringy mango is best avoided unless you have dental floss handy.
The most frequent vegetables seen on the Creole dinner plate are boiled root vegetables (known as blue food or ground provisions) such as yam, the chewy, purple-tinted dasheen, the softer, white-coloured eddoe and cassava as well as sweet potato and regular potatoes. Dasheen leaves are cooked up with okra (ladies’ fingers) to make callaloo. You’ll also see aubergine (locally called melongene or baigan), christophenes – pear-shaped and light green with a bland, watery taste similar to marrow – green bodi string beans and breadfruit, green and thick-skinned with clothy white flesh that can be baked, boiled or fried. Plantain is a popular accompaniment, a larger, denser member of the banana family; deliciously sweet when ripe, it’s usually served fried or boiled, or as plantain chips, a healthier alterative to potato crisps.
Thanks to the Indian influence, pulses (referred to as peas) are widely used in the form of split-pea dhal; green lentils cooked with pumpkin and coconut; curried chickpeas (channa); and black-eyed peas or fresh and green pigeon peas cooked with rice and coconut milk.
Desserts and sweets
Though there are plenty of fantastic local puddings, from nutmeg-laced cassava pone to the classic black cake – a ridiculously rich, rum-soaked Christmas speciality – most restaurant dessert menus concentrate on serving international staples. Home-made ice cream is ubiquitous and delicious, however, with flavours such as cherry-sorrel or barbadine sold everywhere from street stalls to supermarkets.
As for sweets, look out for bene balls, tooth-crunching globes of sesame seeds and sugar, and coconut cake, a slab of shredded coconut boiled in sugar syrup and pink food colouring. Tamarind balls take a little getting used to, combining the tart taste of tamarind with sugar and salt, as do salt prunes (seasoned, sweet-and-sour prunes rolled in a dusty red colouring, often dropped into white rum) and red mango, which is green mango, well seasoned with spices and sugar and doused in bright red colouring. Other candies include toolum, a sticky ball of grated coconut, molasses and ginger, pawpaw balls (shredded green papaya boiled in sweet syrup and rolled in sugar) and gingery fudge, while there are hundreds of often sickly sugared and fried Indian sweets; kurma (sweet fried doughballs) are probably the most popular.
Given T&T’s capacity for consumption of beer, it’s hardly surprising the national brews go down smoothly. The market leaders are Carib, a light, golden lager, and Stag, a little more robust and marketed as “a man’s beer”. Both taste best drunk very cold straight from the bottle (women are usually offered a straw), and both are available on draught. Carib Pilsner Light is a bearable if rather insipid lower-alcohol alternative. Guinness is brewed in Trinidad but, though bitter and refreshing, it bears little similarity to versions elsewhere. The sweeter Royal Extra or Mackeson stouts are excellent local alternatives.
Produced in Laventille by the House of Angostura, T&T’s dark (or “red”) and white rum are downed with equal enthusiasm, the white tending to be less abrasively strong than the overproof brands of other islands; regular rums are 43 percent alcohol. The most popular brands are the clear White Oak and its dark counterparts Black Label and Royal Oak, all perfectly drinkable but best when mixed into a cocktail or with a chaser. Trinbagonian rum punch is delicious, using blended fruits, syrup, a sprinkle of ground nutmeg and, of course, a splash of the delectable Angostura bitters, also a worthy addition to any mixed drink. Most bars also offer the usual range of fruity cocktails – frozen margaritas are particularly good.
At 75 percent alcohol, the eye-watering Forres Park puncheon rum is perhaps best avoided, though it does add a kick to a rum cocktail.
Of the more high-end aged rums, Angostura Single Barrel matures in oak casks for five years and is a decent sipping or mixing rum; the bourbon casks used for Single Barrel Premium produce an agreeably buttery rum, and there’s a very smooth seven-year-old in the range, too. The white Reserva is aged for three years and is a great cocktail base. Moving up a notch, Angostura 1919 is a premium aged rum in a distinctive squared bottle; its counterpart, Angostura 1824, is heavy with molasses and is great drunk neat or over ice. Look out, also, for the fantastic El Dorado aged rums, produced in Guyana but widely available in T&T. If you’re in T&T around Christmas, you might be offered poncha crema, an eggnog boosted with plenty of rum.
Sweet and strong home-made wines – cashew, banana, aloes, hibiscus and so on – are excellent if you can get your hands on them; imported wine is widely available by bottle and, less expensively, by box: larger supermarkets carry standard selections of Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc; as well as Cabernet, Merlot and the like. Expect to pay a little more than you would at home, particularly if you order by the glass in a restaurant.
Local soft drinks include the energy-boosting Ginseng-Up; delicious Carib Shandy, in sorrel and ginger varieties; LLB, a mix of lime, lemon and bitters that makes a good mixer for spirits; and Bentley, a refreshing bitter lemon soda. The best thing for the heat, however, is mineral-packed fresh coconut water, sold in water or jelly varieties. Vendors chop off the outer husk to expose a drinking hole (use a straw as the juice stains clothing), and then hack the nut in two so you can scoop out the delicious jelly. You can also buy bottles of fresh coconut water in supermarkets.
Made from boiled tree bark, cloves and aniseed, reddish-brown (sometimes yellow) mauby is a wonderfully bitter still drink. Other unusual options include tart, deep cerise sorrel, enjoyed at Christmas with a dash of rum. Sea moss, a white and glutinous preparation made from sea moss and milk, is widely believed to enhance sexual performance; other stamina-inducing potions are the “bomb”, a blended concoction of Guinness, nutmeg and condensed milk or a carton of Supligen energy drink. Cinnamon- and nutmeg-infused carrot juice and peanut punch, blended with condensed milk, are a meal in themselves, sold from punch stalls across the islands.