Traditional Trinidad Christmas

As always, it has been a hectic, whirlwind of a Christmas with numerous tasks that are truly a labour of love. The cooking, cleaning, shopping are all worth it to see the smiles on the faces of family members and friends and feel the warmth of what is still a magical time for me. OK, enough with the cliches and feelings and on to what you came here for - the food! :-)

Shoppers amidst the Christmas decorations
at The Falls, West Mall in West Moorings
Modern Trinbago Christmas for most, reflects some aspect of the trends (mainly American) of today's holiday cuisine: Roasted Turkey with Stuffing and Cranberry Sauce, Roasted Lamb and/or Pork, Smoked Chicken and Smoked Hams, however traditional elements are always present and it seems Christmas can't be Christmas here without them.

A piece of my 'Macaroni Pie'
Macaroni Pie: This is to us what Mac and Cheese is to Americans. We have it for any special occasion and for Sunday lunch. Its a staple that seems to never get old and everyone has a recipe variation of this baked 'pasta casserole' which of course, their Mom or Grandma makes best. Its basic ingredients are Pasta, cheese, butter and milk, layered or mixed together, topped with cheese (sometimes crushed crackers or breadcrumbs) and baked till liquid is gone but still moist. Some add eggs, some don't and how you season is up to you, but common is garlic, onion and prepared mustard.

Top view of our Top Pie
My recipe (still evolving) calls for either elbow macaroni or small shells, two kinds of cheese (sharp New Zealand cheddar and Parmesan reggiano), eggs, half and half and Dijon mustard, of course seasoned with garlic and oregano. I top with a mixture of Panko flakes, Parmesan cheese, garlic and smoked paprika mixed with a little olive oil.

Traditional Ham and Chow-Chow
Ham: There are local Christmas songs (many) dedicated to this element of our tradition (hey, its pork - could less be expected?) You must have Ham! The custom is salt cured with a good rippling of fat, kind of Ham. A country Ham, not smoked. Condiment of choice for this is a 'Chow-Chow': A savory, yellow pickled mixture of vegetables and/or fruit with vinegar and yellow mustard as the dominant flavors (English influenced). As part of a main meal or snack in between you have to have the Ham (I said that already didn't I, it's worth repeating). :-)

Pure Beef Pastelle made with White Cornmeal
Pastelle: Without a doubt a Spanish influenced Christmas staple! Seasoned cornmeal stuffed with meat, olives, capers and raisins, wrapped in banana leaves and steamed. Yum! Simple sounding but complexed in flavors and delicious. A good Pastelle is moist, the cornmeal outer layer thin (especially at the folded edges), meat grounded to an even consistency in texture and well seasoned, and not overly stuffed. Olives, raisins and capers included in the right amounts and not too greasy (oil or butter is used in preparing the cornmeal).

A Banana Leaf Wrapped Pastelle
Black Cake: Not to be confused with Spice or Rum cake common to many of the Caribbean Islands, our Black Cake is permeated with 'Browning': burnt brown sugar done just so as to not be bitter but produce a smoky flavor and color the cake a rich and very dark brown. Cherry Wine (usually cheap and sweet) soaked dried fruit (currants, prunes, cherries, orange peel etc.) incorporated with Rum (a lot of rum, so much so that the cake can last for months without refrigeration). 

Trinidad 'Black Cake' laden with Cherry Wine
Soaked Fruit and laced with Rum
Many good Restaurants offer special Christmas Menus with these standards incorporated, but for a taste of true Trinidad and Tobago tradition, home made and shared with ones you love is always the best. 
Visit the Belly in Hand Facebook page for more Trini Christmas love 2010: http://www.facebook.com/BellyinHand 


Lucha Libre San Diego, California

Though one can connect the South/Central American and Spanish influence in Trinidad & Tobago cuisine, the distinct tastes of Mexico are not common here and during my recent trip to San Diego, California, I wanted to learn more first hand about Mexican food. The plan was to cross the boarder into Mexico, but with recent escalating incidents of violence, I thought it best to not give my parents a heart attack and stay States side. :-)

Outside the Famous Shop in Mission Hills,
 San Diego
Please Place Your Order!
With my brother (the world traveller) as my guide, we visited a Taco shop which I thought would be typical and reflective of the main trends in American/Mexican fare that are so very popular in California. What I had the privilege to experience was something more, more in keeping with my culinary quests - some of the best. 

Almost Every Bite is a Different Combination of
Delicious Fillings
A Gourmet Burrito (Flour Tortilla that looks like a Roti)
Lucha Libre Taco Shop is anything but typical, first they are categorized as a ‘Gourmet’ Taco Shop and their combination of great food with the imagery of Lucha Libre - the colorful and entertaining Spanish/Mexican version of American wrestling puts this place on the map. They are famous! 

Committed to the Theme -
the Lucha Libre Decor
First giveaway, the line to order that on any given day is out the door. Next, the accolades which line the walls and are impressive given this place opened its doors in 2008. They have been mentioned and featured in many magazines, newspapers and guides and in June of this year Adam Richmen visited and shared with the many fans of Man v. Food why this place is the best. 

It May Look Messy - Messy Delicious;
Inside Peek at the Surfin' California
Fillings of the Surf & Turf Burrito (with Rice) 
The menu is short, in my experience I have found that to be a positive; they do a few things really well, perfecting it, not a laundry list of anything anyone may ask for. Tacos, Burritos, Quesadillas and five specialty items. Check out their menu for yourself http://www.tacosmackdown.com/menu.htm and see even by description how amazingly complexed, layered, colorful and delicious the components and items are.

Salsa and Corn Tortillas
I Could Just Drink the Green One (container to head) :-)
Deep rich sauces like Mole (pronounced Mo-lay); dark reddish brown with chilies and chocolate served over meat, Serrano sauces with immense flavor for the shrimp and chicken, Pico de Gallo (Salsa Fresca) on everything and Adobaba (oh Adobada!) Pork marinated in red chili sauce with vinegar and oregano (to name but two of the herbs expertly used). 

In Keeping with the Scheme of the Decor,
the Champions Booth is Understated and Tame
Everything here is good, but I would advise a gourmet Burrito be tried at least once in a lifetime. The Surfin’ California is awesome in both size and flavor with a secret Chipotle Sauce, this wrap is chocked full of grilled Steak, Shrimp, Avocado, Cheese and Fries (yes, French Fries). The Surf & Turf Burrito is similar but includes rice bursting with authentic Mexican spices. 

Great Artwork Everywhere Especially in the Bathrooms

The themed decor is truly original with Lucha Libre masks all around, the seats of chairs, the walls and in the art adorning even the restrooms. 

Hey, You Have to Keep it Authentic with a Mexican Soda
So if ever you are in San Diego, look this place up for some great food, lasting memories and the chance to say you had one of the best Burritos ever!

Visit my Facebook page for more pictures and Lucha Libre details: http://www.facebook.com/BellyinHand


Want Sushi?

In the heart of the capital is a restaurant lined with grapevines, where the Parisian styled Bistro outdoor seating keeps you in step with the rhythm of lively Ariapita Avenue and one of its two bars serve something more than drinks.

If you want Sushi, to me this is the place to get it any day of the week.

Pieces of their Red Wine Roll
With a number of places serving Sushi in Trinidad (and growing), More Vino / More Sushi located towards the Western end of Ariapita Avenue in Port of Spain is one of the popular and more vibrant places to eat and hang out. It has also been my favorite casual dining restaurant of the last year. Why? Consistently fresh and well prepared Sushi.

GrapeVine Lined Entrance
Another Amazing More Sushi Creation
Sushi is one of my all time favorites. I crave it, have (and will) travel far for it - I mean like have taken a plane with the sole purpose of getting it (I kid you not) and have enjoyed many a week where a sushi meal has been had at least twice. Its one of those things I seek out to sample in every large city, in every corner of the world I visit. And no, raw fish does not taste the same every where. :-)

Executive Chef Shiyo Jujin 
sharpening his Masamoto Sushi Knife
 Their Lobster Roll (Yum!)
At More Sushi, the interesting variety of well made signature rolls (together with the usual suspects) and the inviting atmosphere is what brings me back again and again. Executive Chef Shiyo Jujin is approachable, knowledgable and warm, he and most of the other Chefs will answer silly sushi related questions and engage in polite conversation while remaining skillfully diligent at an art Chef Jujin says takes decades to perfect.

Sweet and Savory Teriyaki Chicken
Squid Salad - Light and Fresh
Sushi is something relatively new to our culture which tends to cook the heck out of our proteins. It is fairly popular, particularly with the younger crowd but to the older folks, like my parents, the concept is still too alien to truly embrace. Salmon is by far the Trinibagonian favorite, as sashimi or incorporated into rolls. As an appreciation for the good stuff is beginning to develop, people here are being turned on to Tuna, Scallops and Octopus, to name a few of the many seafoods used in this type of Japanese cuisine.

The Very Popular Iron Chef Roll: Salmon, Crab Salad, 
Japanese Mayo, Rice Ball and Fish Roe
One of the Lunch Bento Selections: 
Teriyaki, Sushi, Tempura and Salad
More Sushi's offering of cooked rolls like the Strictly Shrimp - Breaded Shrimp, Cream Cheese, Curry Mayo, Poached Shrimp with Chives rolled in rice or the Spider Roll  -  Fried Soft Shell Crab and Spicy Chilly Sauce, could satisfy the Sushi novice as well as the enthusiast. Rolls created for Trinis are also  good, like the Maracas Roll with Jalapenos and Dynamite Sauce and the Plantain Roll with sweet Fried Plantains sliced and artfully incorporated (very pretty to look at as well).

Octopus and Scallops on the menu and display
My passion for the Japanese national favorite can spur me to write incessantly, but I'll close here with a promise to revisit and share more of not only the delights of More Sushi, but what I have learned from my quest to better respect, savor and taste Sushi.

Miso - Japanese Soup with Fish Stock, 
Seaweed and Tofu
Sushi Bar at More Sushi

More Sushi has been in operation for over 2 years sharing the More Vino establishment and has a 'take out' outlet at the Piarco International Airport. Check out their Facebook page for more info at: http://www.facebook.com/moresushi and enjoy.


Professional Culinary Classics 2010

Events such as these do our little islands proud by featuring the passion, skill and creativity Trinbagonians have for food.

Stuffed Chicken Breast presented by the team of Comedians
Hosted by the Trinidad and Tobago Group of Professional Associations (TTGPA) and under the distinguished patronage of His Excellency Professor George Maxwell Richards, TC, CMT, Ph.D President of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, the Professional Culinary Classics 2010 delivered outstanding food and a great time for participants and attendees alike.

Bar-B-Qued Pig Tails and Traditional Curried Duck
from the Safety Council Team
The Dapper Crowd filling all seats 
at this year's Event
Sixteen teams presented main dishes competing for Best Display, Chef of the Year, People's Choice and Overall Winners. Their chosen themes were resourcefully expressed in the titles and ingredients of their dishes like NIHERSTS' 'Science Makes it Delicious' with offerings of 'Atomic Duck', 'Galactic Fish' and 'Lamb Proton.' The 'Atomic Duck' was a flavorful curried duck with a kick.
Meat Stews, moist Fried Fish and Stuffed Pork Loin
from the School of Higher Education

The Caribbean Institute of Forensic Accounting with their theme of 'Curry Bobol' (Bobol is local parlance for scandal) with dishes like 'Stanforde Chicken,' 'Guanapo Pork' and 'Made-Off Goat' (hilarious) were popular that night. All rich local curries spiced just right.

Caribbean Institute of Forensic Accounting
with an All Curry Menu
Creative names and fun aside, this skillfully coordinated and well attended occasion (over 800 patrons) showcased culinary talent of an incredible calibre. Deserving mention; the Association of Doctors' 'Cosmetic Lamb' with its deep well balanced taste, the Association of Real Estate Agents with a Hawaiian theme and Guava Glazed Baby Back Ribs - the perfect balance of sweet and savory along with TRINRE's Mahi-Mahi, Salmon and Shrimp fare, all simply blissful.

TRINRE team's Amazing Salmon
It was difficult deciding what to eat that night, if you were smart, while sampling fine wine from the AMCO wine station, beer from the Heineken booth or having a premium drink from the bar, you ambled around and viewed the competitor's stations and had a look into the veggie, carbs and dessert booths located at either end of the auditorium. When time came to dine, you would have formulated a scrumptiously winning game plan for which of the three entrĂ©es you would sample and know where to acquire the veggies, carbs and desserts to tickle your fancy.

Did someone say Drinks? A great Bar all night

This annual affair was designed to strengthen the camaraderie among the professionals and their associations and as a fund raiser. The fundraising goal being to improve the capacity of the TTGPA to work with government, private and community based organizations towards the achievement of Millennium Development Goals, including the eradication of poverty.

Juicy Guava Glazed Baby Back Ribs from the
Association of Real Estate Agents
Though many hours of strategizing and planning must have gone into the team's meat dishes, Dessert was no after thought, I had Ice Cream and Coffee from respective stations with Cakes and Pastries (courtesy the Hyatt Regency Trinidad) to savor while soaking in the live entertainment on stage.

Many colorful and flavorful
Salads to choose from

This deliciously successful affair held on November 13 at the Center of Excellence, Macoya Trinidad has undoubtedly helped the Professional Culinary Classics (PCC) earn a premium place in the Annual Culinary Calendar of Trinidad and Tobago. The TTGPA plans on hosting other food and drink related events during the year leading up to the PCC 2011, and I look forward in eager anticipation of their announcement.

His Excellency presenting the Overall Winner's
to the TRINRE Team

PCC 2010 Winners: 
  • Best Display - Association of Real Estate Agents "Real Hawaiian Delight"
  • Chef of the Year - NIHERST "Lamb Proton"
  • People's Choice - Association of Real Estate Agents
  • Overall Winners - TRINRE "When Sea Food Comes Sailing In"
More comprehensive Belly in Hand coverage here; I really had fun at this event :-) 



Food and the Festival of Light

Diwali excites me. Every year as members of the Hindu community rush around preparing for this important five day Festival, I, like many non Hindu Trinidadians prepare to take part in the cuisine and sharing that is the Festival of Light.

Curries of all kind, traditional Hindu breads and sweets and gatherings planned in intricate detail ensure this public holiday is marked in style and appetites, whetted in year long anticipation are satisfied.

Inside 'The Little Store' Pooja Shop, Curepe Trinidad
A few Bottled Curries from my Pantry

Around this time, I am reminded how lucky I am as a Trinidadian, to grow up with and share these customs and how easily available the rich flavors of India have become. Pooja shops abound all over this country and in the days leading up to Diwali, they are insanely busy. Filled with authentic items from all over India, many visit these shops year-round for kitchen and household goods, clothes, spices, food and prayer related items.

Painted Diyas on Sale in Curepe
Ornate Diyas at My Home

The traditional lighting of diyas remain a sight to behold; glowing clay bowls filled with coconut oil and cotton wicks, arranged in simple rows or elaborate designs on wire or bamboo frames. The lighting of diyas (plain or ornate) symbolizes the reign of light over darkness in commemoration of the return of the Hindu Lord Rama from a fourteen year exile and the vanquishing of the demon-king Ravana.

Steaming Hot Spinach in Coconut Milk
Yellow Split Pea Dhal

Cooking lunch on Diwali for friends and family brings me such joy every year, then later tasting Diwali delights someone else has prepared - even more so. This year my menu was Bodi and Pumpkin Korma, Spinach with coconut milk, Split Pea Dhal, Coconut Rice with Raisins and simple Cucumber Salad.

Slivers of Cucumber and Onion with
Salt, Lime, Crushed Garlic and Pepper
Bodi and Pumpkin Korma

I consider myself a true 'meat mouth' but for Diwali I keep it vegetarian and a few tricks ensure I am always satisfied. I include ingredients like imitation bacon bits (just a little) to cooked greens as I turn off the heat - my usual way to cook greens begins with rendering the fat from pancetta or bacon. I use coconut milk and wet curries so sauces are thick and gravy like. I deepen flavors by roasting cumin and grinding to add to Dhals along with pinches of cinnamon and nutmeg. Large golden raisins make a meaty addition to rice and help balance some sweet with the savory.

Coconut Jasmine Rice with Golden Raisin
Tonight, when I bask in the glow of diyas and the comfort of family, friends and Hindu tradition I will smile, grateful for the continued experience of living peacefully in a rich and diverse Nation, steeped in a food culture.

Shubh Diwali (Happy Diwali).