Trinidad and Tobago (aka T&T) proved to be another kind of T&T, trials and tribulations, when it came to eating out. I vacationed there with my boyfriend in January 2015 for 10 days. We endured a lot of challenges from the start of the trip until nearly the end of the trip. All of these challenges chalked up to an interesting vacation experience overall that has given us laughs and certainly a lot of unique memories to share.
Why did you choose Trinidad and Tobago? you might be asking. For starts, anyone who has wintered in Seattle understands why residents want to escape to a warm, sunny destination between the months of November through March. I had been to several islands in the Caribbean already and sought a new experience instead of repeating a former destination. When I was research vacation options, a Hotwire travel package for our airfare and hotel nights proved a cost-effective incentive to check out the southern-most island of the Lesser Antilles.
We arrived in the capitol city of Port-of-Spain on the island of Trinidad on New Year’s Eve, just in time to enjoy a night of celebration and ring in the New Year 2015 in a country other than the United States. Trinidad & Tobago are not heavily touristed islands in general, so we enjoyed the fact that we would not have to deal with crowds much and could also get as local an experience as possible. Did we ever!
Due to the holiday season for both Christmas and New Year’s, most everything on the island was shut-down in the way of restaurants, retail stores, and other local businesses for pretty much the first half of our vacation. Breakfast was included at our hotel but we struggled to find local food for lunch and dinner the first several days. I recall a depressing night in a sad Asian cafe with very lackluster Beef and Broccoli. Asking the hotel staff for recommendations yielded their suggestions for a steakhouse and an Italian restaurant. We get that food in America, we want local! We’ve read about roti and doubles and curries and callaloo and pelau. Where is it?
The first full work-week starting January 5th arrived along with business doors re-opening. Local villages around the island regained their hustle and bustle as a flurry of residents chatted with friends and queued up at street food vendors. One of our taxi drivers, Prince, took us through the town of Arima where we were christened with our first doubles. We didn’t quite know what to expect, other than the smells wafting from the canopied vendor guaranteed deliciousness. Doubles consists of sandwiches (more taco-like) made of fried flat bread filled with a creamy, curried channa (chickpea) mixture to which you can add mango, coconut, chadon beni (like a cilantro sauce), or a pepper sauce. Of course there were varying levels of pepper sauce. One order of doubles includes 2 sandwiches, hence the name. You might think one is for yourself and one is for sharing, but your first bite will make you want to eat both sandwiches yourself! I think we ate doubles on at least 4 total occasions that week, including as a late-night snack when we saw a local guy set up an impromptu doubles cart on a side street corner downtown. Even a passing rain shower didn’t stop anyone! Mitch popped open an umbrella over his cart to protect his food, we huddled under a tree, and waited a couple minutes to resume the line for Trinidad comfort food.
Other street food highlights during that last week of our stay included “Bake and Shark” at the popular-with-locals Maracas Beach. Bake and Shark is a fried piece of bread (the Bake) with fried shark (the Shark) as your sandwich filling. Before frying, the shark is marinated in lemon, onion, garlic, and pepper. You have the option to enhance your sandwich with lettuce, tomato, onions, and various pepper sauces from the nearby communal condiment counter. As pictured, to my meal I added sliced cucumbers on the side as well as marinated tamarind pods. Pop open a Stag Lager, listen to the crashing waves nearby, and life is good!
Speaking of crashing waves, I’ll never forget the first time I was truly sea-sick. I consider myself to have good sea legs and not be prone to nausea since I’ve cruised on so many occasions over the years. Cruising on a major ocean-liner vessel and sailing on a local ferry across open waters from island-to-island are very different situations though. The waters between Trinidad and Tobago were especially choppy on the particular day that we chose to sail for an overnight getaway. We knew it was bad when the ferry workers, accustomed to making this trip regularly, were sitting down and held plastic bags nearby. The typical 3-hour crossing north took nearly 5 hours that day, complete with heaving and side-to-side lurches of the boat that made many lose their lunch.
Our time in Tobago was spent circumnavigating the island, chasing one beautiful beach after another. Tobago is definitely the better location for beaches than the neighboring Trinidad. At one of the most famous beaches, Englishman’s Bay, we enjoyed our first “Buss Up Shut.” This is a particular type of roti meal (paratha roti) that came with a freshly-grill piece of swordfish, curried chickpeas and poatoes, creamed spinach, and shredded dough-y bread. The shredded bread is what gives this meal its “slang name” of Buss Up Shut. That’s basically pigeon-speak referencing a torn, busted-up shirt.
Trinis know how to “lime” (relax) with refreshing beverages. In fact, Angostura Bitters is from Trinidad! I had heard of and used bitters before, but didn’t know the House of Angostura factory was located in Laventille, just east of the capitol city. We signed up for the factory tour, which took the better part of a half-day and concluded, not surprisingly, in a tasting room with dozens of rums to sample. Oh happy day on a tropical island! For a non-alcoholic option, we kicked back on our hotel patio with a cold, refreshing LLB. “Lime Like a Boss!” This drink is made with lemonade (or a sparkling lemonade), lime cordial, and bitters. Of course, it doesn’t take too long before you enhance your drink with the primo rum you just purchased.
The restaurant-scene in Port-of-Spain redeemed itself when we were able to get into Chaud Cafe and the delightful Veni Mangé on the final nights before our vacation ended. Veni Mangé’s owner, Rosemary, was a gem! She welcomed us warmly and, upon hearing of my personal chef business in Seattle, fed us like family with a selection of classic West Indian dishes enhanced with Caribbean flair.
Just like the restaurant’s name, the island nation Trinidad & Tobago encourages travelers to “come and eat”. A vibrant culinary culture will tantalize your taste buds and leave you craving for more.
Luckily, in Seattle, we have since scouted out Pam’s Kitchen, the one and only Trini restaurant in our city that satisfies our appetite for an exotic taste of the tropics.