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Singular Diversity

Trinidadian history explains the extreme diversity of flavors on the menu at Trin-B'Ago


ith the opening of Trin-B'Ago in June, Elizabeth Martinez began dividing her time between working as a traveling nurse practitioner and as a full-time restaurant owner. Her business, located on Fayetteville Street in Durham in view of both the downtown tobacco warehouses and N.C. Central University, offers diners a chance to sample the unique, multicultural mix that makes up Trinidadian cuisine.

Following what has for some time been a steady migration of Trinidadians to North America, Martinez and her husband, James, immigrated to Toronto in 1982. After several years there and a short stint in Germantown, Md., Elizabeth accepted recruitment by Duke University in 1992 and headed south.

Although she was happy to discover when she arrived that there was already in this region a healthy and growing population of fellow Trinidadians, Martinez swiftly points out that it was not these compatriots she was considering in her business plan for Trin-B'Ago. "Of course this place is for people from the Caribbean, but mostly it is for Americans," she says. "I want to bring the Caribbean to Americans."

Martinez describes the menu at Trin-B'Ago as multicultural, but to say that seems somehow inadequate. But then, what else could it be? This is a nation that, although the principal tongue is English, has 14 different languages jostling together on an island just a little smaller than the state of Delaware. It's a cultural compression chamber.

All of the cooks at Trin-B'Ago are Trinidadian, which is evident in both the chirpy sonority of their accents and the fluidity with which they work in the kitchen, without consulting recipes or using measuring spoons or cups.

Glancing up and down the menu, the rich history, as revealed in the names of the dishes, may cause some difficulty. Fourteen languages means you may have as many as 14 possible expressions that translate into "curried chicken sandwich." Conversely and by way of simplification, everything that is pasta in Trinidad is called "macaroni."

Martinez's menu features chicken linguine, sada roti, barbecue, Spanish rice, ox-tail stew, fried beef turnovers, shrimp in lemon-garlic sauce and numerous sides representing organic post-Columbian Caribbean inventions. To lend some depth and shading to the menu it is necessary at least to bounce in a glossy fashion over the remarkable history of this tiny country.

rinidad and Tobago are now joined in one nation state, Trinidad, but have, through ceaseless meddling from the colonial powers of Europe, histories that diverge the more you trace them back. Trinidad was, at the time of its settlement by Spaniards shortly after Columbus's discovery of the new world, peopled by two primary Amerindian groups: the Arawaks and the Caribes. A Spanish captain who, on a visit to Trinidad in 1516, took the liberty of forcibly enslaving between 180 and 200 natives and saw to it that any who put up resistance were burned alive, returned to San Juan and explained that he had never before met Indians "so kind and ready with assistance as those in the Isle of Trinidad." Although this offense was even then criticized as dastardly, such type of behavior set an oppressive pattern that aided Spain in holding on to the country for 300 years.

An Amerindian revolt in 1699--which included the bloody deaths of many missionaries and colonial administrators and ended in the not-surprising exertion of force and vengeance of Spanish military might--brought about the country's first major ethnographic shift. A byproduct of this uprising was that the Spanish, in a sudden humanitarian streak, set down a code that forbade enslaving Amerindians. This left the colony in a frantic rush to find a new labor supply, so the government immediately began importing slaves from the West Coast of Africa. Thus began large-scale sugar and tobacco cultivation in Trinidad, but still, the Spanish bothered little about the island, as the kingdom's eyes were fastened maniacally on the possibility of gold in Central and South America.

England had also set colonial eyes on Trinidad but did not win control of the country until 1797 after about a century in which the Spanish and French fought over the colony.

England did not have Trinidad for long before it abolished slavery in its colonies and suddenly realized it would need to find another cheap labor supply. Why was Trinidad so important to the crown? The industrial revolution, the sooty underside of the Edwardian and Victorian eras in England, generated a need for vast amounts of sugar--for how else to keep those unfortunates pulling double shifts in the mills and factories but by loading down their afternoon tea with sugar, cookies and glazes? As output rose in the factories, the burden of sugar production in the Caribbean increased and in Trinidad a new supply of labor to help fill that demand was found not in the West Indies, but in the indentured servitude of East Indians from the crown colony of India itself.

Tobago was not coveted for development or industry but it was still the object of colonial scrambling. The Spanish, living in constant dread of an attack on Trinidad from Tobago, built a settlement in the latter country, put up their flag and left it to be razed by the Dutch. The Dutch then built their settlement, hoisted a flag and left that to be demolished by the English. Settlements under the Union Jack were then disposed of by the French. These struggles lasted well over a hundred years and kept Tobago from being developed until it officially became part of the British empire--and Trinidad--in the 19th century.

With this history behind them the islands continued to receive immigrants from various countries well into the 20th century, with Greece, Scotland, Italy and India among the major depositors.

rom this shifting colonial and ethnographic history comes the unique Trinidadian cuisine--a cuisine that combines flavors of Amerindia, Africa and East India. In developing the menu at Trin-B'Ago Martinez asked herself how to present this complicated culinary culture to Americans. Her first move, an astute one, was to accommodate the philistine who seems to tag along on every business lunch who will not eat anything that is not beef between two pieces of bread with cheese on it. Thus, you get a Philly cheese steak sandwich and several Caribbean style hamburgers on the lunch menu.

Leaving behind the lows one must stoop to for commerce, Martinez has added several other sandwiches with regional character: the pork rib wish, a fried shark or catfish sandwich and a honey-glazed barbecue chicken breast sandwich. In the sandwich vein, too, on the lunch menu is a roti, a Trinidadian staple of Indian origins featuring a tight wrap of grilled dough surrounding either an evenly spiced and juicy curried chicken, or stewed beef, goat, shrimp, or a vegetable melange.

A couple of barbecues are present--but this is not the standard notion of barbecue. Still, because barbecue originated in the Caribbean, we cannot decry the use of the word when applied to the dishes you see here: marinated, parboiled and grilled chicken or pork. Close cousins are jerk chicken and jerk pork, a spicy style well-known throughout the entire Caribbean region.

You will most likely find Trin-B'Ago's menu too large, too diverse, and too exotic to make a quick decision on your first go. Hang onto it while you dine and don't be afraid to ask questions. Point and try to pronounce and you'll probably be met with patience and enthusiasm. If, after a short lecture on the food from the staff, you still don't know exactly what the food is, come back and try again.

As the national cuisine is a hybrid of Amerindian and Indian, among other things, most of the dishes have peppers figured in. By way of accommodating the general timidity of the American palate when it comes to spiciness, Martinez has cranked down the pepper quotient in most of her dishes. Trin-B'Ago does keep on hand a nice homemade hot sauce, a blend of habañeros and scotch bonnets that, through volume control, can please those of us who like to sweat while eating.

As Trinidad is possibly most well-known for its carnival celebration, which lasts for several weeks in the winter, it's a safe assumption that this is a cuisine that has made an art form out of party punches. On Trin-B'Ago's menu, several festive punches are available, the likes of which, it is safe to say, few of us have ever tasted before. The sorrel is a homegrown flower that, as it blooms in the tropical winter and is reddish in color, is associated with Christmas. Because the punch, also called sorrel, may be made from the dried flowers, this drink, with a bite of tannins to the top of the tongue, a tangy aftertaste and a gingery spice, will be available at Trin-B'Ago year round.

There is a sweet and frothy banana purée with milk and nutmeg, distant from a smoothie in its drinkability which, although something of a dessert drink is still subtle enough to be a viable option for washing down a meal. The advised style of consumption is sipping, for this as well as for the mauby, which is a vaguely fruity, sharp, and slightly bitter beverage made from tree bark.

In looking closely at the menu at Trin-B'Ago it becomes apparent that the cuisine is a cross-section swatch of an island that is highly acculturated, but which retains the integrity of the cultures which contributed to the melange. In the Indian region of Carpachaima, for example, the massala is still massala and the curry still curry. Down on the beach at Blanche Cheres the fish is baked in similar fashion to other seaside regions of the West Indies. Although the African influence is spread throughout the island, from the cocoa estates of Brasso Seco to the urban northern coast of La Ventille, dishes from these places, too, remain distinct in their inheritance. The result, then, and one well-expressed by Martinez in her menu, is a poetic juxtaposition of the associations borne by each place name, each dish. As the Caribbean Nobel laureate poet Derek Walcott, who now resides in Trinidad and Boston, wrote, "Any island would drive you crazy." Much the same may be said for the cooking--but "crazy," it should be amended, in a good way.


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