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Evolution of Indian cuisine

Sunday, May 13, 2012
An Indo-Trinidadian woman preparing a meal from paper bags of issued estate provisions. Drawing by Rudolph Bissessarsingh

Anyone from T&T who has dined on authentic Indian dishes,  immediately realises that Indo-Trinidadian cooking is a Caribbean experience all on its own and owes as much to its evolution in the west as its origins in the east. Shortly after the arrival of Indian Indentured Immigrants  as a source of cheap, reliable labour, Trinidad’s Colonial Government, under Lord Harris (1846-54), realised that the newcomers had by necessity, to be fed on food that they were accustomed to in India or else they would suffer malnutrition.


Thus, large quantities of foodstuff began arriving in the colony. Paddy rice (Trinidad was already familiar with creole hill rice or red rice, grown by ex-American black soldiers of the  Company Villages), split peas (dhal), ghee, and curry spices, all originally sourced exclusively for the Indians, began to find their way into shops and soon formed a foundational part of the national cuisine.


For new Indo-Trinidadians, the commissary of their assigned estates was supposed to supply them with food rations and clothing for the first year of their five-year contract. This mandatory regulation was often ignored, and some unscrupulous planters even deducted the cost of the rations from the pittance paid to the Indians. Strictly speaking, the standard allowance was as followed: For every male over 18 years of age per month: 45lbs of rice, 9lbs dhal, 1/4 gallon ghee or coconut oil, 1 1/2 lbs salt, 6 lbs saltfish, 2 lbs onions and chilliest. Women and children received half the rations of men.


At the depot for incoming Indians (up to 1917) at Nelson Island, provisions for the transients consisted of rice, pumpkin, freshly-slaughtered mutton, and chapattis. Most estates allowed the Indians provision grounds to supplement the rations. Where garden plots were allotted, and on small homesteads after their contracts expired, the immigrants grew an abundance of food, which by the 1880s had made them the primary source of vegetables, root crops and milk in the island.



Mangoes were a key ingredient, originating of course in India, as were several varieties of squash, including jhingee and lowkie. By infusing the bare ingredients of the commissariat issue with curry and adding the bounty of the vegetable gardens, wholesome talkarees were created.


These were largely enjoyed only by the Indo-Trinidadian community as good, hearty peasant fare until the advent of the roti-shop in the 1940s. With the coming of thousands of American soldiers to the army and airforce bases on the island, roti and curry found a new and enthusiastic connoisseur.



Perhaps the greatest example of cultural fusion and the flagship of Indo-Trinidadian food is the ubiquitous doubles, which was born in the 1940s when an enterprising vendor named Mr Ali combined curried chickpeas (channa) with two fried dough slices (bara) and gave Trinidad and Tobago its staple fast food.


Today, roti, doubles and other Indo-Trini fare has spread to Europe and America through the diaspora, and remains as wildly popular as ever.


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