Curry Tattoo: A Tribute to the Cuisine of Trinidad
In 1998, when my husband and I moved to San Francisco, “fusion” cuisine was all the rage. This meant the surprisingly delicious syncretism of Asian, Latin, and European cuisines culminating in such unlikely combinations as tuna sashimi tostada napoleons with wasabi cream. This type of fusion, while tasty, has gradually faded away, partly because it’s so hard to get a handle on it.
You want to know real fusion? Try some curry tattoo. Curry, as in the spice blends which originated in India and are as idiosyncratic as its creator’s fingerprint. Tattoo, not as in body art, but as the local Caribbean name for armadillo. Yes, armadillo in curry. Does this really exist?
My then future mother-in-law (herself a Chinese immigrant to Trinidad from Canton) served me some curry tattoo on my first trip to my husband’s home. Despite having recently completed a vegetarian phase, and despite the still visible markings on the flesh of the armadillo’s bony plates, I tasted it. You could call it a taste test, under my mother-in-law’s watchful gaze, with the emphasis on “test.” This taste was the beginning of what was, on that visit to my husband’s home village, Fifth Company Village, in the South of Trinidad, an eye-opening journey to a land of fusion. Trinidad is full of hybrids in music (calypso, soca, steel band); people (mainly Afro-Caribbean descendants of slaves, descendants of indentured laborers from India, descendants of British plantation owners, a sprinkling of Chinese shop owners, and myriad combinations of the above and more); and food. The local patois, too, is a hybrid of English with the inflections of the island’s diverse residents and of its proximity to South America. As I see it, the two unifying forces in the diverse populace are a love of music, and above all, food. On this trip, which happened over Christmas time, I basically was led from home to home, eating a full meal at each stop. My favorite stop was at Auntie Doll’s. Auntie Doll, my husband’s Indian great aunt, must be one of the finest cooks in Trinidad. She brought out plate after plate of curried dishes (chicken, goat); condiments (kuchila, a green mango pickle; tamarind sauce; and pepper sauce (made of the local fiery Scotch Bonnet peppers); Caribbean dishes (banana leaf-wrapped pastelles, similar to tamales, but with a savory-sweet filling of minced meat, olives, and raisins; pelau, chicken with pigeon peas and rice); and sorrel, a drink brewed from dried hibiscus flowers, or what is known as Jamaica in Mexico. All of this bounty was lovingly homemade. After lunch, I sat down with Uncle to hear stories of my husband’s childhood. The stories were mesmerizing, so much so that I fell asleep…
As an Asian American born in Kentucky and raised on Long Island, I had barely heard of Trinidad before I met my husband. But over the years, I have learned to cook many of his national dishes, including Trinidadian style curries (only chicken, no more tattoo for me, thanks), pelau, sorrel, and pastelles. So when I think of a special meal to cook for my husband, these are the dishes that make the list.
A lapsed vegetarian eating armadillo? Learning to savor and cook the previously unimaginable tastes of my husband’s childhood? If this does not spell love, I don’t know what would.
Trinidad-style Chicken Curry
Curry lovers will find the Trinidadian-style curry to be quite different from Indian or Southeast Asian curries in that no coconut milk or cream is added to the sauce. The result is a more intense curry flavor and a thinner sauce.
-2-3 # of meat on the bone, cut in 2”-3” chunks: can be chicken (only dark meat), goat, or even tattoo if you’ve got some
-Curry powder, Trinidad blend if at all possible
-Rum, such as Trinidad’s Vat 19
-Green seasoning (a homemade blend of various herbs including cilantro, culantro, chives and others)
-Pepper sauce (Scotch bonnet or habanero)
-Garlic, 2-3 cloves, minced
-1 Onion, coarsely chopped
-3 Potatoes, cubed
1. Marinate cut up meat in rum, green seasoning, salt pepper, pepper sauce, garlic, and onions, all to taste, for at least an hour and up to a day in advance.
2. Saute marinated meat in a hot pan with copious oil. Brown on both sides. Once meat is browned, add potatoes and continue to stir.
3. Stir curry powder- a few tablespoons up to ¼ cup- with enough water to make a pourable thick slurry. Add to the browned meat and stir.
4. Lower heat and add water to cover. Simmer until well cooked, like a stew.
Serve with an Indian flatbread, or roti, of your choice. Curries in Trinidad are served with either dhalpourie roti, which is distinctively filled with dried, ground chick peas, or paratha, a multilayered, buttery flatbread. Both are difficult to obtain outside of Trinidad. You can substitute naan or paratha from your local Indian or Pakistani place. The way you eat this is to wrap the roti around some of your curry filling, and eat it like a burrito. The curry can also be eaten with rice. Wash it down with sorrel or Carib beer. Play some calypso, soca or steel band in the background, and enjoy your fete.
1-1/2 cups dried hibiscus/sorrel/jamaica flowers (available at Latin and Caribbean markets)
Water, 3 quarts
Sugar, to taste
My secret ingredients: cinnamon stick, star anise
Auntie Doll’s secret ingredient: brandy to taste
Bring sorrel, spices, and water to a boil. Add sugar to taste. Simmer until you have a beverage the color of cranberry juice. Add brandy to taste, if you like. Strain, and serve over ice.
© Linda Shiue, 2010