Mention “Indian cuisine” and your mind probably turns to drool-inducing images of chicken tandoori, chana masala curry, dhal, and roti bread.
But many of these dishes can also be found in Trinidadian cooking, using similar ingredients and techniques but with a Caribbean influence.
It all goes back to the British Empire. During the 19th century, many Indians chose to become indentured servants rather than endure the poverty and famine engulfing their country at the time. The colonial powers sent them to work on plantation sugar crops in Africa and the Caribbean—Trinidad included.
“Many of them ended up staying there,” explains David Parey, one of the owners of Trinidadian restaurant Roti Joupa in Clapham, London. “They brought with them their culture and their customs, but they couldn’t always get the same ingredients as they could back in India. They had to make do with what they had down there, that’s why you’ll find that the food is similar in name but the ingredients and the taste are a little bit different.”
Parey’s restaurant is a testimony to this Indian influence on Caribbean cuisine. Known for its authentic Trinidadian food, the menu spans roti, bhaji, and curry aloo. When I arrive, two women are collecting a mountainous order to take back home to the suburbs.
Although “roti” comes from a Hindi word meaning “bread,” Trinidadian roti is more than wheat and water. Roti Joupa pack theirs with curried goat, curry aloo, or chicken, before folding it into a square, burrito-like parcel. They also offer a “buss up shot,” made from shredded bread.
“It’s basically a paratha [a type of flatbread] but it’s ‘buss up’—broken up into pieces,” explains Parey.
He also tells me that many customers don’t realise the extent of Indian migration’s influence on Trinidadian food.
“Some people come in and are surprised to see Indian food on the menu,” says Parey. “They think Caribbean food is just rice and peas and brown stew chicken.”
But what are the main differences between Indian and Trinidadian food? As I join Parey in the kitchen, chef Savi explains.
“It’s the use of Scotch bonnet peppers in the food,” she says. “Indian restaurants wouldn’t use that in their food.”
With its nutty flavour and slow burn, the pepper is certainly difficult to mistake. It also infuses another Roti Joupa dish, “doubles”—although Parey tells me this one is uniquely Trinidadian.
“Doubles is the most popular food in Trinidad—quick healthy food,” says Parey. “It’s a bara which is very much like a puri [a small Indian bread] split in two and filled with chana.”
Although effectively hollow, puri puffs up when fried and acts as a kind of wheat-y sack for fillings. In the case of doubles, the bread is ripped open and stuffed with chana and tamarind sauce.
“I’ve met people who’ve gone on holiday over there [Trinidad] and they come back to England and they can’t find them in many other places,” adds Parey.
It’s easy to see why you’d attempt to track doubles down back home. As I bite into the parcel, the Scotch bonnet’s deep heat creeps through the chana, encompassed by perfectly crispy puri.
I finish my double pretty quickly and order a roti with chana to take home, but not without a thought for those 19th century Indian workers, faithfully recreating favourite dishes in their new Trinidadian home.