Trinidadians love food – to eat food, cook food, share food. Trinis love nothing better than to lime over a good meal, enjoying food like they do company. That gives you some idea of the culinary culture Trinidad offers. Food, and sharing it with friends, is a favourite local pastime.
As diverse as the people and history are, the culinary landscape is almost beyond “fusion”, and just its own thing. Imagine the culinary traditions of four continents blended with Trinidadian flamboyance and handed down from generation to generation. The native Amerindians discovered how to remove the poison from cassava, made staples of corn, pineapples, guavas, pawpaw, avocadoes, and cocoa. Root tubers, pigeon peas, saltfish, callaloo, black pudding and souse were all inherited as “creole food” from local African descendants. The European plantation era ensured that citrus, mangoes, sugar cane, coffee and pickled things became part of the local culture, while the indentured Indians introduced more spices, curries and cooking skills from the east.
To see Trinidad’s “street food” featured on the US television series Bizarre Foods, click here to launch the first of six videos from that episode on YouTube!
Flavours from India, China, Africa, the Middle East and Spain complement recipes from across the Caribbean to create a truly cosmopolitan cuisine. From up-scale fine-dining establishments with elegant ambience and superb fare, to delicious street food, our ethnic diversity has given rise to many different places to eat.
Not surprisingly, then, there is an increasingly sophisticated restaurant culture in Trinidad, offering dining experiences where the atmosphere is as great a draw as the food. In recent times “Nuevo-Caribbean” establishments, whose speciality is Creole fusion dishes – blending local ingredients with haute cuisine techniques to create unique taste experiences. Especially on the outskirts of Port of Spain (Ariapita Avenue has become somewhat of a mecca), you’ll find exquisite places – Asian, American, Creole, European, Middle Eastern – often true to their themes but nuanced by Trinidadian influences. Tip: make reservations, especially for dinner.
The more laid-back experience, cheaper but equally tasty, is best sampled at home-style restaurants offering filling Creole food. Here ground provisions, macaroni pie, breadfruit oildown and rich stews mean you’ll certainly leave full.
Most of the fine dining restaurants are in and around Port of Spain, with others in the east and the south. Spanish, French, English, Indian, Chinese, American, Italian, Lebanese, Japanese, Thai—it’s all on the menu. Angelo’s offers delectable authentic Italian dining from Italian-born chef Angelo Cofone. The New York Times-featured Veni Mangé, meanwhile, offers some of the nation’s very best Creole cuisine. There are also more casual dining options for breakfast and lunch like Adam’s in Maraval.
Dinner menus are pricier than lunch menus, though fixed-price choices are becoming more common. A good three-course meal will run you about US$20–$40 per head at lunchtime. The dress code is casual (within reason); reservations are recommended as dining out has become more popular with locals (even during a recession!). A value-added tax (VAT) of 15% is added to bills, and sometimes a 10–15% service charge. If the service charge is included, you needn’t leave a tip, but certainly should (assuming the service is good) if it isn’t.
Some restaurants operate out of converted colonial houses, and are never short on ambience. If you don’t want anything too fancy, humbler restaurants serve more local cuisine, including the smart version called nouvelle cuisine, and Chinese restaurants are plentiful.
You can enjoy local and international cuisine at Battimamzelle (Cascade), Flair (Woodbrook), the Verandah (St. Clair) and Bougainvillea (Point Lisas). Indulge yourself with delicious pastries, desserts and coffees with spectacular views at the Caffe del Mare (Chaguaramas). Venues like Sweet Lime (Woodbrook) and Zanzibar (MovieTowne), meanwhile, offer varied menus while doubling as sports bars.
The modern Trinidadian taste favours a base of green seasoning: chives, onion, garlic, thyme, pepper, and chadon beni. Locally-made Angostura bitters is another favourite ingredient. Food often will be offered with hot pepper sauce and an array of condiments: garlic sauces, chutneys, pickled things, fresh salad toppings, even fruit. Trinis also put ketchup on most everything. But perhaps not in a fancy restaurant!
Some of the best and most distinctive food you’ll find is on the street. Doubles is a breakfast and post-party staple. Our world-famous roti is often imitated but seldom equalled, and is a must-try. For breakfast, sada roti with tomato or pumpkin choka, a variant on the regular dhalpouri and paratha roti served for lunch, is delicious. A roti with all the fixings can cost less than US$4, and a doubles less than US$1. Garnishes of curry mango and chutney are usually on hand (but be careful with the pepper if you’ve got a sensitive tongue or stomach).
At Maracas Bay, you’re missing a treat if you don’t tuck into a shark-and-bake* (or, for a more eco-friendly and sustainably-fished option, bake and catfish or bake and kingfish)—a round of fried dough stuffed with golden fried shark* or other fish and as many garnishes as you’re tempted to try. [*If you can, opt for the most sustainably produced fish, or a vegetarian option – some fish stocks are dangerously low in our local waters, and the balance of our eco-system at risk as a result]
Once night falls in St James, the streets are lined with food vendors: souse, roti, grilled fare, burgers, corn soup, doubles, ital food, home-made ice-cream. Head to central and south Trinidad for more East Indian savouries and sweets.
Corn soup, and corn-on-the-cob roasted on an open fire or boiled in a broth with local seasonings, are popular around the edge of the Queen’s Park Savannah. You can wash it down with some coconut water, or on a hot day cool off with some guava-flavoured syrup poured over a cup of shaved ice (a sno-cone).
Most street food is very safe to eat: vendors are required to display food badges from the Health Authority; but one street delicacy it’s wise to avoid is oysters.
Further down the food chain, international and local fast food operations are everywhere (Trinidad reputedly has the most KFC outlets per square mile in the world). But few visitors will have travelled to Trinidad in search of fried chicken, and in fact the local fast foods from beach and street vendors is far more interesting. Nevertheless, international fast food chains and local budget buffet restaurants offer large portions and quick service. But don’t expect much help here with a “low-carb” diet: once it’s got flour, cornmeal or rice, we’re in.
If you are trying to eat healthy, though, try Adam’s in Maraval and Subway outlets nationwide for lighter sandwiches, soups, and salads. Vegetarian visitors won’t have a hard time satisfying their hunger here. There are two major groups of vegetarians in Trinidad, devout Hindus and Rastafarians, and almost every restaurant has a selection of meatless dishes on its menu. If not, ask the chef to whip up something special for you — most will oblige happily.
Make sure to wash it all down with some freshly squeezed tropical punches (rum optional); a beastly cold, locally-brewed Carib or Stag; or some of the island’s fine rums, including the vintage Angostura 1919.