Back To Bihar In Trinidad’s Stirring Food Nostalgia

 

Spellings and presentation have evolved, but recipes inspired by Biharis here remain Bihari in soul. 

By Preeti Verma Lal 

In Port of Spain, people can sniff the Bihari in me, and I, a Bihari, or Bihari-inspired dish. “Are you a Bihari?,” asks a woman wearing orange sindoor in her parted hair. “It is dal, not dhal. It is phulouri not phoulorie”. In Trinidad’s Santa Cruz Green Market famous for its Sunday breakfast, I spot a placard and start forking typos. “Not many know what a phoulorie really is. Most Biharis do. My ancestors were from Bihar,” the woman adds. The Indians who sailed to Trinidad, between 1845 and 1917, to work at sugar plantations, took their love for phulouri (fritters made of ground gram flour or wet lentil paste), dal (lentils) and curries, that were later assimilated into the Caribbean cuisine. Over the years, spellings have changed, so have the traditional recipes.

At the Green Market, barely seven miles from Port of Spain, I could rustle the Bihari-Trinidad cuisine connection. On their ship journey to the Caribbean, the migrant labourers survived on rice, lentils, dry fish, potatoes and onions that were cooked onboard by ‘bhandaris’. On the plantations, the early Indian immigrants received a weekly allowance of 13 lbs of rice, 1.5 lbs dried fish, 750 gms of onions, two ounces of dhal, an ounce of salt and tamarind. Lentils were not a staple in Trinidad cuisine, but the migrant labourers yearned for the ‘dal’. There sprang a bunch of merchants who imported the essential lentil, potatoes and onions from India and sold them on pay day near sugar plantations.

Gradually, the merchants filled in the grocery needs of the Indian immigrants. The kitchen gardens in the logies (living quarters) and later, grant lands served as a handy patch to grow the potato, onion, cauliflower, gourd and yam. The tropical climate of the Caribbean differed from the hot-summer-hard-winter routine of north India, but the immigrants did not relinquish what they traditionally loved on their dinner plate.

Food inventions started popping up. The Indian labourers had no time to make small rotis. They had to hurry for back-breaking work. The solution — make one big roti (think of five to six small rotis turned into a big one) and tear it into smaller pieces. The locals picked up the idea of the parantha. They made it of refined flour and gave it a name — ‘Buss up shut’ or ‘Burst up shirt’ — because the pieces resembled pieces of a frayed shirt.

Doubles is another invention on the list. Ask any Bihari and he will tell you he loves dal-puri (roti stuffed with spiced split peas and deep fried), usually served on special occasions, and as offering to deities during festivals. In Trinidad, the Bihari dal-puri evolved into dhal-puri. Doubles, a common Trini breakfast, is a fatter cousin of the traditional dal-puri — spiced chana (split peas) served between two puris (deep fried rotis). Locals give the ‘doubles’ a story. A customer once ordered two sets of the dal-puri and called it  ‘doubles’. The name stuck.

A bit about the Bihari or Bihari-inspired dish. Baigan choka (think of a variant of Baba ghanoush), damadol choka (mash of roasted tomatoes), phulourie, pakora (fritters), lapsi (think congee). Yes, the kohda tarkari (pumpkin curry). In other parts of India, pumpkin is known by various names, including sitafal and kaddu, but only a Bihari calls a pumpkin kohda (a distortion of the Sanskrit name kumhada). The moment I saw kohda tarkari on a Trinidad restaurant menu, I knew its beginnings. Many years ago, a Bihari must have bid adieu to his family, hopped on to a ship, and sailed for weeks with dreams in his eyes for a happier future in Trinidad. That Bihari left behind all that he was familiar with and found a new home in Trinidad. In his new home, the kitchen did not change much. The food and the man remained Bihari at heart. Here is a recipe dedicated to nostalgia.

 

Trini Baigan Chokha

Ingredients:

Eggplants: 3 medium (about 2 lbs)

Garlic: 8 cloves

Hot chilli: 1

Onion: 1 medium

Pimento: 4

Oil: 4 tbsp

Salt: to taste

Method: Roast eggplants on medium heat until soft. Remove inside by cutting along the middle, mash and set aside. Wrap pepper and garlic in foil and roast until golden brown. Remove foil and crush garlic and pepper into the mashed eggplants. Heat oil in pan, add onions and pimento. Caramelise for 30 seconds. Pour into eggplant mash and mix thoroughly. Add salt to taste.

 

Recipe courtesy: Jappy’s Catering Service, Chaguanas, Trinidad

 

 

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