Monday, February 14, 2011

Trinidadian home cooking

Market bags full of goodies, we headed to my friend Arline's home. Arline is the same friend who challenged me to try souse - remember, the chicken feet ceviche-type dish that I couldn't bring myself to taste at the street food market a few weeks ago?

Well, I accepted Arline's challenge and oh boy, did I get a treat. She made callaloo and "oil down", which is made with breadfruit and pig tail. Arline told me that these dishes are soul-comforting for Trinis, and are the kinds of food they crave when they're away from their island home. 

Let me begin by telling you about my experience buying the breadfruit at the public market. The vendor was, well, I'll let the photo speak for itself:
Breadfruit vendor
I've seen quite a few gentlemen sporting this t-shirt style. It's brilliant, really, their bellies are cool, their lower backs get a nice breeze and a break from the 85 degree weather. It works. Back to the breadfruit, which is something I'm familiar with since we also eat them in Cartagena. They are starchy and I like to think of them as glorified potatoes. Like many fruits and vegetables, breadfruit originates from Southeast Asia. I have no idea when they were brought to the Caribbean, but it must have been quite a long time ago because Arline tells me that it was cooked by slaves in Trinidad oh so long ago. On to the next ingredient in "oil down" - pig tail. 
Pig tail
Arline tells me you have to wash, wash, and then wash it again before you start cooking it. The result is, let me tell you, DELICIOUS. I don't even want to think about the amount of cholesterol that pig tail has to offer, but these little guys are salty, savory, and little bits of pork heaven. They're a bit hard to eat, though, because they have little bones. They give dishes a salty flavor of the intensely delectable ham-like variety. They are used in many Trinidadian dishes, and I know why - so much to offer. Arline explained that back in the day, slaves had to make due with the parts of the pig (and cow, etc.) that they could afford. These included the tail, ear, feet, heels, etc. That is how these parts of the animals became important parts of Trinidadian dishes. Back then, they were dirt cheap. Now, they can actually be quite expensive. Ox tail, for example, can cost as much as a good steak here in T&T.

On to the preparation of "oil down". In a pot, Arline sauteed peppers, thyme, chives, salt, a super salty Trinidadian butter, garlic, and coconut milk. Let's pause there. Coconut milk - is there anything better for kicking food up a notch? I don't think so. Remind me to write an entry about Cartagena's coconut rice one of these days - to die for. Back to "oil down". The pig tail is added, followed by cubed breadfruit.
"Oil down" broth
Breadfruit for "oil down"
This was the end result after letting "oil down" do its thing. It got its name because the oil from the coconut milk and butter create a kind of delectable paste, complemented perfectly with the starch of the breadfruit. I give it two enthusiastic thumbs up. 

On to callaloo. The first time I heard of this soup-like dish was on the Cosby Show when I was eight. It was the episode when Cliff wanted to re-create a romantic Caribbean getaway for he and Claire's anniversary. He hired a Caribbean chef, and they made callaloo. I'll give you a sticker if you remember that episode as well. Anyway, Arline's callaloo was delish. A great representation of one of T&T's favorites. Made with a large green leaf that Trinis call callaloo bush, okra, coconut milk, onion, chives, chili peppers, garlic, pumpkin, and topped with crab legs.

The ingredients were left to simmer on their own, and once they reached the right consistency, Arline blended them with a hand blender. The result was this. Simply delicious.

Finally, we were ready for me to reclaim my reputation as an open-minded eater. I received a bit of criticism for my souse entry from some readers, where I confessed that I couldn't bring myself to taste chicken feet souse. We'll, Arline is my witness - I tasted it at her house! The only difference is that instead of chicken feet, it was with pig feet. I'll say this; the sauce part is good - much like ceviche in that it is refreshing, vinegary, and cucumbery. But the pig feet, well, I simply couldn't handle the consistency. They were cold, rubbery, and piggy. Not my favorite. Arline laughed and I'm sure she understood that this dish is definitely an acquired taste. 
Pig feet souse
Arline, my dear friend, thank you. You are a wonderful cook and represented your country's cuisine brilliantly by making this delicious, soul-comforting Trinidadian meal. 


  1. Great entry V! Very well written, accurate and extremely funny...could not stop laughing:) You haven't lived until you've eaten souse - but where is the pic to prove it?????

  2. agreed! great entry-- am glad you tried the souse, Vero. and am glad you explained how to make callalloo. i'd like to give that a go in DC....

  3. I am waiting for the arroz con coco recipe (hope is from you mom's)