By Amy Forsberg
Last week we looked at some of the beverages important to a Trinidad Christmas. Now let’s talk about some of the foods and the special ingredients needed to make them.
So what is on the menu in Trinidad for Christmas? Here is what Ann told me. “Dinner is ham, of course, pastelles, baked chicken, fried rice, pelau, callaloo, macaroni pie…and everybody makes homemade bread. And, of course, sorrel drink and ponché de crème. And you have to have black cake, of course….Everything is homemade, nobody buys anything.”
Pastelles are the West Indian version of tamales and reflect the Mexican/Aztec heritage in the Caribbean. Making pastelles can be labor intensive, and according to Ann, many families make the work fun by turning it into a party and making large quantities assembly-line style. This is part of what makes them such a Christmas treat. Every island has their own version, and in Trinidad, it is traditionally cornmeal stuffed with beef, chicken, or pork (or a mixture) with olives, capers, and raisins and steamed in banana leaves. There are also versions made with fish or shrimp, and vegetarian versions made with soy products, lentils, or mushrooms. It is the flavorings that really make them special, and the usual additions include onion, garlic, tomato paste or ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, Trinidad pimento peppers, and roucou.
Pimento peppers are ubiquitous in Trinidad cooking, but they are NOT the same pepper we call pimento here in the United States; they do not look or taste the same other than both being non-spicy. They are a completely mild Capsicum chinense (the species known for blazing hot peppers like habaneros) and are easily found in most Caribbean markets here in the U.S., as well as most backyards in Trinidad, according to Ann. The taste is described as the flavor of very hot peppers without any of the heat, and they are an essential ingredient in many dishes. This pepper seems relatively unknown outside of Caribbean circles, but you may find seeds marketed as Capsicum ‘Trinidad Pimento’ or ‘Trinidad Seasoning Pepper.’
Roucou (pronounced roo’-koo) refers to the fruit of Bixa orellano, a shrub or small tree native to Mexico, Central America, and parts of South America and is cultivated in many countries. It is more widely known by the common names annatto and achiote and is used as red/orange dye and food coloring and flavoring. The color comes from the waxy coating that covers the seeds. In Trinidad, it is common to grow roucou in your yard. The spiky capsules are harvested when ripe, split open, and the seeds are removed. The seeds are placed in water, then soaked and agitated (wear gloves!) to release the coloring. The now vibrant red/orange liquid has salt added as a preservative, the seeds are strained out, and the liquid is refrigerated to use as needed. It is a common ingredient in many dishes in Trinidad and adds not only a beautiful color but a subtle unique flavor as well. Annatto powder may be substituted and is easily purchased online and at International markets.
Another dish commonly eaten at Christmas, and especially at New Year’s (which is called “All Years Night” in Trinidad), is the unofficial Trinidad national dish pelau (pronounced pay-lau’ or puh-lau’). Pelau is a hearty one-pot meal of chicken, rice, and pigeon peas flavored with onion, garlic, Trinidad pimento peppers, and a delicious flavor concoction called green seasoning.
What is green seasoning, you ask? If you looked inside many refrigerators in Trinidad, you would find a fresh batch of this green herbal magic. There is no set recipe, and it can be simply made with whichever ingredients are on hand. It can also be purchased bottled, but fresh is far superior. Ann says it generally includes garlic, Trinidad pimento peppers, chives, cilantro, celery, green onions, thyme, chadon beni, and pudina.
Chadon beni (pronounced “shadow benny”) is the common name for the leaves of Eryngium foetidum, a tropical perennial in the carrot family (Apiaceae) and known in the United States as culantro. Imported by French settlers, the name derives from “chardon béni,” which means “blessed thistle.” (It is not actually a thistle but looks a bit like one.) According to Ann, it grows like a weed everywhere in Trinidad and is easy to cultivate. The flavor is similar to cilantro but even stronger and more pungent. It is one of several herbs that are an essential component of the flavor of Trinidadian cuisine. The fresh leaves can usually be found in Caribbean markets.
Pudina is the local name for Plectranthus amboinicus (syn. Coleus amboinicus), a fleshy-leaved perennial in the mint family that is known by many common names: Mexican mint, Spanish thyme, Indian borage, Cuban oregano, and many more. It is naturalized and cultivated widely in the tropics and as an herb. It has a strong oregano-like flavor.
For dessert, they have black cake, a dense, rich, and alcohol soaked fruitcake believed to have descended from British desserts such as plum pudding. It is quite different from American fruitcake. It is made with lots of butter, eggs, and rum, and is almost black in color due to the addition of “browning,” which is made by almost burning brown sugar syrup. Browning can be purchased, or in a pinch, molasses can be substituted. Black cake is one of those foods for which every family has their own closely guarded recipe with a slightly different ratio of spices and fruits. Most recipes I found online direct you to soak the dried fruits in alcohol for at least a few days or weeks. But according to Ann, it is an important tradition to soak them for an entire year! Just after Christmas, you prepare the fruits and cover them in a jar with a blend of alcohols and leave it in a dark place for a year, shaking periodically. Spices are also essential to making the quintessential black cake, which typically include cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, clove, and tonka bean.
Tonka bean is the seed of Dipteryx odorata, a tropical tree in the pea family (Fabaceae) that has a complex and highly prized flavor said to remind one of a blend of vanilla, cherry, almond, cinnamon, caramel, and honey. Because it contains coumarin, a chemical that is toxic in larger amounts, tonka bean has been banned as a food ingredient in the U.S. since 1953. It is now better understood that the concentration of coumarin in tonka bean is too low to cause illness without one consuming a nearly impossible quantity. However, the ban remains.
So, now you can set your table with a feast including ham, pastelles, pelau, and black cake. And to drink you’ll have sorrel drink, ponche de crème, and ginger beer. The house is freshly painted and new curtains have been hung. Neighbors and family will be dropping by soon. Panang music will fill the air, and the rum will flow. Merry Christmas from Trinidad!
Recipes from Ann Abdul and/or adapted from “The Multi-Cultural Cuisine of Trinidad & Tobago & the Caribbean” which is the 2002 updated version of “Naparima Girls’ High School Diamond Jubilee 1912-1987, Trinidad & Tobago Recipes”. These are the quintessential books on Trinidadian cuisine found in almost every home.
Makes approx. 24
- 2 lb. boneless beef, chicken or pork, diced
- 3-4 TBSP roucou liquid
- ½ cup finely chopped onion
- ½ cup finely chopped chive
- 1 tsp. thyme
- 1 tsp. minced garlic
- hot pepper to taste
- ½ tsp. black pepper
- 2 tsp. salt
- 1 TBSP vegetable oil
- ¼ cup ketchup
- 1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
- ½ cup finely chopped pimentos
- 3 TBSP capers
- 2 TBSP stuffed olives, chopped
- ½ cup raisins
- 2 cups cornmeal
- 3 cups hot water
- 2-3 TBSP vegetable oil or 2 oz. or 4 TBSP margarine
- Soharee or banana leaves, cleaned, greased and cut in 7” or 8” squares
(If using banana leaves, scald until soft and pliable.)
- In a bowl, mix meat with onion, chive, and thyme, garlic, hot pepper, black pepper, and 1 tsp salt.
- Heat oil in skillet and add roucou liquid and beef mixture and fry until tender; cool and mince.
- Return beef to skillet and add ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, pimentos, capers, olives, and raisins.
- Cook for 2-3 minutes more and adjust salt and pepper; leave to cool.
- Combine cornmeal, water, oil, and 1 tsp salt; stir until mixture sticks together.
- Take heaped tablespoons of cornmeal and form balls (approx. 1½” in diameter).
- Place a ball of cornmeal on a piece of leaf, cover with a piece of plastic wrap and roll or press to desired size approx. 6” square. Remove the plastic.
- Place a heaped tablespoon of meat mixture along one side of cornmeal and fold leaf in half, then fold edges of leaf over to seal.
- Place a few pastelles in steamer or colander, and steam for about 20-25 minutes.
- 3 lbs. chicken pieces, skinned
- 1 tsp. salt
- ½ tsp. black pepper
- 2 TBSP mixed green seasoning (or as much as half a cup! Depends on your taste. Ann says more is better.)
- 2 tsp. minced garlic
- 1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
- 1 tsp. soy sauce
- 1 TBSP ketchup
- 2 TBSP vegetable oil
- 2-3 TBSP brown sugar
- 2 cups parboiled rice
- ½ cup chopped onion
- ½ cup chopped pimento peppers (any mild pepper can be substituted)
- 1½ cups cooked pigeon peas
- 1 TBSP salt
- 1 whole hot pepper with the stem
- 2 cups coconut milk
- 2 cups chicken broth or water
- Season chicken with salt, pepper, green seasoning, minced garlic, Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, and ketchup.
- Heat oil in large heavy iron pot or skillet.
- Add sugar and allow to burn until brown
- Add seasoned chicken, and stir until pieces are well coated with burnt sugar; brown for 5 minutes.
- Add rice, and turn often until well mixed. Cook for 3 minutes more.
- Add onion, sweet peppers, and peas, and cook for a few minutes, stirring a few times.
- Add salt, hot pepper, coconut milk, and broth. Bring to a boil, lower heat, cover and simmer until rice is cooked and all liquid is evaporated (about 25-30 minutes).
- Add more liquid if rice is still hard and continue to cook for a few more minutes.
Notes: Pelau could also be baked in the oven. Cover pot with lid or foil and bake at 350 F for 30-35 minutes.
Green Seasoning (recipe adapted from https://healthiersteps.com)
- 1 bunch chadon beni leaves (can substitute cilantro)
- ½ bunch parsley
- 2 stalks celery
- 3 green onions/scallions
- Small bunch of chives
- 10 cloves garlic, peeled
- 1 small onion
- 1” piece fresh ginger
- 8 sprigs thyme
- 3 sprigs pudina (optional, can be found at Caribbean markets)
- 5 Trinidad pimento peppers (or other mild peppers such as ‘Aji Dulce’, banana, or Cubanelle)
- Roughly chop up all ingredients and add to a food processor.
- Process until the mixture looks pureed like baby food, scraping down sides as necessary.
- Store in the refrigerator. Use about 2 TBSP of green seasoning per recipe.
You can also prepare in large batches and freeze in ice cube trays and store cubes in freezer bags. These quantities are merely suggestions. Most people develop their own recipe with their own preferred ratio of ingredients based on personal preference.
Trinidad Black Cake (Christmas Cake)
Serves 36 (or three cakes)
- 1 lb. prunes, seeded and chopped
- 1 lb. raisins
- 1 lb. currants
- 1 lb. sultanas
- ¼ lb. candied mixed citrus peel (e.g., lemon, orange)
- ½ lb. cherries, chopped in half
- ¼ lb. chopped almonds
- 1½ cups cherry brandy
- 2 cups rum
- 2 cups butter
- 2 cups brown sugar
- 10 large eggs
- 2 tsp. grated lime peel
- 2 tsp. vanilla extract
- 4 cups flour
- 4 tsp. baking powder
- 2 tsp. ground cinnamon
- ¼ cup browning (darkly caramelized sugar)
- 3 cups mixture of rum, cherry brandy, and sherry, 1 cup for each cake
- A few days, or up to one year, before baking the cake, combine prunes, raisins, currants, sultanas, mixed candied peel, cherries, almonds, cherry brandy, and rum in a jar or other suitable glass container. Cover, and leave in a dark place to meld flavors, shaking the container occasionally, until ready to use.
- Line three 8” round cake pans with double layers of wax or parchment paper.
- Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy.
- Beat in eggs one at a time; add lime peel and vanilla.
- Combine flour, baking powder, and cinnamon; fold into creamed mixture gradually.
- Drain soaked fruit and add to mixture. Add enough browning to give desired color; stir well.
- Put in lined baking pans ¾ full and bake in a preheated oven at 250 F for one hour; reduce heat to 200 F – 225 F for the remaining 1½ hrs or until tester comes out clean.
- Prick hot cakes, and soak each with the mixture of rum, brandy, and sherry.
As alcohol soaks in, pour more and continue to do so for 12 hours.
Photo Credits: 1) Map of Trinidad and Tobago (Wikimedia Commons); 2) Pastelles (Wikipedia); 3) Pimento peppers (Capsicum chinense) (seedwise.com); 4) Roucou (Bixa orellano) (Wikipedia); 5) Chadon beni (Eryngium foetidum) (National Herb Garden); 6) Pudina (Plectranthus amboinicus) (National Herb Garden); 7) Black cake (dishmaps.com); 8) Tonka bean (Dipteryx odorata) (Wikipedia); 9) Ann Abdul (Ann Abdul).
Amy Forsberg is a horticulturist who was the 2000-2001 National Herb Garden intern. She has gardened at the U.S. Botanic Garden (2002-2005) and the U.S. National Arboretum (2006-2018). She has long been fascinated by the history of herbs and spices and their role in creating culture and cuisines.