Aunty Pam: spicing up Seattle

Folks in the Pacific North-West of the USA regularly enjoy roti and aloo pies at Pam’s Kitchen...

Guy Fieri (right) with Pamela Jacob from Pam`s Kitchen on Fieri`s television show Diners, Drive-ins and Dives. Photograph courtesy Anjuli JacobInside Pam`s Kitchen. Photograph courtesy Anjuli Jacob

Her tiny white board house and the sugar cane that surrounded it have vanished, along with the only way of life her Indian-born parents and grandparents knew. But Pamela Jacob resurrects the tastes and smells of her childhood in her restaurant, Pam’s Kitchen, in the university district of the cold northwestern city of Seattle in the US.

April marks 16 years since Jacob and her family left their home in Warrenville, a tiny village sandwiched between Caroni and Cunupia in central Trinidad, for a new life.
Now she kneads 400 pounds of flour a day to make dal puris – soft unleavened bread stuffed with channa (ground chickpeas) and spiced with coriander (geera) – for American customers eager to experience a taste of Trinidad and Tobago.

She serves her roti skins – dal puri and flaky bus-up-shut (a flatbread beaten into steaming, shredded pieces that look like a “bust-up shirt”, hence the name) with stewed chicken, curried goat or lamb, or plump curried shrimp.

Pam perks up her dishes with pepper that packs a punch, and flavours her meat by burning brown sugar in hot oil.

“Won’t the food smell and taste like burnt sugar?” Guy Fieri asked when he featured Pam’s Kitchen on his television show Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.

“Not at all,” Pam assured. A sceptical Fieri tasted his curried goat and pelau and concurred. “I never heard of burning sugar,” he marvelled.

Pam doesn’t know who sent Fieri to her restaurant, but business has been booming since the popular Food Network cable television show came to call. Now she barely has time to think about the long, hard road she travelled to open a restaurant.

“People said you had to have a lot of money to start a restaurant; so I cleaned houses and saved money for over 15 years.”

She did some catering for her customers, providing Trini savoury treats like aloo pies, fried dough stuffed with mashed potatoes seasoned with garlic and coriander. Of course, she made her own mango chutney and pepper sauce to go with them.
“My son, Anton, always encouraged me to keep striving for the restaurant,” says Pam.

It all started to come together six years ago. “I took a booth at the street fair in Seattle to see what people would think about my food. We didn’t make any money, it was so expensive just to be there – but we had a line of people waiting for roti.”

Finally, when no bank would lend her the money, Pam funded her business with her credit cards.

She ordered curry powder, geera and mauby from Trinidad, bought sorrel from the Mexican stores in New York, made her own pepper sauce with carrots, apples, vinegar, mustard, salt, garlic and hot peppers – and swung open the door of Pam’s Kitchen on September 26, 2007. Soon, the Seattle university district smelled of coconut bake, fried pumpkin and fried spinach, with the pungent smell of garlic wafting through the air.
When it came to cooking, Pam utilised everything she had learned while growing up in Robert Trace (which was named for her father). Her home and Moi’s (her mother’s) featured heavily in the Trinidad drama series Sugar Cane Arrows, which was shot in Robert Trace.*

“I always liked cooking. I’d take the flour and run away by my cousin so that she could show me how to knead the flour. I always felt happy when people tasted my food and liked it. That led me to experiment more… I didn’t realise until I came here that I could actually make a living out of cooking.”
Pam started cooking at nine.

“My father had just died and my mother was so sickly and sad. She couldn’t function for a while. She’d sit under the house [country houses in Trinidad sit perched on high stilts]. I’d put the dal [yellow split peas] in the pot, take it downstairs and ask Moi how much water to put. I carried everything downstairs for Moi to tell me what to do.”

By the time she was a teenager, she was an accomplished cook. Her brother, Vishnu, bragged about her cooking. Friends and family praised her.

“Cooking in Trinidad is watching your family cook. It’s not like cooking in America, where you get a cookbook. Nothing is from a cookbook. It’s tasting something so good, you want to make it that good.”
The food in Pam’s Kitchen is a combination of Pam’s experiments and the recipes she learned from her mother. “My pone recipe is my mother’s recipe. Her pone used to be simple: coconut, cassava, cinnamon and sugar – all nice and gooey. I remember my aunts adding in flour, sweet potato, pumpkin. I don’t think that’s pone. Pone should be gooey and sticky, so you can taste the cassava and coconut. Sometimes simple is the best.”

In her restaurant Pam serves her cassava pone with her homemade coconut, Guinness, soursop, mango or pumpkin ice cream. For her, ice cream is as important as roti.

“When I cook, all of me is in that dish. I like combining tastes.”

Her chicken pelau, filled with ring-sized gems of carrots, green peppers, and chive, makes a peppery statement. Those Trini drinks that soak up brown sugar for a bittersweet experience leave a lasting impression as well: ginger beer, mauby (a bitter bark, sweetened with tons of brown sugar), sorrel (made from a red flower and associated with Christmas), and of course rum punch.

She’s even ventured into experimenting with Jamaican jerk chicken.

“I never had jerk chicken up to this day, but people kept asking, so my daughter Anjuli and I came up with our own jerk seasoning: garlic, honey, ginger, some bottled jerk seasoning, dry cilantro, ketchup, salt, black pepper, soy sauce. It’s a Trini version of jerk chicken, but even Jamaicans like it.”
Pam’s Kitchen is going places, so much so that Pam plans to open more branches in Seattle. In the new restaurant she wants to serve more creole dishes than Indo-Trinidadian food. She’s designing a menu that will include fried tilapia, coconut bake, plantain and oil-down, a coconut-based dish traditionally made with breadfruit.

“We don’t have breadfruit, so I substitute sweet potatoes and yams. You have to be yourself and you have to improvise when you’re cooking in a new place,” says Pam. And that’s why, even when she can’t get the ingredients she needs, she never forgets her roots.

*Editor’s note: The script for Sugar Cane Arrows was written by Debbie Jacob