Phulourie, prasad and scotch bonnet pepper

Franka Philip celebrates the special flavours of Indian food cooked in the Caribbean

Phulourie. Photograph by Shirley BahadurScotch bonnet peppers. Photograph by Shirley Bahadur

The first Indian food I ate in the UK was awful. It was an oily mess that managed to be spicy but somehow utterly bland. That was cheap and watered-down food from a bog-standard takeaway, and it wasn’t until I visited Manchester’s Curry Mile and Southall in west London that I learnt about the UK’s proper Indian food. But as good as some British Indian food is, I will always prefer our Caribbean curry.

Its distinctive taste – particularly from Trinidad and Guyana, where there are large Indian communities – was created almost 200 years ago, when the indentured Indian labourers created a curry powder made from provisions they were given on the estates. It persists today, thanks to long-established curry producers, and has given rise to a flavour that is unique among Indian cuisines around the world.

“We should be bigging up our food to other people and making them taste it,” says Gaitri Pagrach-Chandra, a Guyanese food writer who now makes Holland her home.

She believed so much in the beauty of our simple Indian food that she included roti in her award-winning book Warm Bread and Honey Cake. Many told her that sada, buss-up shut (paratha) and dhalpuri roti were too common, but she didn’t care and included them anyway.

“I thought, our homely things are good as well, and everybody asked, ‘You’re going to put roti in your book, something ordinary like that?’ And really, that’s what you should be sharing with people.”

After reading the reviews and picking up my own copy of Warm Cake and Honey Bread, I knew I had to interview Pagrach-Chandra. There’s no better time for a reflection on Indian food and memories, as we celebrate Indian Arrival in the Caribbean.

“My grandfather was a pundit and as I was the eldest grandchild on my mother’s side, I had a special place,” she said. “My grandfather would always keep the prasad from the pujas for me. In the bag with prasad, I always got mohan bhog with a piece of roth, pera (a round sweet made from milk and sugar) barfi (a fudge-like sweet), and half a banana.”

Pagrach-Chandra has also written a highly regarded study of Guyana’s Indian food: Damra Bound: Indian Echos (sic) in Guyanese Foodways, which illustrates how Indian food has shaped Guyanese cuisine. She said Indian food in Guyana has come a long way, particularly in the last 20 years.

“It was essentially a basic cooking, but in the last 20 years, with more communication and more cultural exchanges with India, Indian women relearned how to cook.

“So things like making paneer (an unsalted white cheese) became quite normal, whereas before, while people knew about paneer, nobody ever made it.”

She believes Indian food in the Caribbean is rapidly evolving. “There’s a new wave of Indian cooking in the Caribbean, particularly now as people can access the Internet and get more recipes. What’s developing is our own brand of Indian cooking but it’s not the home-style, traditional cooking.”

The evolution of Caribbean Indian food is not surprising to Geeta Samtani, the founder of the UK-based Geeta’s Foods. Samtani arrived in Trinidad from Bombay in 1965 with her husband Beni, to run her father’s Indian film business.

When Samtani first ate Indian food in Trinidad, she likened it to being in a time warp.

“What I admired was the spirit of the Indians there, a spirit that India is lacking today, and the strong devotion to the Indian things like food, religion and clothes. They even grew all the Indian vegetables. I admired them for keeping their culture alive.”

She pointed out that the Indians who first arrived would not have had very much except for a few spices, white flour, and split peas, with which they tried to keep the Indian flavours as far as they could.

“Look at pholourie: it’s a version of Indian pakoora that came about because they didn’t have proper chickpeas or the spices, but they came up with whatever they could, and it’s still around.”

Samtani makes the point that Indian food in Trinidad remained the same for so long because it was created and existed in isolation.

“When I got to Trinidad, nobody travelled to India, it was too far and too expensive, so lots of people didn’t know what ‘real’ Indian food was. There were very few families from India here, so Trinidadians weren’t exposed to it.

“Remember also, the spices weren’t available. I used to buy them when I went to New York or London. It was only if you came to my house, for example, that you got the taste of India, and some people loved it, but others didn’t, because they found the taste was strange.”

She taught the women who were interested how to cook, and always found that many were blown away by the diversity and combinations of spices.

Samtani moved from Trinidad in 1992 and now lives in London, where she cooks a variety of Indian food – but she still misses Trinidad Indian food.

“There is something special in Trinidad food: I think it’s the love and the scotch bonnet pepper!”

Glossary

Sada roti: flatbread usually eaten in Indian households for breakfast

Paratha: roti also known as “buss-up shut” because of its resemblance to a torn-up shirt

Dhalpuri: flatbread stuffed with ground and spiced split peas

Prasad/mohan bhog: sacred food offered at Hindu religious ceremonies, made from flour, ghee, milk and sometimes sweetened with condensed milk

Roth: light, flaky dough made from wholewheat flour, sugar, and ghee

Phulourie: fried balls of split-pea flour and spices, usually eaten as a snack with chutney

Look for:

Warm Bread and Honey Cake
Gaitri Pagrach-Chandra (Interlink Publishing Group, ISBN: 978-1566567923, 320pp)
Geeta’s Chutneys: www.geetasfoods.com