Cry fowl

What is it about Trinis and fried chicken?

Arlene Tilluckdharry. Photograph by Andrea De SilvaIllustrations by Shalini Seereeram

Few things in the Caribbean are fast. The islands are, in fact, sold as places to escape from all things fast. We have succeeded admirably. It would not be unfair or unkind to say that things, if not we ourselves, are fairly slow.

There are two kinds of slow. For good slow, see words like leisure, unhurried, relaxed, easy, drinks on the terrace. For bad slow, try, for instance, renewing your passport or having a prescription filled at your local pharmacy.

In a generally dawdling society like Trinidad, the idea of the fast food chain seems anathema. And yet it thrives. And how. That it burgeons mainly in the chicken niche is unmysterious: there is a large non-beef-eating Hindu population for whom chicken is probably the mainstay. Chicken is generally cheaper than beef, pork, lamb, goat, most fish, and certainly shellfish. In both rural and semi-urban neighbourhoods the likelihood of raising a few chickens far outweighs the odds of keeping pigs or buffalo.

Trinidad is said to have more KFCs per capita than anywhere in the world. The one on Port of Spain’s chaotic Independence Square claims to be the international chain’s highest-grossing branch. You’re more likely to find a Trinidadian who hasn’t been to the beach than one who hasn’t had dinner out of a red and white box decorated with the likeness of a chipper, if slightly thick-waisted, old-fashioned Southern gentleman.

Our fast food proclivities are not absolutely limited to the call of deep-fried fowl, but the evidence strongly tends to that conclusion: there’s the local stronghold, Royal Castle; Popeye’s; Church’s. Even non-fried-chicken establishments have to make some show of understanding the local palate. Be not misled by the names of the Pizza Boys/Burger Boys or Mario’s Pizza chains — they too sell chicken. Avian flu could have wiped us out, not from contagion but deprivation. Fortunately, no one paid the slightest attention.

Sure, we have Burger King, Subway, Quizno’s, and Papa John’s, but they can have no illusions about just how far down the food chain they really are. McDonald’s, ever the purveyor of burger-like creations, had a short life in Trinidad and Tobago, probably because they did not understand how to sell chicken. Morgan Spurlock could not have made a very convincing McCulture documentary here.

With the exception of KFC, which seems to have come to Trinidad at the time of the Spanish conquest, the major American chains turned up only a few years ago. The developed world goes South Beach, Beverly Hills, loses the carbs, returns to cabbage soup and grapefruit, and eliminates trans-fat (as ambiguous a name as possible: is it a cross-over fat? A cross-body fat? A fat in motion?). But what to do with the billions of dollars and pounds of lard already invested in the fast food industry? Even the entrepreneurially challenged can see: divert. We become the outposts of their uncivilised cuisine. But then, consider: diesel, the traffic in toxic waste, British civil servants. Don’t know what to do with your anachronisms? Send them to people who may one day need your help.

The Polynesian diet, once high in healthy natural stuff, was severely compromised by the appearance of an endless supply of Spam. This unnatural substance was bringing to the islands all sorts of ailments and evils. Urban myth (and is it still called an urban myth if it’s set in the islands?), or conspiracy to make first-world people seem less porky? And why do all studies seem to involve Polynesians? Our US fast food fetish reminds me of this sad cautionary tale of an innocent people and the malevolent uses to which man can put suspect porcine parts.

These highly superficial health and political arguments do nothing to damn the Trinidadian’s love of fried chicken. If anything, the idea that we can so effortlessly overlook them suggests a love so deep and inviolable as to be almost sacred. It’s a bit like loving a bad person, or something that gives you a rash.

In Trinidad, fried chicken is the stuff of lore. I berate those younger than myself for their enslavement to American chicken. For them there is no happy, greasy memory of Sunday Basket, Famous Recipe, or Texas Style. All local brands, all invariably the reward for visiting any relative who lived more than twenty minutes away from our home. A fine but worrying point that springs from these juvenile memories is the issue of why fried-chicken boxes are no longer lined with a thin sheet of absorbent paper. There was something inexplicably satisfying about that flimsy, parchment-type sheet. It never truly pulled the grease away, though sometimes bits of batter would stick to it, and maybe its charm lay in its inefficiency: it seemed to be saving all that good friedness for you.

Skip back yet another generation. My sisters, always keen to point out that most of the good things in life predated me — as though my birth somehow lowered the standards of the universe — pity me because the fried chicken sold out of a van on the lookout on the Lady Young Road was gone before my arrival. I’m sure if my mother hadn’t gone through a vegetarian phase in her teens, she would have a rival story.

The question here is not one of “good for” or even “trendy/cool” — since these are easily and obviously transcended. Ask rather what turns even epicures into piggy six-year-olds of the 80s TV ad variety. Though we have limited our discussion to a partiality for well-larded chicken, the truth is, anything deep-fried will bring joy to anyone but evangelical dieticians or their diaspora of soulless fruitarians.

Here are two possible endings.

Chocolate gives us love, ice cream lifts depression. And lard, lard gives us the comfort of knowing that not everything that’s supposed to be bad for you will kill you.

And, from a slightly less moralising high-ground, consider: really, really good fried chicken is one of the few things in the culinary world for which the word “succulent” is neither a cliché nor imprecise.

Anu Lakhan

The meat of it

Neil Marks visits one of the churrascarias — traditional Brazilian restaurants specialising in meat, lots of it — that have sprung up in Georgetown

When Guyanese Michael Dummet met his fiancé Mirene De Oliveira in Brazil’s south, he brought home not just a wife, but the gauchos’ traditional cooking style — his new spouse turned out to be a meat aficionado. In June 2001, they opened their restaurant on Alexander Street in Georgetown’s Lacytown ward: Brasil Churrascaria and Pizzaria. Though they serve up 31 different styles of pizza, it’s the Portuguese steakhouse part of the menu that brings in the cash.

Brasil Churrascaria greets you at the entrance with its salad bar, but who cares? It’s the meat you’ve come here for. And they do “lash”, as a Guyanese would say, to a good plateful. Dummet, interpreting for his Brazilian chef, informs me that they roast just over a hundred pounds of meat a day — chicken, pork, and of course numerous cuts of beef.

Diners include some of the thousands of Brazilians who live in or around Georgetown — the Brazilian embassy is just round the corner — meat-loving Guyanese, and “different foreigners,” as Michael puts it.

True to gaucho tradition, beef (the most popular meat) is put to fire and dusted with a special seasoned salt that makes it mouth-wateringly delicious. Over the roaring fire, the surface of the meat is caramelised, and the luscious odours waft through the breezy dining area.

As you settle down at your table — having selected your salad, if you care for it, and with a cold Brazilian beer at hand — the server saunters his way over with a gleaming knife and a four-foot skewer laden with fragrant, sizzling meat. Point to your piece of choice and it’s sliced right onto your plate. A few minutes later the server is back with another skewer, another selection of cuts. Seconds? No problem. In fact, it’s practically obligatory.

The prices at Brasil Churrascaria encourage diners to return — it’s just under US$8 for all you can eat. Here’s a chance to discover just how much of a carnivore you really are. Dummet laughs about the too many times he’s seen the uncomfortable results of gluttonous patrons who could not control their cravings. Sitting at one of his tables, confronted by all this delectable flesh, you start to wonder if gluttony’s such a bad thing after all.

 

Café life

Jamie Eliot finds enlightenment — or, at least, chocolate crêpes — at a small seaside café

The first time we saw it, the new café didn’t have a menu in its glass front, but quotes from Schopenhauer, Sartre, and Hegel. Inside: menacing pictures of Victor Hugo, original editions of Le Petit Journal, a poster covered in quotations from everyone from Chateaubriand to George Sand, with a Rorschach ink-blot in the centre. We saw a brain or a butterflied steak, depending on the angle.

Still relatively new, Café Feel-Oh sells Creole lunches and French crêpes in marina-packed Chaguaramas, near the end of Trinidad’s north-west peninsula. Run fleetingly by an itinerant French writer, it’s now owned by Arlene Tilluckdharry, a Trinidadian international lawyer and Buddhist.

A long lunch counter is stacked with books. A sort of exchange library: take away what you want, bring in others.

Feel-Oh = Philo = Philosophy.

A philosophy café — no, a Europeanish philosophy café — has washed up on the island’s west coast, a far cry from our more famed University of Woodford Square, where prime ministers and vagrants have traditionally voiced their ideas. The crowd is equal parts yachties and marina workers. And yet, the roughish crowd notwithstanding, the clientele seem perfectly relaxed in the immaculate, capital-C cultured premises. Is Café Feel-Oh poised to ruin the centuries-old rep of the tough men of the seas and their hearty wenches? Tilluckdharry is either oblivious or indifferent to the incongruity.

As much as the owner has faith in the café’s ability to provide a place for stimulating conversation (and who can deny that a place by the sea is as good as any to start pushing horizons?), we believe we have found something far more important, indeed, rhapsodic, to consider: the crêpe of chantilly cream and chocolate, lounging between pillows of whipped cream and chocolate mousse.

Hello, Epicurus.

With a dash of bitters

Lisa Allen-Agostini samples the winning concoctions at the Angostura-sponsored Global Cocktail Challenge in Tobago

Angostura aromatic bitters is widely regarded as a staple in any bar worth its salt. The deep maroon liquid has been adding a dash of flavour to drinks, desserts, and dishes since its invention in the jungles of South America 182 years ago. It’s been produced in Trinidad since then, and it has come to eclipse its original application as a medicinal tonic — though it’s still offered in soda with lime for an upset stomach.

Angostura was one of the title sponsors of the Global Cocktail Challenge in Tobago last May. Along with Drinks International magazine, Angostura brought nine of the world’s best bartenders to the Hilton Tobago’s ballroom for the competition. Bitters was a required ingredient in every recipe. One recipe called for a mind-boggling 15 ml of the potent flavouring, but most called for a modest dash or three. Some also used bitters in the relatively new spray form, which is marketed in Europe but not yet widely available in the Caribbean.

Marco Nunes, a Portuguese bartender living in Australia, took overall honours with his concoction Angostura Amber, a golden drink of rum, muddled prunes, and apple juice, served in a martini glass and garnished with a cinnamon stick. But before the final face-off, the semifinal round set Nunes and the eight other bartenders, including British, Russian, French, and Trinidadian competitors, against each other in four rounds — non-alcoholic, aperitif, long drink, and classic.

Nunes won the non-alcoholic round with his Caribbean Three Step, a combination of blood orange jam, mango juice, lemon and lime juice, mandarin juice, and a batido — a sweet, milky concoction — with bitters. The winner of the aperitif round was Milo Rodriques, whose angel face belied the lethality of his drink Mother Rum. Tasting more like a liqueur than rum, the drink included maple syrup, white chocolate liqueur, and mineral water ice cubes, slowly stirred with a cinnamon stick.

Vanilla Exhauster, the name of the best long drink, created by French entrant Joseph, combined amaretto, vanilla liqueur, and golden rum with orange juice. And there was a British tie in the classic round, in which competitors had to make variations on classic drinks. Merlin Griffiths, a bartender who serves up cocktails on the BBC’s foodie-porn show Saturday Kitchen, made his mark with Bump and Grind, an old fashioned with pineapple rind instead of lemon and rum instead of whiskey. Stuart Hudson made a 1919 Flip, containing rum, cherry marnier, egg yolk, and syrup.

With any luck, Angostura’s PR head Giselle Laronde-West said, these drinks should become new favourites, so look out for them at a bar near you. Angostura plans to hold the competition every two years.