North stand nostalgia

Pelau, rice and peas, oil down, macaroni pie: it’s Carnival time again, and Franka Philip discusses the finer points of its culinary accompaniments

Lemon five spice chicken. Photograph by Shirley BahadurSeamoss. Photograph by Shirley Bahadur

When all you have to call Carnival is two days in late August, when you’re never sure if the weather is going to be blisteringly hot or bitingly cold, as we Trinis in London do for the Notting Hill Carnival, it’s not surprising that we yearn for the authentic delights of Trinidad Carnival. Just like the festivities back home, Notting Hill Carnival boasts calypso tents, all-inclusive fetes, a costumed parade and of course, the Panorama steelband competition.

But Panorama in London is nothing like the festival back home—an entire day spent eating, drinking and jamming down with your friends while being serenaded by the world’s greatest steel orchestras.

Last year, Notting Hill’s Panorama competition was moved out of its traditional west London home of Ladbroke Grove and held in the verdant Hyde Park for the first time. And though Hyde Park is the ideal place for an all-day picnic, Panorama in London is never going to come close to being like the Panorama we used to know and love back home in Trinidad.

Some of my best memories of Carnival are of Panorama preliminaries, where 30-odd bands battled to get to the semi-finals of the Panorama competition.

This all-day event, which calypsonian David Rudder named “The Savannah Party,” was a chance for me to eat, drink, scope out the eye candy, hang out with friends and catch up with people I ever only saw at Carnival time.

This party took place in the North Stand, a temple of pure bacchanal and fun where up to 10,000 people would cram into a space built to accommodate far fewer. The North Stand was a “party stand,” and no one actually listened closely to the steelbands, but drank, ate and danced all day.

Unlike the neighbouring Grand Stand, where patrons would clap politely even if performances weren’t up to standard, denizens of the North Stand would savage anyone who was less than great.

One of the most amazing things about Panorama was the amount of food and drink on offer. It was truly bacchanalian, because the Panorama food culture was one of excess. People toted food in huge baskets and oversized Dutch pots, while coffin-sized coolers would be filled to the brim with all manner of alcohol.

Having enough drinks is absolutely essential at Panorama and one year, I saw some fellas moving chunk after chunk of ice up the stairs into the North Stand. I was curious as to where all this ice was going and so when I followed one of the guys, I saw him and some of his friends busily chopping the ice and piling drinks into a defunct chest freezer they got from someone’s back yard!

Talking about drinks, I can still recall clearly the year my drunken pals Dane and Don pulled me over to their mega-sized cooler, shoved a cup of ice in my hand and then poured something from a bottle and practically ordered me to taste it. Most of the drink evaporated up my nose and burned my throat. The drink was babash, or the Trinidadian version of moonshine. What those guys gave me was so strong, I thought I was going to instantly start sprouting hairs on my chest.

Panorama Sunday was a virtual cavalcade of cooking styles and it was interesting and often amusing to see the number of variations you could get on one dish.

Take pelau for example: this Trini favourite of rice and peas, which is usually cooked with beef or chicken, is supposed to be golden brown, with a healthy ratio of rice to peas. At Panorama, I’ve walked around and peered into people’s pots (as you do) and I’ve seen perfectly cooked pelau in one pot, and just five feet away, there’d be a pot of reddish-brown pelau where it appeared that the cook put too much tomato puree or ketchup and not enough peas.

What most people don’t realise is that the food culture at Panorama reinforces the Caribbean tradition of breaking bread and sharing food with family and friends. You could turn up at Panorama with nothing and still come away with a full tummy, because people are always quick to offer a drink and a plate of food.

I always admired how my friend’s aunt would take the time to lovingly prepare the food for her children and up to 20 of their friends. It helped that Auntie Jean was a caterer and that everyone paid the princely sum of $40 to have her prepare a day’s supply of wonderful food.

Auntie Jean usually blanked jobs on Panorama weekend so she could perform this annual ritual. She explained that she kept one thing in mind when she was preparing for Panorama—keep it simple. That meant a lot of easy-to-eat finger food like cheese paste sandwiches, saltfish accras, sausage rolls and baked chicken drumsticks. For lunch, she usually cooked a huge pot of pelau or fried rice and macaroni pie, but she never did curry or breadfruit oil down, because she believed those dishes were much too messy.

Another thing Auntie Jean always warned against was coleslaw, because cabbage and onions “go bad quickly if they’re not in a fridge or being kept cold.”

And yes, Panorama was indeed the place for food to go bad. I’ve seen (and smelt) many a bad potato salad get dumped under the stands (much to the delight of stray dogs) because the combination of heat, mayonnaise and onions sent the food right off. Auntie Jean’s pragmatism always paid off, because her food always stayed fresh and no one ever got sick as a result of eating bad food late in the evening.

I also used to look forward to the basket that Miss Stella used to pack for Panorama. She would send her grandson Haydn with a basket full of goodies like coconut bake, sweetbread, pone and cake.

Usually, the women prepare the food and the men take care of the alcohol, but I have to take my hat off to Terry, a soldier I knew from working out in the gym. One year, he cooked the most amazing breadfruit oil down: perfectly seasoned and very, very moreish. We then drank his sea moss, which was sweetened with condensed milk and spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg and more than a dash of Angostura Bitters. Terry’s food was so good, we wanted to lick the styrotex plates clean. But the problem with such heavy food at 2 o’clock in the afternoon was the wave of sleepiness that swept over us not long after. We wanted to wine and jam all afternoon, not find a corner and roll up like a big snake.

Alas, those days are gone, because there is no longer a North Stand. In a few years, the traditional stands will be replaced by a spanking new Carnival centre, which will more than likely come with lots of rules against bringing food and baskets. So you’ll probably have to pay over the odds and buy your food from the concessionaires at the venue—kinda similar to last year’s Cricket World Cup fiasco.

This is a real pity, because I believe the baskets, the coolers and the bad potato salads were truly the essence of a great Panorama picnic.
In keeping with Auntie Jean’s advice of keeping food simple for picnics, here’s an easy recipe for Lemon and Five-Spice Chicken. It’s not much work, and the portions can very easily be adjusted.

Recipe: Lemon and Five Spice Chicken

(from BBC Good Food Magazine)

3 lemons
3 tbsp light muscovado sugar
Thumb-sized piece ginger, shredded
2 garlic cloves, crushed
4 tbsp soy sauce
1/2 tsp Chinese five-spice powder
Splash dry sherry or white wine
8 chicken thighs

Method
1. Juice 1 lemon and cut the other into slices.
2. Put large food bag along with remaining ingredients and shake well to coat. Leave for 20 minutes 10 or up to 24 hours if making ahead).
3. Heat the grill to high.
4. Lift the chicken out of the marinade, shake off excess, then cook under grill or on a barbeque for 20 minutes, spooning over the marinade every few minutes.
5. Turn occasionally, until cooked through and dark golden brown.