Foodbuzz Challenge #2: The Classics

NOTE: you can vote for this entry here

As stated on my Project Food Blog profile, the best way to describe my foodie heritage is a combination of corned beef and cabbage along with callaloo and macaroni pie. Any guesses? I come from a mix of Irish and Trinidadian heritage. So when I read the second challenge put forth to us food bloggers, I knew I wanted to make one of Trinidad’s most popular national dishes: curry chicken and dal puri roti.

Having been born and raised in Vancouver (Canada), I was not overly exposed to this particular cuisine. There has never been a large population of Trinidadians living in my neck of the woods, especially in comparison to cities like Toronto, Montreal or Brooklyn. This made finding authentic curry powders and other Trini ingredients a challenge. Most often we would have to wait until my father would come back from a visit to Trinidad, armed with a suitcase full of the latest calypso tracks, West Indian curry, sorrel leaves, split pea powder, and even roti made fresh by my grandmother along with her famous black cake which we always saved and served at Christmas. Come to think of it, I’m not sure how my father managed to get through customs! Each time he returned home he brought with him a suitcase full of Caribbean culture and flavour.

With the majority of my Trinidadian relatives living a world away, I grew up watching my mother make dishes like curry chicken as it had been taught to her by my grandmother. There were times she would attempt to make dal puri roti from scratch, but each time it only ended in tears and a steady stream of curses. I think she is being polite when she describes the process as “heartbreaking”. The challenge with this type of roti is in being able to roll it out and avoid having the filling break through the dough. If you were lucky enough to overcome this hurdle, the next obstacle was getting the roti to puff beautifully on the griddle or ‘tawa’ in order to produce an end result that was light and fluffy. My mother’s frustrations taught me at an early age that it was best to avoid making roti. Eventually even she stopped trying.

So for the purpose of this challenge, Mr. Spock and I decided to make our own curry powder and dal puri roti from scratch. The first thing I did was dust off a cookbook. Surprised?! Didn’t think so! The particular book I chose as my guide was Sweet Hands: Island Cooking from Trinidad & Tobago by Ramin Ganeshram (available online here).

Curry is a staple in Trinidadian kitchens. Locals will often say that in their country people will curry anything given a chance! But the important thing to note is the difference in flavour to East Indian curry. I find the curry powders from Trinidad tend to be milder, their flavour more rounded and slightly sweet due to the absence of hot peppers. This omission is due to the preference of most Trinidadians for adding fresh hot peppers and hot pepper sauce to taste, using heat more as a condiment as opposed to an ingredient.

The results of our efforts was amazing.

Nothing was missing. The aromas were all there just as I remembered! I’m thinking that what made the difference were the ingredients left out from a typical East Indian Madras style curry powder, including cinnamon, allspice, ginger, garlic powder and saffron. (If you have any thoughts or suggestions on the topic of curry powder, I would love to hear your comments!)

My grandmother always used to tell my mother that the most important thing to do when making curry chicken is to marinate the meat beforehand, at least 24 hours. So we found a recipe for green seasoning in Ramin Ganeshram’s cookbook and let the chicken rest overnight. Rather than a liquid marinade, green seasoning consists of a thick paste of fresh herbs and garlic.

Cooking the chicken was straightforward, most of the work having been done the day before when making the curry powder and green seasoning.

We made a curry powder paste and cooked it in some oil with chopped onion before adding the chicken, covering with chicken stock and simmering for an hour. Easy. Simple. And the taste? Devine. This was hands down the best chicken curry I have ever tasted. It was full of robust flavours, the freshness of the green seasoning in no way getting lost in the spices from the curry powder. Every flavour worked together in harmony.

There are different types of Trinidadian roti, but dal puri is the most popular by far. It just so happens to be the most difficult to make. If done properly, the roti will inflate with steam during the cooking process.

At the end of the day I’m proud to say that my initial foray into the world of homemade roti was a success! It tasted great, although there was definitely room for improvement on my technique. Next time I would like the roti to be thinner and lighter in texture. But I guess the point is that there will be a next time; because there definitely will!

I hope this post has given you an insight into the rich culinary culture and flavours Trinidad has to offer!

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