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By Dave DeWitt and Mary Jane Wilan
- Tiki Village Congo Pepper Sauce
- Johnny's Food Have Pepper Sauce
- Royal Castle Fried Chicken
Date: August, 1992
In Which We Take a B-Wee,
Lime About, Eat Congo Peppers,
Meet Shadow Bennie, and
Solve the Riddle of the Mystery Tombstone
"Two unspoiled islands, one country--Trinidad and Tobago," pronounced Brian Kuei Tung, Minister of Trade, Industry and Tourism. Mary Jane and I were sitting in his spacious high-rise office, overlooking the Port of Spain harbor, and I was wearing long pants in honor of meeting a cabinet minister. "We don't allow logging, so the rain forests are intact. And we don't allow high-rise hotels to spoil our beaches."
Say what? Was I hearing this right? A country that actually was protecting its scenic beauty and not caving in to big business and developers? Unbelievable. And even more unbelievable was the fact that we were in Trinidad.
It was all Dennis Hayes' doing. I had met Dennis, marketing director of The Crossing Press, at the American Booksellers Association convention in Anaheim, and out of the blue he had asked one simple question.
"Dave, I'm looking for a writer for a book on the cuisine and music of Trinidad. Any suggestions?"
My mind flashed first to my extensive collection of calypso, steel drum, and soca music. Then to the framed map of the Caribbean over my desk and the location of Trinidad, just off the coast of Venezuela. Then to the face of a friend who lived in Port of Spain: Marie Permenter. And she was in the food business. Uh huh!
"Dennis, good buddy," I said, "wouldn't this writer have to do some research down there?"
"How soon can you leave?" he asked.
Actually, several months passed before the contract was formalized and we left for T&T, enough time for Mary Jane to agree to be a co-author and to buy some "Punch M-3" capsaicin spray (she never had to use it). Meanwhile I met various writing deadlines, did some preliminary research, and allowed Marie Pementer to plan every moment of our lives for two solid weeks. A flood of faxes from Port of Spain with appointments and schedules proved that we were headed to paradise to work, not to party. Or so we thought.
Down de Islands Via B-Wee
After island-hopping to Barbados and Grenada, our B-Wee (BWIA) flight landed at the Piarco International Airport outside of Port of Spain. My mind was asking the four most important questions of a visitor: Where do I sleep, where do I eat, how do I get around, and where do I buy beer? Fortunately, all of those questions were soon answered. We were staying at the Kapok, a friendly hotel adjacent to the beautiful Queen's Park Savannah--a 200-acre park in the middle of the city. We were eating out twice a day, every day. Because of the narrow, streets and crazed drivers in Port of Spain, we were taking taxis everywhere. And the local favorite beer, Carib, was available at corner markets. Cheap. That was a good omen, I thought.
The first full day was Emanicipation Day and nearly everthing was closed for the holiday. But the Botanic Gardens near the Kapok were open, as as we strolled through the lush foliage, I thought: This is my kind of country. It's summer all year long. The phones work. There are palm trees, pepper plants, the language doesn't need constant translation, and the literacy rate of the people is ninety-seven percent.
While buying some Carib at a market a block from the Kapok, I spotted some fresh peppers that looked like gigantic habaneros. "What do you call these?" I asked the clerk and she said, "Congo peppers." Back at the hotel, I cut them open and the pungent fumes drove Mary Jane out of the room coughing. It was the characteristic apricot aroma of the habanero.
Congo Pepper in Mary Jane's Hand
Later that afternoon I found some locally published cookbooks and brushed up on the culinary history of T&T. I soon learned that the diversity of food on the islands was the result of one wave of immigrants after another. First, the Spanish occupied Trinidad and adopted many of the foods and cooking techniques of the indigenous Arawaks. Then the Spanish invited French immigration, and the French brought with them herbs, spices, and garlic--hallmarks of T&T cookery today. Accompanying the Frenchmen were African slaves, who brought their own ingredients and cooking styles.
The British conquered Trinidad in 1797 and introduced breadfruit to feed the slaves, as well as tamarind from the East Indies. They also brought turnips and cabbage to Trinidad, two common vegetables in T&T markets today. After the abolition of slavery in 1838, more immigrants arrived to work in the sugar cane fields: the Portuguese, East Indians, and Chinese. Over the years, the immigrant foods became very popular in the country, and curries and chop suey were commonly served in homes and restaurants. Today, T&T has the most diverse cuisine of any of the Caribbean islands--and we dove into it right away with a meal of callaloo (an exquisite dasheen soup) and grilled kingfish at the Cafe Savannah.
To "lime," according to a local dictionary of Trini-slang, is "to pass the time in idle pleasure." It describes every possible form of indulgence except Carnival, which is more of a frantic than an idle pleasure. Liming is hangin' out, goofin' off, fishin', drivin', swimmin', boatin', picnickin', and generally just doing anything one wants to do. We were invited to lime about at a dinner party the next day at the home Marie Permenter shares with Vernon and Irene Montrichard, which overlooks a lovely bay. These three entrepreneurs founded the Royal Castle chain of spicy chicken and chips restaurants in 1968, then fought off the invasion of Kentucky Fried Chicken, and are currently setting sales records at twelve locations in T&T. Trinidadians love chicken, and they especially love Royal Castle chicken, which is marinated in a special hot sauce of congo peppers and herbs before being fried.
At the party we met the cast of characters Marie and Vernon had lined up to be our culinary guides. Mikey and Nancy Ramesar gave us lessons on East Indian cooking West Indian-style. Keith Nexar and Steve Mathura, directors of AdVantage, the advertising agency responsible for much of Royal Castle's success, set up interviews for us and even arranged our appearance on local television. Michael Coelho, marketing director of the Royal Castle chain, was our main guide and drove us all over Trinidad.