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Unlike most destinations in the Caribbean, Trinidad’s economy is not dependent on tourism. The oil-rich island does just fine without competing for its share of sun-seeking tourists. This is a shame, because many potential visitors have only a hazy knowledge of Trinidad, and most of that knowledge revolves around the island’s annual Carnival celebration, arguably the biggest blowout party in the Caribbean.
In reality, the destination has a lot for travelers. An offering near the top of the list is the country’s cuisine, which has developed from Trinidad’s multicultural history, with contributions from Spanish, British and French colonialists, as well as East Indian immigrants and slaves from Africa.
East Indian people make up 40 percent of the population in Trinidad, and their cultural influence is front and center, from “chutney soca” music to cooking that utilizing spices from their homeland. Travelers will discover how easy it is to find delicious curries made with chicken, duck, crab or shrimp.
A hearty Indian sandwich is the “roti,” which is a wrap stuffed with curried meat and vegetables. The Trinidad roti first made the scene in the 1940s and was popular because it could be eaten on the fly, since the wrapped flatbread kept a person’s hands free of messy sauces.
Another Trini favorite is “doubles,” which many locals purchase from street vendors as a quick breakfast on the go. Doubles are fried flatbread sandwiches, most often filled with curried chickpeas and dressed with a choice of mango chutney, tamarind sauce, pepper sauce and coconut.
African people who labored on Trinidad as slaves were often given the cast-off kitchen scraps from white colonialists. Africans also needed to forage for themselves on the island in order to nourish themselves. Some of the most delicious meals on Trinidad have their roots in this heritage, such as oxtail soup and "callaloo,” a spicy soup made from the spinach-like leaves of the dasheen plant. Other outstanding dishes that showcase a Creole influence include Creole corn soup and fish broth, a Trini version of bouillabaisse.
Visitors to Trinidad will find plenty of restaurants to choose from, including those specializing in Creole cooking. The widest selection are in Port of Spain, Trinidad’s capital city.
The not-to-be-missed meal on Trinidad — the bake and shark — does not (as far as I can tell) have its roots in the island’s colonial history. Gourmand globetrotter Andrew Zimmern, host of television show “Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern,” declared the bake-and-shark sandwich as one of his nine favorite sandwiches from around the world.
Luckily, there’s nothing bizarre about bake and shark. The “bake” in the name actually refers to the sandwich roll, which contains a breaded and fried fish filet — which may be shark meat if it’s available, but increasingly, the catch of the day is substituted. The fish is dressed to impress, with a huge range of condiments at a diner’s disposal, including chopped lettuce, habanero pepper sauce, tamarind, cilantro, garlic sauce and mango salsa.
The absolute best place to enjoy bake and shark is Maracas Beach, which is about a 45-minute drive out of Port of Spain. There are a number of simple beachside eateries serving this treat, but the most famous is Richard’s Bake & Shark. When I make the trip out to Maracas Beach, I always stop at the roadside vendors along the route who sell pickled fruits such as mangoes, peaches and cherries.
To indulge of some of the island’s best offerings, I recommend staking out a spot on the beach, catching a few waves, lunching on a bake and shark and snacking on preserved fruits. It will all add up to an unforgettable day in Trinidad.