Plenty pepper: The nation’s street food staples have Asian flavour

 

Before Trinidad and Tobago declared independence in 1962, the twin-island republic was ruled by France, Spain and the UK. A common element between these periods was the heavy reliance on a labour force often comprising indigenous Amerindian people, as well as immigrant workers from Africa, India and, to a lesser extent, China, the Middle East and Portugal.

T&T’s rich historical and cultural legacy, mixed with today’s cultural influence from Latin America – due to the country’s close proximity to Venezuela and migration flows – have allowed for a rich mosaic of traditions to permeate every aspect of T&T’s society. While the twin-island republic’s arts, music and well-known Carnival festivities have clear roots in African culture, the local cuisine is dominated by the Indian ancestry of a large portion of the local population.

Indo-Trini Culture

According to figures reported by anthropologist Philip Scher, 94,135 migrants from India arrived in T&T between 1874 and 1917, with a significant portion of these coming from India’s northern provinces. To escape poverty, the 19th century Indo-Trini immigrants sought out employment in the British colonies as indentured labourers or educated servicemen. Although various aspects of the Indian cultural landscape, such as films and music, are still present among Indo-Trinidadians, Indian cuisine is the legacy that has most successfully been integrated into the mainstream national culture.

Indian Cuisine

In addition to the creole dishes of pelau and callaloo, some of the most popular Trinidadian dishes include curried meat (most notably chicken, duck and goat), roti and doubles. Most Indo-Trinidadians reside in the southern and eastern regions of Trinidad, yet roti and doubles can be found almost anywhere on the island. This is less true in Tobago, where most of the population is of African origin. Trinidadian roti is made of a roasted flatbread served with curried meat and assorted vegetables, such as pumpkin, potato and green beans. Trinidadian varieties of roti include dhalpouri, dosti, buss up shut (paratha) and sada roti. The significant diaspora of Trinbagonians in Canada, UK and the US has also made some of these local dishes successful abroad.

Doubles

Together with the bake and shark sandwiches often savoured at Maracas bay, doubles are arguably the most popular street food consumed in T&T. The term doubles refers to an unwrapped sandwich made up of two layers of barra (flatbread), topped with two large spoonfuls of curried chana (chickpeas) and served on a small piece of waxed paper. Barra are palm-sized, thin disks made of a fried mix of flour, salt, baking powder and ground turmeric. Optional toppings for doubles include mango, coriander, cucumber, coconut, tamarind or extra pepper sauce.

Culinary Innovation

Theories on the origins of doubles are linked to urban legend rather than verified facts. One story describes doubles as a local adaptation of Indian chole bhature, a dish originating from the Punjab region and made from a combination of spicy chickpea sauce called chana masala and fried bhatura bread.

The most fascinating theories point out the differences between the ways in which the two dishes are served (chole bhature is generally pre-wrapped and can include a wide variety of fillings other than chana) to describe doubles as an entirely Trinidadian culinary innovation. In local stories the entrepreneurial spirit of Indo-Trinidadians takes centre stage when it comes to the origins of this culinary innovation.

According to one of the most widely spread legends, the origin of doubles dates back to the 1930s, when many East Indian families, once released from their indentured labour, set up stalls to sell curried chana in paper cones in order to earn a living. When a vendor in Five Rivers, a village close to the eastern city of Arouca, realised the potential of turning the chana into a complete meal, a piece of flat bread, the barra, was added. As the new dish grew in popularity, consumers started to ask vendors to “double up” on the portion of barra.

A vendor named Emamool “Mamoo” Deen, born in 1917 in the southern village of Piparo, is reported to have taken the business to the next level. In 1936, in Princess Town, he started serving the dish under the brand Deen’s Doubles. In an effort to save time and money, he began serving a combination of chana and double barra on a waxed piece of paper as opposed to the traditional paper cone. Mamoo Deen then relocated to the San Juan area and continued selling doubles before the business closing due to familial issues. At the same time, his brothers-in-law Asgar and Choate Ali, also from Princess Town, successfully expanded to the San Fernando area. Until recently, Naparima College in San Fernando was considered by many to be the undisputed historical starting point of the doubles business by the Ali family. However, in the 2014 book Out of the Doubles Kitchen, one of Mamoo’s sons, Badru Deen, reclaimed his father’s place as the inventor of doubles.

Deen is able to enrich his narrative with several testimonials confirming his father’s entrepreneurial spirit in bringing this iconic delicacy to life. Mamoo is described as selling doubles out of a pigtail bucket inside of a yellow-painted wooden box, which was installed on a freight bicycle.

Street Vending

Beyond the clash of narratives on the origins of doubles, the business has now evolved into a multimillion-dollar industry employing hundreds of informal street vendors. Today’s doubles vendors are generally found working in teams of two on the street corners of Trinidad’s busiest areas. Buckets and wooden boxes are still used by street vendors so that they can be easily identified by loyal customers.

As a volume-based business, speed and efficiency are key to success. Therefore, while one of the vendors serves customers from behind a box containing barra, chana, pepper sauce and other toppings, his partner collects the payments. Customers line up in front of the box and place their order. Although some might want to personalise their doubles with the different toppings available, the key information to be added to the “give meh ah doubles” formula is the amount of pepper sauce desired. The standard measures are considered to be no pepper, slight pepper, medium pepper or plenty pepper doubles.

Foreign customers should be mindful that T&T is known to have one of the hottest pepper varieties in the world. When the desired amount of doubles is consumed, the second vendor collects the money owed. A less frequent variation to doubles is triples, which consist of an additional piece of barra placed on top of the chana.

Geolocalisation 

Doubles are generally consumed for breakfast, in the evening or late at night. Long lines are a common sight near the most popular vendors, often starting in the early morning near the island’s busiest intersections. Late in the evening, doubles are a popular snack in Trinidad’s nightlife areas, most notably on the lively Ariapita Avenue in Port of Spain.

Broadly speaking, different regions follow slightly different recipes. Doubles sold in the eastern areas of Trinidad, especially in the areas of Curepe and Valsayn for instance, are characterised by a thicker barra topped by what many Trinidadians deem to be a tastier version of chana.

Double Inflation

Until the end of 2015 doubles were priced at TT$4 ($0.62) each, while triples cost TT$5 ($0.77). Local media reported that the government’s decision to reduce the fuel subsidy in October 2015 was followed by an immediate reaction by some street vendors; many raised doubles prices by TT$1 ($0.15) as a result of the indirect economic impact of the increase in petrol and diesel prices. The announcement was received with public outrage, with many pointing out that doubles vendors bear minimal taxes and overhead costs. By early 2016 most vendors had permanently raised their price to TT$5 ($0.77). Doubles vendors quoted in local media noted that “the TT$1 increase has not affected sales, yet”.

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