Thursday, March 29, 2012

Trinidadian Cuisine

Thanks to some wonderful family friends, I've been eating Trinidadian cuisine since before I could talk. To me, it's Indian food meets comfort food: I enjoy traditional East Indian cuisine, but often find the spices too hot and the flavors too complicated. Trini food has all the savor of India with all the mmm mmm good of soul food. It is an omniverous cuisine, but due to the heavy Hindu influences of the region, it is extremely easy to find vegetarian fare on the menu, and many of the Trini specialities are in fact vegan. Dal, aka lentils, channa, aka chickpeas, roti, aka flatbread, and a host of veggies and fruit chutneys prevail.

The best Trinidadian food I've ever eaten was of course made by my adopted Trini grandma Maria, followed by the beach vendor food I ate while visiting Trinidad, and I've often lamented that the few places to get authentic Trini food in New York are in the wilds of Queens and Brooklyn. Thus, imagine my excitement when I discovered the grand opening of Elsie's, a Caribbean restaurant on 135th and Lenox (aka 7th), which has a big sign outside declaring those magical words: We Have Roti!!

Elsie's doesn't specify which region of the Caribbean its cuisine hails from, but the Trini influences are unmistakable. Their primary claim to fame is their roti. If you've had East Indian roti, it pales in comparison to its West Indian counterpart. Trini roti is an enormous, ultra-thin, doughy bread pliable enough to fold up like a burrito (yet even softer and chewier than a tortilla), with an internal layer of delectable crumblies made from dal (lentils) and assorted spices. (It's also known as a dalpuri, but isn't exactly like East Indian dalpuri either.) Roti can either be cut into triangles and used to sop up other foods or filled with curries and folded up like a burrito. At Elsie's they use the second option, and you can choose 5 fillings for your veggie roti (which, incidentally, is roughly the size of your head, so come hungry.)

The most traditional filling for the roti is channa aloo, aka curried chickpeas with potatoes. (It's so traditional that when the waiter asked what I wanted in my roti and I answered, channa aloo, he said, well obviously, but what else?) I've happily devoured pounds of roti filled only with this delicacy, but at Elsie's one has other options to supplement the staple ingredient. I highly recommend the callalloo, another Trini speciality which Elsie's does to perfection: chunks of spinach and okra are blended into coconut milk for a result so rich I almost can't believe it's vegan (it is-- I asked). Their callalloo is reminiscent of alfredo sauce with its thick, cloying decadence. Yams, rice and peas (not the green ones Mom made you eat-- West Indian "peas" are beans), plantains and several other veggie options. The food is well-spiced but not water-guzzling hot, and so filling you will wish they had a bed for you to lie down in immediately after eating!

I highly recommend that you A. Visit Trinidad, B. Find a Trini grandma of your own, or C. Venture to the aforementioned wilds of Queens or Brooklyn (Lefferts Blvd and Crown Heights are probably your best bets) in search of truly authentic Trini food (or start making your own: recipes coming soon), but in the interim, Elsie's is a welcome addition to the Harlem Caribbean restaurants for those of us who live uptown and simply cannot survive without roti!

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