Emerging from Pataraj with a stash of rotis
My first bizarre encounter with Trinidad and Tobago was a Miss Universe pageant. A gorgeous, exotic contestant in a bright, tiny outfit resplendent with feathers, strutted past the camera in the national costume parade beaming “Trinidad and Tobagoooooo”. I remember thinking: I have no idea where that is, but it must be one interesting place.
So, here I am. Port of Spain, Trinidad. The southernmost island in the Caribbean, so much so that a peninsula on the western side of the island is almost licked by a finger of Venezuela, Sistene Chapel-style, just 16km across the water.
You get to pick your fillings!
Trinidad and Tobago is a deeply fascinating place, a country of 1.3 million people whose Carnivale in February is the Big Daddy of all Caribbean carnivals. People come from all around the world to slip on the smallest costumes possible, and jiggle for four days of music, madness and debauchery.
The two islands have different histories, but basically both involved elbowing between France, England and Spain (among others), finally ending up as British colonies dominated by sugar and other agriculture. Once slavery was abolished in 1834, indentured workers flooded in from India as the African population thumbed their noses at the poor working conditions offered to them.
Today’s Trinidad and Tobago has a population dominated by Indians (known in these parts as “West Indians” for obvious reasons) and African-descendents, each of which account for about 40% of the nation’s people. The rest are a mix of various nationalities, including Chinese, Venezuelans, Syrians and Lebanese. Naturally, this means you can find some of the best food in the Caribbean right here!
Fill 'er up
Apart from being the most ethnically diverse place in this part of the world, it’s also pretty much the richest too. In the late 90’s, the discovery of natural gas and petroleum reserves stabilised the economy although, even today, around 20% of the population lives in poverty. This relative wealth makes Trinidad and Tobago very important within the Caribbean region.
In April, the longstanding Prime Minister called a snap election around 3 years before he needed to. Politics is very much race-based here, the Prime Minister was smashed, and the Indian party swept to power, installing TT’s first ever female PM. Not a bad thing since there is still a lot of sex discrimination here – women tend to earn 50% less than the men in equivalent positions. However, this particular change has proved to be a critical development for the project I’m working on. You can read why here
I’m here for a meeting on Monday, so I arrived on Friday night so I can explore a little, and hang out in my favourite hotel, the Hyatt in Port of Spain! (Seriously, I like just knocking around the place)
The hungry crowd inside the Hott Shoppe - they even sell six-packs of rotis in boxes!
I made it my mission on this trip to taste the dish that Trinidad and Tobago is most famous for: the Roti. A stretchy, strong thin Indian bread wrapped around a curry filling of meat and/or vegetables. Naturally, I commenced my research online and discovered that two of the best-known places in Port-of-Spain are Pataraj and The Hott Shoppe. I located a friendly taxi driver, and explained my quest: to sample some of the best rotis in the area, and together we set out.
Picnic in the park
Rotis are traditionally a lunchtime food as they are pretty bulky, and they are predominantly a street food, although there are plenty of shops that make them too. If you have a hankering for a morning or evening snack, you can try Doubles, which are a fluffy, deep-fried Indian bread (alot like a Malaysian Roti Chanai) folded around curried chick peas and other sauces. They are sensational – I managed to nab a couple at the airport on my way to the dreamy Hyatt.
I got myself a shrimp roti with potato, channai and spinach from Pataraj, and a chicken and mango curry roti from the Hot Shoppe.
The verdict? Rotis are totally yummy, with a variety of tasty fillings and locals are totally mad for them. Even online, there are discussion groups debating the best rotis where ex-pats inform each other where they can find the most authentic and tasty rotis outside of TT. Trinidadians and Tobagonians living elsewhere are so desperate for them that the Hott Shoppe even sells frozen roti skins for travel!