I am a native New Yorker of Persian and Trinidadian descent. My name reflects my mixed up background–”Ramin” is Persian male name (I’m not male) and “Ganeshram” is a common South Indian name. My ancestors were not South Indian. We came by the name when my great-grandfather came to Trinidad as an indentured laborer and was given his father’s first name (Ram) as a surname. His own first name was Ganesh. Years later when he took an Anglo name for his given name, Ganesh and Ram got mashed together to become Ganeshram.
I cook and I write professionally and also, (sometimes) for fun. This blog is a place where I hope to write about everything food-wise that interests me but doesn’t neatly have a place in my professional file drawer.
In other words this is where I’m going to chew on stuff and eat out loud (but don’t worry, I won’t talk with my mouth full.)
For most of my life people have been asking me where I’m from, “what kind of name is that?” and other usually just-curious, a lot of the time just-rude questions. But, inquiry is a good thing and it’s made me think lo these many decades about stuff like what is in a name anyway?
My name, like most anyone’s, isn’t just a reflection of where my parents came from (or didn’t) as the case may be, it’s a hook I hang my hat on–particularly when it comes to what I eat. My friend Jeff Yang, expressed this idea incredibly well in this article he wrote for his San Francisco Chronicle Column “Asian Pop“.
When Jeff and I, and our families, got together I made a singularly Trinidadian dish called Pelau. It’s a dish that reflects the hodge podge of culture on that island-nation and, for me, is a stand in for being a lot of different things at once, yet being whole.
Here’s my recipe for pelau, from my book Sweet Hands, Island Cooking from Trinidad & Tobago”
Pelau is one of those dishes that really exemplifies Trinidadian cuisine because it is an admixture of various cooking styles. Pelau (rice layered with meats and vegetables) is a variation of East Indian pilau, which originated in Persia where it is called polow. The Anglicized version of the dish is called pilaf. The process of browning meat in sugar for pelau is an African tradition and ketchup is a New World addition, although I suspect it has its basis in tomato chutneys available in British India and likely brought to Trinidad by the English.
Chicken is the most common meat in pelau but tender cuts of stew beef or lamb work just as well. In Tobago, pelau is often made with crab and that recipe follows this one.
1 cup dried or 1 (12-ounce) can pigeon peas, pinto beans, or black-eyed peas
3 tablespoons canola oil
3/4 cup sugar (white or brown)
1 (3-pound) chicken, cut into 8 pieces, skin removed
1 small onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 cup coconut milk
1 bay leaf
2 teaspoons green seasoning (recipe below)
1/2 cup chopped parsley
1 sprig thyme
2 carrots, peeled and chopped
5 scallions, chopped (white and green parts)
2 cups long-grain rice
2 cups cubed fresh calabaza or butternut squash
1 small Scotch bonnet or other hot red chili pepper, whole
1/2 cup ketchup
1 tablespoon butter
1. If using dried peas or beans, soak them overnight in 3 cups of water. Drain. Bring 3 fresh cups of water to a boil in a saucepan and add the peas or beans. Simmer for 15 minutes, or until almost cooked. Drain and set aside. If using canned peas or beans, drain, rinse with cold water, drain again, and set aside.
2. Heat the oil in a Dutch oven or other heavy deep pot over medium-high heat. Add the sugar and swirl in the pot; allow it to caramelize to a caramel brown color.
3. Add the chicken and stir well to coat. Lower the heat to medium and add the onion and garlic. Cook for 1 to 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Add 2 cups of water, the coconut milk, bay leaf, green seasoning, parsley, thyme, carrots, and scallions. Cover and simmer over medium-low heat for 10 minutes.
4. Meanwhile wash the rice by placing it in a deep bowl and adding enough cold water to cover. Swirl the rice with your hand until the water is cloudy and then pour off the water, taking care not to pour out the rice. Repeat 3 to 4 times or until the water becomes clear. Drain well and set aside.
5. Stir the rice into the chicken mixture along with the peas or beans, squash, hot pepper, ketchup, and butter. Cover and cook for 20 minutes, or until the peas and vegetables are tender.
6. Remove the lid and fluff the rice. The rice should be moist but not sticky. Remove bay leaf and thyme sprig. Serve with Trini Coleslaw (recipe below).
Makes 1 cup
Green Seasoning is one of those spice mixtures that is unique to the Caribbean and differs slightly from island to island. It is used in a huge number of Trinidadian dishes. In Trinidad, it’s distinguished by the use of shado beni (Mexican culantro), a local herb very much like cilantro. Fresh shado beni can sometimes be found in West Indian markets, but if not, fresh cilantro is a good substitute.
3 tablespoons chopped fresh chives
1 tablespoon chopped fresh shado beni or cilantro leaves
2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme
1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
4 cloves garlic, minced
1. Process all the ingredients in a food processor until the mixture forms a thick paste. Alternatively, process in a blender with 2 tablespoons of vinegar.
2. Use immediately, or store in a tightly sealed glass jar in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.
Coleslaw is known to have been prepared by the Dutch and later the English in the American colonies, so it is tempting to think those same settlers brought the dish to the Caribbean on one of the many circular trade routes between North America, Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean. Truthfully, I have not been able to find any evidence supporting this idea and I’m not really sure how coleslaw came to Trinidad. It could very well be a latter twentieth century addition to the Caribbean culinary repertoire, like hamburgers and hot dogs.
Trinidadian coleslaw doesn’t employ mayonnaise, perhaps a practical food safety measure given the country’s heat.
1 small red onion, thinly sliced
1/2 cup white vinegar
3 tablespoons brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon coarse or kosher salt
1/4 head green cabbage, shredded
1/4 head red cabbage, shredded
2 carrots, shredded
3 tablespoons minced pimiento peppers
5 shado beni or cilantro leaves, minced
1. In a large bowl, mix onion, vinegar, brown sugar, and salt. Whisk together to dissolve the sugar and salt.
2. Add the cabbages, carrots, and pimiento pepper to the vinegar mixture and toss well. Cover and set aside to macerate for at least one hour and up to overnight in the refrigerator.
3. Toss in the shado beni leaves just before serving