Why is Great Food So Hard to Find?
Quick. List ten places, in Trinidad and Tobago, where you can find food that makes you want to forget your table manners, lick your fingers, and suck the juices from the bones on your plate.
Trinidad and Tobago has the best food in the Caribbean. Right? Ask any native, myself included, and that’s the boast you’ll hear. But within recent years, I’ve found myself disappointed with the food I buy, and hard-pressed to recite a long list of eateries that give you culinary orgasms.
“Girl too much people want to get rich fast and giving yuh ah set ah hurry food to eat.”
Or…maybe it’s because some cooks can only make food ‘lash’ (South slang for taste good), if they’re cooking small portions. Bulk food means ‘buss’ food for them. Maybe it’s because some vendors are cooking for the tourists, and assume that they don’t know what well-seasoned food tastes like. Whatever it is, I’m more inclined to think about eating before I leave home, because I’m not assured of easily finding great food around ever corner I turn.
Remember back in the day, when most places sold ‘bess’ food? When you could easily list more than two places, within a reasonable distance, that made you salivate just thinking about what to order?
When last yuh eat a mouth-watering chinee food, roti or bar-b-que?
Of course, there are some places where you can still find great food. Thank God, for people like Dubby at Carib Clippers Bar in Lopinot Junction, whose fried chicken often sells out by 8 p.m. on a Friday and Saturday night, La Romain bar-b-que (though that drive is a once-in-a-blue-moon adventure for me), or the lady, selling Creole food, on the corner of tenth avenue in Barataria.
But finding good…wait…great food is like going on an expedition. The other puzzling part is seeing some places filled to capacity, and you know that when you sampled the food, it tasted like mess. How could people be ‘nyammin’ it down so?
Some people, like my friend Kijana, think finding good food is even harder, if you’re more conscious about eating healthy. “More often than not you end up with a choice between unhealthy, unhealthier and unhealthiest,” he says.
Food is a subjective topic. What I think tastes bad may taste absolutely delicious to you. I’ve heard some people rave about Highway Roti, just off Solomon Hochoy Highway, and I’ve heard others say, “I doh know what’s the big deal. It doh taste so hot.”
I’ve found that some of the best food comes from someone who sells food from home, or a little ‘hole in de wall’ place.
One of my favourites was a Chinee man, operating next to the pet store on the Eastern Main Road in San Juan, opposite Republic Bank, who said he cooked with the hands of God. His supernatural abilities would have you waiting for at least 15 to 20 minutes for some fried rice, chicken, and mixed vegetables, while he talked…and talked…and talked. I’ve even waited 40 minutes, after ordering something that wasn’t on the usual menu.
Despite all the telepathic cusswords we sent his way, my co-workers and I would always say the wait was worth it. It didn’t matter that he operated from a “hole-in-de-wall” spot. Plus, you saw everything he was doing right in front of you, so you felt comfortable eating his food.
His dishes never needed soy sauce and ketchup. He didn’t even offer condiments. He cooked his food in a special sauce, and insisted on giving you his homemade pepper sauce, claiming it improved one’s sexual prowess (I told you he used to talk…and talk).
Sadly, he closed the spot back in 2009.
If we want to boast about having the best food in the Caribbean, I want to find great food almost everywhere.
Even Trinis who live abroad sometimes complain about not getting their food cravings met, when they come home.
“I’ve come to the realization that I am better off eating at home than eating out,” says Jenilee. “I remember missing a KFC cruncher so much that I would ask anyone coming up to bring me one. Now, most times I’m satisfied with a pack of kurma to eat while drinking my tea.
“The crave to eat out is gone. Mario’s pizza is no longer what it used to be…Long Tang and Chinese Wok are gone, the hole-in-the-wall burger place on Frederick street is gone…UWI doubles is no longer worth piling up in the van to go get. There are some places where the food is pretty good, though, for example, El Pecos.
“But it seems that Trinidad has moved away from local cuisine being the thing to have. Now it’s Wendy’s, or sushi, or breakfast at the Hyatt, as opposed to breakfast at the Breakfast Shed. I am more inclined to stay home, have my aunt make me some buljol and some piping hot fry bake, just the way I like it, and feel satisfied. And there is always Richards’ bake and something…dat eh shark…that still hits the spot.”
My friend Latoya feels the same way, and says, “It’s almost as if Trinis don’t like Trini food anymore.” Every time she wants to lime, people suggest the American-type restaurants, and she has to insist they find real Trini food – especially if she brings her American friends along for the ride.
Franka, a food connoisseur, and foodie blogger, in her own right, says: “I find the standard in some restaurants is very high, but there are lots of people opening restaurants that are long on glitz, but short on substance. The most affordable and best tasting food is surely at the ‘lower end’ of the market places. I had a few fantastic meals at the Breakfast Shed when I was at home last…But I have to admit that when I found things that I was craving they were usually less good than I expected. Case in point Guinness ice cream. I had been craving it and when I finally got it, it was too sweet and lacked any spice.”
See…it’s not just me who feels this way. I’ve been surrounded by great cooks all of my life, so I know that my taste buds know the difference between great food, and food that’s only meant to stave off gas pains. I want to go out and have a wealth of options. Make me act greedy nah! It probably won’t help my waistline, but it won’t lead me to walk around, grimacing through gas pains, because I can’t stand the thought of spending my hard-earned money on dishes that obviously weren’t cooked with love.
I still believe that Trinidad and Tobago has some of the best food in the Caribbean – especially because of our multicultural makeup and adventurous approach to cooking. But tell me if you share my view. Do you think that the quality of food has decreased in the past few years? What are some of the places that still hit the spot for you?
Image courtesy Richard Jobity.