A Trinidadian Cookbook That Tastes Like Home
Cooking up memories from the Naparima Girls' High School Cookbook.
Howdy cookbook fans!
Today we have a treat from writer Car Drakes, who is here to tell us all about one of her favorite cookbooks: the Naparima Girls’ High School Cookbook. First published in 1988 and reissued in 2002, the Naparima cookbook highlights the vibrant and diverse flavors of Trinidad and Tobago, where Drakes’ family is from. I’ll let her tell you what this book means to her, and so many other Trinidadian-Americans looking for a taste of home. (Plus a recipe for Doubles!) Car, take it away!
Today’s issue of Stained Page News is brought to you by Hardie Grant Publishing. Thalis are a celebration of fresh ingredients that encompass the whole range of flavors of Indian cuisine and display to perfection its sheer regional variety. Hot, sour, spicy, crispy, tangy and sweet: these are the flavors our palates yearn for and the thali offers the marriage of all these flavors on one plate. Maunika Gowardhan’s Thali provides plenty of fresh recipe inspiration that not only shows you how to create delicious tasting Indian food in your own kitchens, but how to balance the variety of flavors and textures within each one when creating your own thali at home.
Finding My Way Home With the Naparima Girls’ High School Cookbook
By Car Drakes
Like most Trinidadian-Americans, I was raised on Trinidadian cuisine. And like many first-generation kids, I was raised on my grandmother’s cooking. My core childhood memories consist of standing on a step stool in the kitchen watching her rifle through cabinets and shelves, looking for nutmeg or bay leaves. She would say, “It must be behind God’s back.” Whatever she couldn’t find had seemingly been transported to some other plane, a dimension that we knew was real but couldn’t access. Two things she could always find, though: On her stove was her roti tawa, a flat cast-iron griddle, and on her shelf was her decade-old copy of Naparima Girl’s High School Cookbook.
So let me now go back, or rather, south, to another plane—through the undulating hills of Trinidad and Tobago to Naparima Girls’ High School. Perched atop La Pique Hill, this school overlooks San Fernando, the town where my mother grew up. Naparima Girls’ High School (hereby referred to as Naparima) was founded in 1912 to teach girls in tandem with the boys’ school, Naparima College (informally known as Naps). Naps was founded in 1894 and was one of the country’s first schools to educate Indo-Trinidadians, playing a crucial role in establishing an Indo-Trinidadian and Tobagonian professional class.
Naparima’s iconic landmark is its tamarind tree, planted in 1917, which still stands and offers a shady refuge for students today. Journalist Yvonne Webb mentions that the tree, like the school, is emblematic of “pride and poise.” Tamarinds are plentiful in Trinidad and incorporated in snacks such as tamarind balls, a childhood favorite. It’s no surprise, then, that this twin-island nation’s most beloved cookbook came from Naparima.
The first edition of Naparima’s cookbook was published in 1988 after being conceived of by the Alumnae Association to commemorate the school’s Diamond Jubilee in 1987. The goals were clear: to represent Trinidad and Tobago’s diverse cuisine, to provide recipes for both special occasions and everyday use, and to feature Trinidad’s unique and abundant local produce. My grandmother’s copy was a much older edition than those that can be found today–the tattered cover was hot pink, with a black and white photograph of the school on the front. The second edition, published in 2002, is updated with metric conversion tables for those unfamiliar with the metric system and nutritional facts provided in collaboration with the University of the West Indies and the Caribbean Food and Nutrition Institute. These updated editions have a photo of fresh produce taken by photographer Harold Prieto on the cover.
Recipes in the book are thorough and straightforward, covering nearly every facet of foundational Trinbagonian cuisine. The book includes recipes for perfect doubles (an immensely popular street food consisting of curried chickpeas couched between fried flatbread and dressed with tamarind, chutney, cucumber, or whatever one’s preference), roti, and pholourie, a fried snack made from flour and chickpeas and served with chutney. There are Syrian/Lebanese dishes, such as libby and sleak. The ‘Cuisine of Other Countries’ section details Caribbean favorites like Grenada’s national stew oil down, Jamaican beef patties, and Guyana’s national dish, pepperpot. There are even recipes for Indonesian shrimp, and hummus from scratch. Trinidad’s prevalent international cuisines also have their own dedicated sections, such as East Indian Cuisine (which differs from the Indian food typically served in the US) and Chinese cuisine.
Jahquari Greene, a West Indian chef who regularly hosts pop-ups in Portland and New York, also has a copy of Naparima Girl’s High School Cookbook on his shelf. He says that “the first time I used the book, I had to be in undergrad. That was when I first tried to get a handle on Trinidadian cuisine.” His menu now includes personalized takes on roti, doubles, and sorrel, the recipes for which can all be found in the Naparima cookbook.
Greene’s favorite dish to make from the book is doubles. “The recipe for the bara dough that I use is in that book…my grandmother purchased [it] for me on one of her many trips to Trinidad, along with a roti tawa.” While the book hasn’t necessarily shaped his cooking style, like many Trini-Americans, he refers back to it while honing his take on family recipes. “It’s definitely given me an insight into the cuisine of many, many generations before me.”
As for me, I began cooking out of necessity after I became a flight attendant in my early 20s. Dining in restaurants on layovers cost more than my rent, and delays and cancellations often left me stranded in small towns at night with no open restaurants. I purchased an eBag, the insulated lunchbox flight crews swear by, and started slow: salads of hearty greens, leftover pasta, anything that could keep in an airplane galley’s ice drawer and remain recognizable after crossing time zones and borders.
When I would return from a trip, I began my routine; unpack and sanitize my luggage, wash my uniform, and repack. Amidst all of this, I clocked hours in the kitchen, painstakingly prepping nostalgic meals so that it felt like home no matter where I work took me. I made homes out of Dallas, Tucson, Vancouver and Monterrey by repeating my key phrase to customs and border patrol when they asked if I had food: “Yeah, but it’s all nonperishable.”
The further I got from home, though, and the more distant I became from my family, the more I craved Trinidadian food.
And so I finally began looking up recipes from the Naparima Girl’s High School Cookbook. I scoured Asian groceries for Malta to drink and Matouks’ pepper sauce with scotch bonnets. I bought flour. I got a rolling pin. Gradually, I started making rice. I started missing roti, yellow curry, and, yes, pelau.
Recently I told a friend in San Diego, where I live, that it was no coincidence that the further I got from home, the better my relationship with my family back in Ohio seemed to become. She observed, “No wonder, you’re on the edge of the continent.” But I’m also always home, behind God’s back, and somehow, in Trinidad.
Doubles (Bara & Curried Channa)
2 cups flour
½ teaspoonsp. salt
1 teaspoonsp. turmeric powder
½ teaspoonsp. ground cumin (geera)
¼ teaspoonsp. sugar
1 teaspoonsp. sugar
1 teaspoonsp. instant yeast
½ poundlb. channa (dried chickpeas), soaked overnight
1 tablespoontbsp. vegetable oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 onion, sliced
2 tablespoonbsp. curry powder
1 ¼ cups water
Pinch of ground cumingeera (geeracumin)
1 teaspoonsp. salt
Hot pepper, to taste
1 cup oil, for frying
Pepper sauce, to serve
In a large bowl combine flour, salt, turmeric, geera, sugar, and yeast.
Add enough lukewarm water to make a soft dough; mix well, cover, and let rise for 1 ½ hours.
Boil soaked channa in salted water until tender. Drain well.
Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a heavy skillet or iron pot., Aadd garlic, onion, and curry powder mixed with ¼ cup water; sauté for a few minutes.
Add channa, stir to coat well, and cook for 5 minutes; add 1 cup water, geera, salt and pepper.
Cover, lower heat, and simmer until chickpeas are soft; add more water if necessary. When channa is finished; it should be soft and moist; adjust seasoning.
Punch down dough and allow to relax for 10-15 minutes.
To shape bara, take about 1 tablespoon of dough, pat with both hands to flatten to a circle 4” or 5” in diameter; use water to moisten palms of hands as dough might stick to hands.
Fry a few at a time in hot oil; turn once and drain on kitchen paper.
Make a sandwich by placing 2 tablespoons cooked channa between 2 baras. Pepper sauce or mango chutney goes well with it.
Adapted from the Naparima Girls’ High School Cookbook second edition, 2002. All rights reserved.
Car Drakes is a San Diego-based writer who covers travel, Trinidad & Tobago, and cannabis through the lens of identity and culture. Her work has appeared in Condé Nast Traveler, Matador Network, HelloGiggles, and other publications. She also does copywriting, runs a travel blog, and documents her travels on her Instagram.