Unchanged tastes of home

Claudette Campbell serves Trinidad's specialties at Chestnut Hill Farmers Market.

Posted: March 21, 2010

You will hear, on occasion, expats from Trinidad pine for a lost land - for beaches that are gone, and trails paved over, for the slower boat to Tobago (now it's a two-hour trip, not an overnight), and island architecture washed away by a wave of Americanized design.

Last week one of them named Clarence Drakes, an architect himself, happened by Calypso, the homey Trinidadian stand in the Chestnut Hill Farmers Market, and he soon fell into a deep, misty-eyed reverie.

Ah, but the food, reminded his friend Ayanna Osbourne, who has family ties on the island, that's another matter: No one has torn that page from Trinidad's story.

And so was convened, at the edge of the stand run by Claudette Campbell, a sunnier reminiscence. Yes, the "doubles" man is still at the curb. And fruit and pumpkin (it's actually a West Indian calabasa) is still sold by the side of the highway. "I could go for a guava sno-cone right now," offered Campbell's sport-coated son, Khalil; the ice shaved in glossy chips, sweetened with tropical fruit and syrupy condensed milk.

It was a Thursday afternoon and Campbell busied herself. (On Saturdays her daughter Imanamani usually helps out.) Her pot of oxtails was simmered. The patties for her doubles were made - disks of a bhara dough of flour, baking powder, and ground split peas fried in canola oil. (The bottom one is spread with spiced chickpeas and garlicky calabasa, and perhaps curried goat or chicken, spiked with Campbell's homemade sauces - cola-like tamarind, and a chutney of sorts involving grated mango, mustard seed, and garam masala), a mild peach pepper sauce, and a hotter non-peach pepper sauce. That disk is then topped with another, thus making it a doubles.)

They are tasty, street-food snacks - in Trinidad as ubiquitous as burgers in America - their stuffing hinting of a low-key, Indian-style samosa. But the patties are soft and pliable, more akin in chewy texture to the sopes in Mexican cookery.

There is a rhythm to weekdays here (the mostly take-out stand is open Thursday through Saturday). The braised pots of curry goat and chicken, gently seasoned with cumin and coriander, cook early, along with the stewy okra, mashed pumpkin, creamed spinach, and rice and pigeon peas, their Afro-Caribbean and often East Indian flavors prominent, but absent the hot-pepper spicing associated with Jamaica. (In Trinidad, you, not the cook, add hot sauce, and to that end Campbell bottles some of her own.)

Now and then, Tobago curry snow crab and dumplings are offered. But more dependably on a given afternoon you will find freshly griddled roti. There are parents in Chestnut Hill who now count on them to placate picky children: "I love it the days you're open," one told Campbell: "I don't have to listen to any complaints about dinner."

Campbell has two sides herself - that of an abidingly maternal home cook and that of a strong-willed career woman who left Port of Spain for New York in the '60s bent on medical school, and became instead a hospital dietitian and raised a family. They are often at the stand - her two daughters, son, and grandchildren (along with her gentle assistant, Trae Mohammed) - helping out, eating at the counter, promoting her: "She is the stand," said Khalil.

It is time to make the next round of roti. Campbell slides balls of dough made with ground split peas and garlic from under a kitchen towel, flattens them, and rolls them out with a big, wooden rolling pin. Then she lays the tortilla-like rounds on a circular griddle called a tahwah, brushing them with oil, and flipping them repeatedly with a blunt spatula.

The roti I buy is wrapped in a tidy packet around a filling of her stewy vegetables - a soft, curried potato, chickpeas, calabasa, and spinach, the flavors sweet and slightly tangy, the roti wrap tender and warm and fresh.

I am invited to sample the macaroni pie (a lush mac and cheese suffused with egg and onion and baked). I have a forkful of creamy, spiced coleslaw. And a swig of mango lemonade with a hit of Trinidad's Angostura bitters.

On another day soon, the curry snow crab and cassava dumplings are promised. Two more tastes of the islands, unerased by the tides of reinforced concrete and the cold march of modernity - their pleasures thus doubled.


Chestnut Hill Farmers Market

8229 Germantown Ave.



Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.

comments powered by Disqus