Roti, Shark, and Buss-Up Shot: Get to Know the Trinidadian Food of NYC

Counter at Singh's Roti Shop. [Photograph: Ben Pomeroy]

When it comes to culinary influences, Trinidad has it good. A colonial and mercantile history has left the small Caribbean island with imprints of India, China, and West Africa; add in native crops, fish, and spices, and you have a cuisine that boasts a happy congress of curries, noodles, and spice.

Read a Trini menu and you can chart the distinct diasporas that make up Trinidad's population. Spicy curries and Cantonese dishes reflect waves of Chinese and South Asians, many as indentured servents, who arrived to the former British colony in the 19th Century. King fish, tart sorrel, and green callaloo are the contributions of the Afro-Trinidadian population. And where people mix, so does food; the island's ethnic communities have borrowed from each others' recipes and adapted local ingredients like Scotch bonnet and the green seasoning chadon beni.

New York's Trini diaspora has settled across a few enclaves in Queens and Brooklyn, with casual restaurants, steam tables, and roti shops to feed them. Follow along on our tour to see what they're cooking.

Singh's Roti Shop

You would be hard pressed to find a better introduction to Trinidadian food than the offerings at Singh's Roti Shop in Richmond Hill, Queens. From Indo-centric items like roti and curries to Cantonese style lo mein, Singh's has the scale and expertise to do justice to the island's range of flavors and dishes.

Go with a group and order liberally and scattershot. The rainbow of curries and stews all complement each other, and you'd do well to take a grip of buss-up shot (shredded roti bread) to reach over to grab of hunk of your friend's Chinese-style chicken and dip it in a curry sauce.

Shrimp roti dahl puri.

Highlights at Singh's include Shrimp Roti Dahl Puri ($6.50), a stew rich with potatoes, welcoming and flavorful despite its spice. It's best eaten with flaky roti flatbread, layered with lentils. Curry Roast Chicken ($6) is another star: tender, well flavored, and crisp-skinned. Roasted Chinese-Style Chicken ($6.25) is similarly excellent, with a hit of five spice powder. Prefer some heat? Go for the Pepper Chicken ($12) instead.

Trinidadian Chinese food, especially the noodles, tend to be on the greasy side, and Singh's Lo Mein proves the point. It's also a departure in flavor thanks to the dynamic duo of Scotch Bonnet pepper and chadon beni (culantro leaf). Both are essential to the flavor of Trini dishes.

Sandy's Roti

Now that's some sauce.

In contrast to the expansive embrace of Singh's at the other end of Liberty Avenue, Sandy's is a smaller and quieter destination.

It's a great place to sample the favorite Trini handheld snack, Bake and Shark ($6), which will appeal to any lover of the fish taco. In a fried dough bun come chunks of lightly breaded and fried sand shark, thinly sliced pickles, and herbal chadon beni. They're topped with cabbage for crunch and spiked pepper and tamarind sauces for tartness and heat. Ask them to hold the ketchup.

Sandy's also makes its own baked goods, and you shouldn't leave without picking up a Currant Roll ($1.50). It's shaped like a biscotti with the flakiness of a good rugelach, and its moist doughy crumb, dotted with currants, gets even better when dipped into the accompanying spiced mango chutney.

Trini Breakfast Shed II

Curry goat.

Despite its name, this East Flatbush eatery serves food up through dinner. The menu at Trini Breakfast Shed II tilts more towards soul food and the African side of Trini cuisine (macaroni pie, peas and rice), but Trinidadians eat across all ethnic boundaries, and you'll find pan-island dishes offered here. "Nobody gets excluded when it comes to stomachs," the owner's son Chris Jerome proclaimed.

The Curry Goat ($9.50) is exceptional. The bone-in meat is braised until soft and bathed in a dark curry sauce that has an earthiness of gumbo. Like many Trini dishes, the heat here rises above the sweet and tart flavors, enough to keep you ladling away for more despite the slight burn.

Side dishes like Macaroni Pie ($1), with its thick crust and wide noodles, and the Cheese Puff ($1.50) are sturdy accompaniments to all the sloppy sauces. But you should be watching out for the Coo Coo ($1), the Caribbean cousin of polenta. This moist and dense cornmeal cake is flecked with onion and okra, and it acts as a sponge to soak up all that sauce.

On the weekend, and try the Crab and Dumplings ($9) with your coo coo, but be willing to get messy, as you crack snow crab legs and scoop up curry sauce. The dumplings are heavy and sink to the bottom of the curry like stones. Some find them too heavy, but I consider them another carb-y means to deal with the sauce.

Take note that the menu changes based on time of day and day of the week. Call ahead before you visit.

Bake and Things

As I left Trini Breakfast Shed one day, a fellow customer told me in a hushed voice, "Go to Bake and Things. There's always a line."

He's right, and you put your order through a thick glass window and pay at another. The name of this restaurant references a category of sandwich. "Bake" means bread, and "thing" is any number of meats, fish, and vegetables to stuff inside. Not knowing which "thing" to start on, I asked. The answer without hesitation was "cod."

Traditionally a breakfast item, it's a sandwich of several names. Listed on the menu as Salt Fish ($2.50) but also known as buljol, the moist chopped cod, mixed with onion and the savory chadon beni, is stuffed into a lovely doughy roll. Add the tamarind sauce for a dose of sweet to match the fish's salt, then dose on some pepper sauce for the perfect sandwich.

The Doubles ($1.50), stewy chickpeas between roti-like fry bread, are also very good, a better option than an Aloo Pie ($1.50) overwhelmed by fried dough.

Trini Gul

Shrimp roti.

Chef Ro runs the kitchen of Trini Gul's three-booth counter while "Bold and Beautiful" rules its heart. The soap opera was on both times I visited. The restaurant's name is a term for a Trinidadian woman, and the ladies behind the counter are friendly and ready to help first-timers get acquainted with the menu.

Fans of fiery food will respect the heat dished out here. Rotis and curries all come with a punch. The Crab and Dumplings ($10) are excellent as well as the Jerk Chicken Wings ($9.50). For a break from the curry and roti circuit, try the fried King Fish ($8). It's a center-cut steak salted and seasoned nicely with chadon beni. Yucca and okra sides are also good.

Crab and dumplings.

Doubles ($1.50) and Shark Bake ($6.00) are crowd favorites here. Definitely try the gooey, sugar-coated Tamarind Balls ($1) for a dessert.

Gloria's Caribbean Cuisine

Follow Nostrand to the Crown Heights mainstay Gloria's. If you find yourself at "Gloria's Next Generation" farther down at 987 Nostrand, don't worry, you won't be disappointed.

Gloria's has a long list of well regarded rotis and curries, but it's the ubiquitous work-a-day Doubles ($1.50) that strike me as exceptional.

Doubles are satisfying anywhere you find them. These quick-eat handheld snacks are made of yeast fried bread (bara) wrapped around sauteed chickpea and onion (channa). At Gloria's, extra credit goes to the bara, which is lighter and chewier than others. Like pizza, it's all in the crust.

What to Drink

Most Trini restaurants don't serve alcohol, but you'll want something to put out the fire from your food. For that there are juices like passion fruit, pineapple, and sorrel, as well as West Indian classics like peanut punch and sea moss. Try them all, but be sure to check out mauby as well. It tastes like licorice, and like the candy, it has its fans and detractors.

The tan juice is derived from the bark of the mauby tree and is sweet in a medicinal way. Its anise flavors go far to counteract heat in the dishes you'll be eating, though it's more approachable once the ice in your cup starts to melt.

More Caribbean Food

Looking for more Caribbean cooking in New York? Some further reading on food from Trinidad and Jamaica: