At Hot Peppers restaurant in Pembroke Pines, a pretty and super-friendly Asian woman — full red lips, sleek black hair — brought me a plate of Caribbean food: stewed bone-in chicken, macaroni pie, and lentils. Then a motherly black lady — older, with warm brown eyes and an apron tied around her waist — offered me fried rice and lo mein.
With the country all worked up about race relations as the Trayvon Martin case played out in the news, it was a little awkward for me — a pasty-white, strawberry-blond Jewish New Yorker — to ask about their ethnicity. Surely, I would sound ignorant, racist, or just dumb.
But June Ali could not have been more chill about it.
"I'm mixed with Spanish, French, Caribbean tribes, Indian, a little Negro, or black — I don't know what they're calling it these days," said the older woman. "We are so mixed." Her family didn't keep track of which grandparents came from where or who married whom beyond a generation or two.
June; her husband, Badal (who identifies as Indian but grew up in Trinidad eating Chinese food); and their daughter Khadine (who technically is not Asian but Trinidadian) are a beautiful microcosm of the cultural mashup of Trinidad and Tobago. And their restaurant is a culinary reflection of it.
Here, amid the floral-pattern tables and royal-purple and bright-green walls, you'll find a mind-blowing array of savory international flavors, from Indian curries to slow-cooked Creole-style meats to shell-on shrimp in a tangy, spicy Chinese-style sauce. It's possible to eat dinner here every night of the week without ever getting bored.
Yet it's the two-island nation's sordid history that makes the food so awesome.
The Spanish laid claim to Trinidad in the 1500s but largely ignored it as they went on to satisfy an insatiable lust for gold in Central America. Fearing the growing power of the British, the Spanish offered an invitation to the French to settle the island. With the French came the bulk of the island's African slaves, with whom they bore children (through consensual sex or rape), forming the base of the Creole population. (In Louisiana, the word "Creole" typically means someone of European descent whose bloodline went through the French-American colonies, but in the Caribbean, the word means someone who is of mixed race — white European and black.)
Then the British gained control. Although they outlawed slavery in 1840, the British barely treated indentured servants any better, bringing hundreds of thousands from India, which at the time was part of the British empire. The abusive work program, which often promised wages and land grants that went unfulfilled, also brought countless Chinese to the island. These workers spent 12 to 15 hours a day chopping down sugar-cane stalks under the blistering Caribbean sun for up to a decade to pay for their trips halfway around the world. Some poor whites from Ireland and Britain arrived this way too.
Each group brought its culinary traditions along with its steamer trunks. Badal says that growing up, "there was a Chinese restaurant on every corner." Indians brought curries and stews. And today, thanks to the Irish, you'll still find shepherd's pie served in Trinidadian homes.
The Alis owned a handful of restaurants in Sangre Grande on northeast Trinidad before moving to Cutler Ridge in Miami in 2000 so their children could attend school. Badal said he learned to cook Trini-Chinese food from a cook he hired in one of his first restaurants on the island.
"He didn't want to teach me his secrets, so every time I came into the kitchen, he'd start cooking something else," he said. "I'd have to peek through the door to watch what he was doing to learn."
Badal learned well. His pepper shrimp is so full of flavor and so devoid of grease that they will be all I think of the next time I succumb to homogenous Chinese takeout. The bright-red sauce mixed ketchup (yes, ketchup) with oyster sauce, soy sauce, bell peppers, green onions, and a healthy dose of hot sauce. Fat, shell-on shrimps were doused in the tangy, spicy concoction and served over a plate half-covered in fried rice and lo mein mixed with crunchy peppers and celery. Freeing the meat from the shrimps' semitranslucent pink shells was a messy job but worth it.
June handles the majority of the Creole cooking at Hot Peppers. The first thing to know about Trinidadian food, she said, is that every dish includes shadow benny, also known as culantro, an herb found all over the West Indies. (The plant is related to, and often confused with, cilantro, but is more pungent and tastes deep and earthy rather than bright and grassy.)
Next: No meat is cooked without first marinating in what June called "green seasoning." Chicken, beef, or oxtail for stews were all coated in celery, thyme, parsley, shadow benny, and garlic before being tossed into a pan to brown with oil and caramelized sugar. The meat was cooked in its own juices with just a bit of water, creating a light yet flavorful sauce.
But if I were looking for someone to thank for the rich, flavorful shrimp curry, I would have to call up Calcutta, the eastern Indian city today called Kolkata, the home of many Indian immigrants who made their way to work in Trinidad.
"Trinidadian curry has been Creolized," June said while describing how the Trinidadian method of making curry is similar to the way the French would make a stock or stew. It started with a paste of oil and yellow curry powder. Hot peppers, garlic, and cumin are added, "and then you chunkay," she added. She couldn't spell this word, nor offer an American English equivalent, but after some negotiating, we decided it means sautéeing. Water is added, the mixture is reduced, and that exercise is repeated a few times before duck, shrimp, or goat is mixed in.
I also found the flavors of India inside doubles, an addictive, grab-and-go Trinidadian breakfast food of fragrant, curried chickpeas wrapped in chewy, mustard-yellow bread. The dough, which June called bara, is made of bread flour, saffron, and yeast.
"You roll it out and fry it," she said, and then top it with a cold, spicy Indian chutney made with tamarind and cucumber.
The classic Indian dish from Trinidad is roti, a flatbread served with slow-cooked meats. Hot Peppers offered the paratha variety, which was rubbed with Crisco, folded up onto itself, rolled out again, and fried to create a fluffy, rich, pastry-like flatbread. It came torn up on a plate next to a heaping pile of tender goat meat in brown gravy. The roti was used to pick up bites of meat along with the rich sauce.
Hot Peppers' only downfall is that its incredible variety and depth of flavors comes from centuries of abuse at the hands of slave-owning colonial superpowers. Yet the Alis, like many Trinidadians, are proud of their home and the rainbow of ethnicities that populate it.
Don't miss what Hot Peppers has to offer. And don't forget what took place to get there.