The Surprising African Roots of Local Dishes

Food is such a big part of a nation’s culture, from the historical uses of certain ingredients and the unique mix of spices that bring about a specific flavour. In Trinidad and Tobago, we’re exceptionally lucky for our multi-cultural cuisine that spans ancestral heritage from India, China, and Africa. With Emancipation Day right around the corner, we did some research to unearth the African heritage of two of our most popular Creole dishes, pelau and callaloo.

Callaloo or ‘kallaloo’ is a West African dish that was first made with amaranth leaves but can also be made with dasheen bush or taro. Surprisingly, it is a dish made by slaves who blended a native dish with the indigenous ingredient of the islands, okra. A similar dish can also be found in Jamaica and Dominica although in the latter, water spinach is used instead. The consistency and preparation of callaloo also differs among the islands. In Trinidad and Tobago we prefer our callaloo well blended with coconut milk and spiced with a hot pepper, creating a gravy or soup finish, while in Jamaica the bush is prepared steamed with onion and garlic. If you eat your callaloo with ground provisions, chances are you’re enjoying a meal that is centuries old brought through generations of African ancestors here in the Caribbean!

Ever wondered where pelau came from? In West Africa, the dish is called ‘jollof rice’ or ‘one pot’ which originated in the Wolof ethnic group in Senegal and quickly spread through West Africa, including Nigeria, Togo, Ghana, Sierra Leone and Liberia. The most common basic ingredients are rice, tomatoes and tomato paste, onion, salt, and red pepper. Beyond that, nearly any kind of meat, vegetable, or spice can be added. Locally, many versions of pelau are made, with some folks enjoying it vegetarian style, some with a stewed chicken base and others with a piece of cured pigtail. Similar ‘one pot’ rice dishes can be found throughout the world and in countless preparations but all are rooted in West Africa’s basic jollof rice recipe.

So there you have it! Two of our most popular dishes traced back to their African roots, still being prepared centuries later, and not so far changed from the way it was first prepared so many, many years ago!