Trinbago cuisine with Shivi Ramoutar
and her recipe for buss up shut
Trinidad and Tobago
What food did you grow up eating?
“I was born in Trinidad and a lot of the food I had there is pretty much the food that I create now - typical Trinidadian foods like curries or callaloo [a green, leafy stew with roots in West Africa]. My father’s side of the family originally came from India, so there were a lot of Indian influences such as the vegetarian meals. My mother’s side has a lot of South American elements to it, which brought dishes like chicken stew.
“On Sundays we would often have pelau, an Afghan/Persian inspired rice dish [with chicken]. I always joke that Caribbeans are very good at taking somebody else’s idea and making it their own, and making it brilliant. Not better, but brilliant in a different way.
“We also have strong influences from the States, with things like cereals, but with both my parents’ background I have a full grounding in Trinidadian cuisine.”
Were your parents cooks as well?
“My dad is a surgeon and my mother was a housewife, but both of them adore food. I’ve never met a Trinidadian who doesn’t have a deep-rooted relationship with food, and I mean to the extreme. We always think about what we’re eating next. To me, my parents were chefs; they were always interested in trying different flavours and are very good at being resourceful with the ingredients they have.
“While my mother is an incredible cook too, I remember eating mostly my father’s cooking and I used to cook along with him often. I eventually started to take over the kitchen. Not necessarily doing Trini food, but creating random dishes like putting mint and hazelnut with yoghurt in a tomato.”
That is adventurous indeed – was that the first meal you cooked?
“The first dish I ever created and forced my little sister and cousins to eat, was called blue eggs. It was scrambled eggs painted blue with food colouring. It was gross.”
It’s quite a big step from that first ‘dish’ to becoming a professional chef.
“Yes. I was a lawyer before, but it just wasn’t the thing for me - my heart wasn’t in it and I didn’t think I was very good. It’s very much in our Caribbean culture to always aim for stability, so that’s why I did it. When I was made involuntarily redundant it was a blessing in disguise. I set up a supper club with a good friend, and I would always end up cooking a lot of Caribbean dishes. Having been brought up a bit in the states and the UK, I was also exposed to loads of Western food. I started thinking of lovely twists and creations mixing Caribbean and western flavours. I would make callaloo but concentrate it, put crab meat in it and stuff it inside ravioli.
“I think Caribbean food is very underrepresented in the UK, even though there are incredible places across London and elsewhere. Many people still think it’s just jerk [a dish of marinated, barbecued meat native to Jamaica], and while jerk is wonderful, there’s so much more.”
What about the Caribbean inspires you most?
“The big thing I take away from the Caribbean is the big, bold flavours – that’s what defines Caribbean food for me. Even things as simple as fish tacos, which are by no means Caribbean, can get a Caribbean touch by adding a mixture of different colours, or by adding a bit of tamarind in the mayo. It makes Caribbean food more accessible to people because it’s still tricky to find Caribbean produce in grocery stores. I tell people: tamarind paste is easy to find, just combine that with your chicken breast and some parsley. What I love doing is getting people to try just a subtle, small ingredient rather than this whole big dish. That’s my goal.”
Tamarind paste is so versatile! I guess it’s high on your list of favourite ingredients?
“I love it. Every time I’m on Saturday Kitchen [a cooking show on the BBC] I look back and realise I have to stop using tamarind paste,” she chuckles. “It has the ability to be sweet and savoury as well. Tamarind with a bit of citrus, a bit of scotch bonnet, lots of garlic and coriander makes the ultimate condiment. Add it to mayonnaise and it just delivers every little bit of salt, sour, sweet, savoury, and spicy to your tongue. I can feel my tongue salivating a bit! I even use it for sweet dishes; I add it to caramel. It just adds this other layer, it’s so special. I have a recipe for an ice cream sundae with tamarind, and you can even put it on popcorn. It takes sweet and savoury to a different level. It’s just gorgeous.
“But the scotch bonnet pips the post. It’s not just a chilli. Of course, there’s the spice, but what I find especially individual and stunning about scotch bonnet is that it has a sweetness to it. It imparts a very ripe, sweet flavour. I love to not only use it for the killer spice, but also whole in stews and casseroles, which we do very often in Caribbean cooking, just to give a bit of sweetness and mellowness to the dish, and no heat at all. When I do cooking classes and I tell people to put the whole scotch in the stew, they say: I don’t eat hot things, and they just won’t believe me that it won’t get spicy.”
"What I find especially individual and stunning about scotch bonnet is that it has a sweetness to it. It imparts a very ripe, sweet flavour."
What’s typical for the cuisine in Trinidad?
“Trinidad is one of the most foodie islands. Roti is massive there. Every island makes a roti, but a proper Trini curry chicken roti is one of the key things. Doubles, two baras [flat fried dough] filled with a curry is my death row dish and was actually voted the best sandwich in the world. There are doubles stands all over Trinidad, but one of my favourite ones is in Tunapuna. The last time I went there, I spent three hours with the lady learning how to make doubles. But you can find it even on the side of the road that leads from the airport to the city.
Bake and shark [fried flatbread with shark meat] also originates from Trinidad; shark meat isn’t controversial there like it is here in the UK. The shark has been marinated in green seasoning, and as we’re a condiment country, there’s a massive row of like 50 different condiments you can dip your sandwich in. It’s the most wonderful thing to eat on the beach.”
“There are slightly different things there. Tobago is renowned for curry crab and dumpling. There’s a lovely beach called Pigeon Point, and Store Bay a bit further down, which has gorgeous little huts where you go up to the window to get this curry crab and dumpling. It’s beautiful, it’s messy. The food is always brown, but it’s delicious. And the good thing about messy food right by the sea, is that all the mess goes straight into the water.”
"Doubles, two baras filled with a curry is my death row dish and was actually voted the best sandwich in the world."
Can you think of any unusual dishes served on the islands?
“There’s something we have called souse, jellified pig trotters that are eaten cold, in an amazing sauce with incredible spices. It’s something that we have when all my family is gathered together. While the sauce is lovely, I just can’t get my head around the texture of the trotters. Otherwise, we learn to eat every single part of the animal. Chicken feet, for instance, are a massive thing in Trinidad. Nothing goes to waste.
“There’s also a bizarre fish on the menu called cascadura. It’s kind of akin to a catfish, but not. It has an exoskeleton and with its prehistoric appearance looks like it comes from the time of the dinosaurs. There’s a saying that if you eat cascadura, you will always come back to Trinidad to end your time on this planet. You have left your heart in Trinidad.”
Not sure about the souse, but cascadura sounds worth a try! About coming back to Trinidad... where would you recommend people go?
“Around this time of year [February] I recommend travelling during carnival, it’s a very special time to go. You get up at 1 AM, in pitch darkness, to go out onto the streets, and you sign up to join a mas camp [where carnival costumes are made]. You show which camp you belong to by using lots of paint and mud. You walk through Port of Spain, the capital of Trinidad, and you just follow the music. Everybody’s happy, it’s such an international event. You eat doubles and other food as you’re going along. At 6 or 7 AM, you arrive to start Carnival Tuesday. You go back home, wash up and get changed to look pretty. It’s a once in a lifetime, bucket list experience. Trinidadians are some of the friendliest, happiest, most genuine people you’ll find, and carnival is the time to experience the culture at its absolute best.
“After you’ve partied with carnival, you can take the ferry across to Tobago to have your crab and dumplings. You will see people line up before work to get saltfish buljol, a salad with dried cod – something you should definitely try while on the island. Go to Pigeon Point, an absolutely stunning conservation area with your stereotypical white sandy beaches and blue sea. As you can tell, there’s a lot of food.
“Another very typical thing for Trinidad & Tobago is liming. Doing absolutely nothing. No matter who you’re going to see or where you’re going to see them, there’s always an excuse to go into a room and go liming. There’ll always be food, they’ll have a beer at hand already. You’ll be there for hours and you’ll be sitting, listening to music, talking, not talking. Just relaxing. It’s something you cannot not do when you’re there. You just... relax.”
What does buss up shut mean?
“It stands for bust-up shirt because it resembles someone’s shirt being bust-up. With the accent, it becomes buss up shut. It’s essentially an Indian paratha, but then there’s the element of ripping it. I’m not quite sure where that came from. The key is making it really shredded, which I’m not sure you’ll see in other parathas. It’s fun, and you get the much-prized flaky bits together with the softer layers. It’s really a different way of enjoying the food than just having an original, flat paratha.”
Is it popular across the country?
“Yes, it’s everywhere. There’s usually somebody in the family home who is prized for making it. This one person would make a ton of it, and you’d go and collect it from her. My aunty Sita makes it look so easy, but obviously, if you’ve just done it for the first time, it’s not. It takes a lot of technique to make it perfect. She makes it perfect without even thinking about it. A lot of times you’ll wonder why you’d make the effort if you can just drop by and collect a few, wrapped in a tea towel.”
What’s your favourite dish to have it with?
“Duck curry! When you’re visiting Trinidad, you have to have duck curry, cooked in big pots along the river, eaten with roti and buss up shut.”
- 240 g
- plain flour, plus extra for dusting
- 2 tsp
- baking powder
- 1 tsp
- 1 tsp
- oil, to rub
- around 10 tbsp
- softened ghee
- 8.5 oz
- plain flour, plus extra for dusting
- 2 tsp
- baking powder
- 1 tsp
- 1 tsp
- oil, to rub
- around 10 tbsp
- softened ghee
- Mix together the flour, baking powder, sugar and salt in a large bowl and then add about 150g-200g/5-7fl oz water (add little by little until it comes together), kneading for a few minutes to make a very soft pliable dough. Rub the dough with oil, place in a bowl, cover, then rest for 30 minutes.
- Divide the dough into 4 balls. Take one of these balls and roll out on a lightly floured surface to the size of just smaller than the base of a large frying pan. Brush the roti very, very generously with ghee.
- Take a knife and cut from the centre to the edge of the circle (a radius line). Take the cut edge and roll it around, following the line of the radius of the circle, so you end up with a cone and tuck in any loose pieces under and all the way in to keep the cone together. Stand the cone up, then flatten it and push the tip of the cone all the way down with your thumb. Repeat with the remaining 3 balls and leave to rest for at least 4 hours, loosely covered.
- Heat a large, heavy-based frying pan on a high-medium heat and, using a heat-proof brush, brush the base with ghee.
- Roll out one of the pieces of dough again on a flour-dusted surface to the size of just smaller than the base of the frying pan (make sure the edges are thin too). Carefully pop it onto the hot pan and brush the surface of the roti with more ghee. Then flip the roti over, brush the other side with ghee.
- Cook for a few more minutes, flipping when you get a golden-brown colour on the underside, with little touches of brown. Take tongs, or two wooden spatulas and crush or beat the roti gently so it flakes up and the layers separate a little, taking in the edges to the centre. The roti should be flaky at the top, but soft inside. Pop into a clean, dry tea towel to keep warm while you do the same with the remaining 3 pieces of dough.