Chinese New Year, Trinidad-Style

Consider the Caribbean island of Trinidad, and you might think of sandy beaches, palm trees and rum cocktails. What you probably don't think of is the riotous cacophony of a traditional Chinese New Year, with red and gold streamers, fireworks and dancing dragons. But Chinese New Year, just like Chinese culture, is deeply enmeshed with the larger culture of Trinidad and Tobago.

Chinese were first brought to the islands in the 19th century as indentured laborers on British colonial plantations. They soon became part of the general population of Africans, Indians, Europeans and Syrians. Their influence on the island's food was profound, perhaps because once they left indenture, Trinidad's Chinese often owned the island's grocery stores.

Like other transplants, they adapted their cooking methods to local ingredients. Some things, however, remained entirely intact. Grace Young's book Stir Frying to the Sky's Edge & Beyond explores Chinese cooking around the world, particularly in the Caribbean. She told me the steamed porked buns called pow in Trinidad are just like the steamed pork buns called bao in Hong Kong.

Chinese New Year 2011

Celebrations for the Chinese New Year, which starts Feb. 3, will continue over the next 15 days. A selection of stories, books, music and more recipes to usher in the Year of the Rabbit:

For my part, growing up in the wonderful cultural melange that is New York, the Chinese New Year was always a must-do celebration. I spent a lot of my childhood trying to match my father's long strides as he walked purposefully around New York City's neighborhoods seeking the foods of his Trinidadian home. In Chinatown, he'd bargain for fish and vegetables such as bitter melon or bok choy. To my delight, our tours culminated in a visit to one of the many bakeries so we could get pow (or bao) or almond cookies. My father was impervious to the odd looks from the ladies behind the counter who strained to understand his West Indian accent.

He didn't notice their curiosity because in Trinidad, Chinese food is staple fare. We eat fried rice one a week. Chow mein is as common as a casserole. Stir fries with calabaza pumpkin, taro root and hot pepper are everyday foods, and soy sauce is a regular ingredient in brown stewed meats.

About The Author

Ramin Ganeshram is a food writer and chef whose work has appeared in Saveur, National Geographic Traveler, epicurious.com and many others. She is the author of Sweet Hands: Island Cooking from Trinidad & Tobago (Hippocrene 2010) and the forthcoming kids' culinary novel Stir It Up! (Scholastic 2011).

So, growing up in a West Indian community with many Chinese, my father considered bao regular Trinidadian food. The same held true for red bean cakes — called, without political correctness, "chinee cake" in the islands — almond cookies and other Chinese sweets baked in a traditional style. There is, though, one major twist. In Trinidad, Caribbean mixed essence is a common flavoring for sweets and essential to baked goods. Similar to vanilla extract, it's redolent of pear and almond, although the original version was made from native tonka beans.

In fact, these cakes and cookies are so popular that they are churned out by factories that supply standard bakeries not just in Trinidad and Guyana, where the Chinese food influence is just as powerful, but also in West Indian areas of New York, Toronto and London.

It's common to see Chinese New Year good luck symbols in retail centers in Trinidad, and parades, complete with dragon dances, are hosted by various Chinese associations islandwide.

To continue the family tradition, I've been taking my 5-year-old daughter to the New York City Chinatown parade since she was an infant. Afterward, though, I prefer to head home for a feast of traditional Trini-style Chinese dishes including pow to honor the memory of my father, red bean cakes to bring sweetness to our year and chow mein because noodles represent longevity.

Keep in mind that Trinidad Chinese food is generally sweeter than American Chinese fare, and often uses rum instead of rice wine. Also, the Scotch bonnet pepper in many dishes adds a kick, but who doesn't need a little kick-start for a great year?

Gong hay fat choy!

Recipe: Fried Wontons

Chinese takeout is as popular in Trinidad as it is in the U.S. — but, of course, it has a Trinidadian twist. This popular snack is livened up with the addition of hot pepper. You can make it with ground shrimp, chicken breast or lean pork. This recipe is adapted from my book Sweet Hands: Island Cooking from Trinidad & Tobago (Hippocrene 2010).

Fried Wontons i i
Jean Paul Vellotti for NPR
Fried Wontons
Jean Paul Vellotti for NPR

Makes 24

1/2 pound shrimp, chicken or pork, coarsely ground in a food processor or meat grinder

1 scallion, trimmed and finely chopped (both white and green parts)

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 fresh hot red chili pepper, minced

1 teaspoon soy sauce

24 wonton skins

1 cup canola oil, for deep-frying

1/2 cup sweet soy sauce (available in Asian markets)

1/4 cup rice wine vinegar

Combine the ground shrimp, chicken or pork with the scallion, garlic, hot pepper and soy sauce and set aside.

Have a small bowl of cold water ready. Place a wonton skin flat on a work surface and put 1/2 teaspoon of the meat mixture into the middle of the square skin. Dip a finger in the cold water and run it along the edges of the wonton skin. (This will help the skin stick together when folded.)

Fold the skin in half over the meat to form a rectangle. Fold the rectangle in half again lengthwise. The meat will be squeezed flat inside the wrapper. Bring the ends of the wrapper together so they meet each other, like a horseshoe, joining the inside edges together but leaving the outer edges free. Use a little water to pinch the dough closed. The wonton will resemble a little nurse's hat. Repeat until all the skins are filled or all the filling is used.

Heat the oil in a saucepan until hot. Test by dropping a little flour into the pot. If it sizzles vigorously, the oil is ready. Add the wontons a few at a time, so they are not crowded in the pan. Fry until golden brown, then drain on paper towels. Whisk together the sweet soy sauce and vinegar and serve as a dipping sauce.

Recipe: Shay Shay Tien's Pow

Steamed meat buns, called pow in Trinidad (an adaptation of the Chinese term bao) are a local favorite in Trinidad. It is widely agreed that the ones made at Shay Shay Tien, Trinidad's oldest Chinese restaurant, are the best. Owner Johnson "Chin" Achong shared the recipe when I was researching my cookbook. I like the flavor of hoisin and black bean sauces, but traditionally, char siu sauce is used, and you may do so here as well by simply substituting the char siu sauce for the amount of the hoisin and black bean sauces combined. To make miniature pow for an appetizer or starter, cut 6 pieces from each dough rope in step 5 and only use 1 rounded teaspoon of filling for each pow. Red food coloring is authentic for the look of the filling, but you can omit it. The recipe is adapted from my book Sweet Hands: Island Cooking from Trinidad & Tobago (Hippocrene 2010).

Shay Shay Tien's Pow i i
Jean Paul Vellotti for NPR
Shay Shay Tien's Pow
Jean Paul Vellotti for NPR

Makes 20

For The Filling

3 cups water

2 teaspoons coarse or kosher salt

1 star anise pod

3/4 pound boneless pork butt or shoulder

2 tablespoons canola oil

1/2 onion, chopped

1 clove garlic, minced

1 1/2 teaspoons dark brown sugar

1/4 teaspoon ground anise

1 tablespoon hoisin sauce

1 tablespoon black bean sauce

1 teaspoon red food coloring (optional)

For The Dough

2 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast

1/2 cup, plus 3 tablespoons (plus 1/2 teaspoon) sugar, divided

1/2 cup warm water (100 degrees)

3 cups all-purpose flour

1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder

1 egg white

1 tablespoon vegetable shortening melted with 1 tablespoon hot water

20 (5-inch) squares waxed paper

For The Filling

Bring 3 cups of water, the salt and anise pod to a boil in a large pot. Add the pork and simmer for 25 minutes. Remove the pork, cool and cut into 1/4-inch cubes. Discard the anise pod.

Heat the canola oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot. Add the onion and garlic and fry on medium-high until dark brown. Remove from the oil with a slotted spoon and discard. Reduce the heat to medium. Add the dark brown sugar to the oil and let it caramelize for 1 to 2 minutes on medium-high heat. Add the pork and stir well. Brown the pork on all sides, then add ground anise, hoisin sauce and black bean sauce. Cook, stirring constantly, until nearly dry.

Add the red food coloring and mix well, so all the pieces of pork are evenly colored. Cook until totally dry. Remove from the heat and cool completely. (The meat may be made up to one day ahead and refrigerated.)

For The Dough

Place the yeast and 1/2 teaspoon of sugar in a deep bowl and add the warm water. Set aside until foamy.

Combine the flour, baking powder and remaining sugar together in a bowl using the paddle attachment of a stand mixer. Add the yeast mixture, egg white and melted shortening. Mix at high speed for 4 minutes, then at the lowest speed for 6 minutes. The dough should be smooth and highly elastic. Test the dough by pressing it with your finger — it should spring back without leaving a mark.

Workers at Shay Shay Tien make pow, placing the meat filling onto discs of dough that will go in a steamer basket i i
Jean Paul Vellotti for NPR
Workers at Shay Shay Tien make pow, placing the meat filling onto discs of dough that will go in a steamer basket
Jean Paul Vellotti for NPR

Flour a clean dry work surface. Cut the dough into 4 equal pieces. With your hands, roll the pieces of dough into ropes about 3 inches in diameter. Cut each rope into 5 pieces. Knead each piece for 30 seconds, then form into a ball. Set the dough balls on a floured surface.

Flatten one ball of dough into a 3-inch disc. Place a heaping tablespoon of the pork mixture in the middle of the disc. Gently pull the edges of the disc around the filling and pinch together to form a sac. Then gently twist the edges together and push down into the dough ball. The pow should be a smooth, round ball.

Place the filled pow, seam side down, on a square of waxed paper in a bamboo or metal steamer insert. (If you do not have a steamer, preheat oven to 350 degrees and line a cookie sheet with parchment paper. Fill a large casserole dish or other oven–safe dish with 4 cups of water and place on the lowest rack of the oven. Arrange the pow on the cookie sheet about 3 inches apart. Brush pow evenly with egg wash -– 1 egg yolk beaten with 1 teaspoon water. Bake until risen and lightly browned. Place in the oven on the middle rack.

Repeat until all the pow are filled. (Do not crowd the pow in the steamer tray; allow 2 inches of space around each pow. If you do not have a bamboo steamer with more than one tray, set some of the pow on waxed paper on a flat surface.) Allow the pow to rise until their diameter has doubled. If your kitchen is warm, this will occur by the time all the pow are separated and stuffed. If not, cover the steamer trays with damp towels and set aside in a warm place. Set the steamer trays in a wide pot with enough water to rise 1/4 of the way up the bottom tray, being careful that the water doesn't seep into the tray and touch the pow. Bring the water to a simmer and steam the pow for 15 minutes. Serve warm. (Pow can be reheated in a microwave for 45 seconds on high or in a 350-degree oven for 20 minutes.)

Recipe: Eight-Treasure Trini Chow Mein

This is another dish that demonstrates the Chinese influence on the island. Except for the bean sprouts, there are no "traditional" Chinese ingredients as you would find in authentic stir-fries. Although in the United States, crispy noodles are the hallmark of chow mein, the original Chinese meaning of chow mein is "a dish using soft noodles." Thick soy sauce is available in Chinese and Asian markets and looks like molasses. A little goes a long way, so use sparingly and up the amount as you go to suit your personal taste. The recipe is adapted from my book Sweet Hands: Island Cooking from Trinidad & Tobago (Hippocrene 2010).

Eight-Treasure Trini Chow Mein i i
Jean Paul Vellotti for NPR
Eight-Treasure Trini Chow Mein
Jean Paul Vellotti for NPR

Makes 6 servings

3/4 of a 12-ounce package of lo mein noodles or Caribbean chow mein noodles (available in Caribbean markets)

1 tablespoon canola oil

1 small onion, thinly sliced

1 cup shredded red cabbage

1 carrot, julienned

1 red bell pepper, stemmed and seeded

1 medium christophene (chayote) squash, seeded and thinly sliced

1 cup bean sprouts (optional)

1/2 small Scotch bonnet or other hot red chili pepper, minced, or 1/3 teaspoon hot pepper sauce (preferably habanero-based)

1 large chicken breast, or 1/2 pound boneless beef, pork or shrimp, cut into small cubes

1 tablespoon thick soy sauce

1/3 cup vegetable or chicken stock or water

Bring a large pot of water and 1/2 teaspoon of salt to a boil and add the noodles. Lower heat to a simmer and boil noodles until tender, about 5 minutes. Drain, rinse with cold water, and set aside.

Heat the canola oil in a large, deep frying pan or a wok and add the onion, cabbage, carrot and red bell pepper. Fry, stirring often, until the onion turns translucent.

Add the squash, bean sprouts, if using, and hot pepper and toss well. Add the meat and fry until well browned on all sides.

Mix in the soy sauce and stock or water and simmer 5 to 7 minutes to ensure the meat is cooked through.

Add the noodles to the pan and toss well so all ingredients are incorporated and any liquid is absorbed.

Recipe: Dasheen Pork

Dasheen pork melds local ingredients with old-world Chinese cooking style. It is an iconic Trinidad Chinese dish. Dasheen is the local word for taro. The recipe is adapted from my book Sweet Hands: Island Cooking from Trinidad & Tobago (Hippocrene 2010).

Dasheen Pork i i
Jean Paul Vellotti for NPR
Dasheen Pork
Jean Paul Vellotti for NPR

4 to 6 servings

2 pounds boneless pork shoulder

1 bay leaf

1 clove garlic, slightly crushed, plus 2 cloves garlic, minced

5 whole cloves, slightly crushed

4 medium taro roots, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch slices (available in Asian, Caribbean or Latino markets)

2 tablespoons soy sauce

2 tablespoons dark rum

2 tablespoons canola oil

1 teaspoon peeled and grated fresh ginger

1 (1-inch) piece red bean curd (a flavored, fermented tofu, available in Asian markets), chopped

3 tablespoons finely chopped onion

2 tablespoons green seasoning (recipe below)

1 teaspoon five-spice powder

Place the pork shoulder in a pot with the bay leaf, crushed garlic and crushed cloves. Add just enough water to cover and bring to a simmer. Cook for 30 minutes, or until the pork is tender.

While the pork is cooking, bring a pot of salted water to a boil and add the taro. Simmer for 10 minutes, drain and set aside to cool.

When the pork is tender, remove it from the pot, cool and cut into 1/2-inch-thick slices. Place in a bowl and add the soy sauce and rum. Mix well to coat all sides of the pork.

Heat the oil in a large skillet and add the pork (reserve soy-rum mixture), browning on all sides. Remove and allow to cool. Place the pork in a bowl and add the minced garlic, ginger, bean curd, onion, green seasoning and five-spice powder. Mix well to coat.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In a large baking dish, arrange the taro and pork slices in alternating layers, and pour any reserved soy-rum mixture on top. Cover with aluminum foil and bake for 45 minutes, or until the taro is fork tender and slightly translucent.


Green Seasoning

Green seasoning is unique to the Caribbean and differs slightly from island to island. It is used in a huge number of Trinidadian dishes, whether African, Chinese or Indian. In Trinidad, it's distinguished by the use of shado beni or Mexican culantro (recao), a local herb very much like cilantro. Fresh shado beni can be found in West Indian and Spanish markets. If not, fresh cilantro is a good substitute. The recipe is adapted from my book Sweet Hands: Island Cooking from Trinidad & Tobago (Hippocrene 2010).

Makes 1 cup

3 tablespoons chopped fresh chives

1 tablespoon chopped fresh shado beni or cilantro leaves

2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme

1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano

1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley

4 cloves garlic, minced

Process all of the ingredients in a food processor until the mixture forms a thick paste. Alternatively, process in a blender with 2 tablespoons of vinegar.

Use immediately, or refrigerate in a tightly sealed glass jar for up to 1 week.

Recipe: Five-Spice Rum Pork And Vegetables

This is a dish that I created using leftover ingredients I had on hand, but is very much in the style of any Chinese stir-fry in Trinidad, using meat, sweet soy sauce, rum and hot pepper as key ingredients. It is good with plain white rice or a flat bread such as pita or roti. Chicken, shrimp or beef can be substituted for the pork.

Five-Spice Rum Pork And Vegetables i i
Jean Paul Vellotti for NPR
Five-Spice Rum Pork And Vegetables
Jean Paul Vellotti for NPR

Makes 4 servings

1 tablespoon sweet soy sauce (available in Chinese markets)

1 tablespoon mirin (rice wine)

2 tablespoons dark rum

1/2 teaspoon of salt

1 pound pork shoulder cut into 1/2-inch cubes

1 tablespoon canola or vegetable oil

1/2 small onion, minced

1-inch piece fresh ginger, finely minced

1/2 Scotch bonnet pepper, seeded and finely minced

3 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced

1/2 christophene (chayote) squash, seeded, peeled and cut into cubes

1 small onion, cut into 1/2-inch pieces

1/2 red bell pepper, cut into cubes

1 cup shredded napa cabbage

1/4 cup water

2 scallions, trimmed and cut diagonally into 2-inch pieces

In a medium bowl, whisk together the soy sauce, mirin, rum and salt. Add the cubed pork and stir well to coat. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1 hour.

Heat a wok or a wide skillet on medium-high and add the oil. Heat the oil for 30 seconds and then add the onion, ginger and Scotch bonnet pepper. Fry, stirring continuously, for 15 seconds, and then add the garlic slices. Fry for 1 minute more, or until the garlic begins to brown.

Add the pork pieces and stir well to coat. Fry 2 to 3 minutes, or until the pork starts to brown slightly, stirring often.

Add the squash, onion and bell pepper and stir well, cooking for 2 minutes. Add the shredded cabbage and stir well to coat. Pour in the water and stir well so all the ingredients are combined. Simmer for 10 minutes. The cabbage should be wilted and the pork cooked through.

Add the scallion pieces and toss lightly. Cook for 1 minute more and pour into a serving dish with sauce.

Recipe: Caraili (Bitter Melon) With Kalonji (Onion) Seeds

Caraili, a type of bitter melon, is a standard vegetable in East Indian and Chinese diets. There are two varieties. One is light green and resembles a knobby-skinned cucumber, while the other is darker green and very gnarly in appearance. If you like collard greens, escarole or other bitter vegetables, you'll find caraili appealing as well. It is readily available in Asian and Middle Eastern markets and sometimes makes an appearance in the tropical produce section of larger grocery stores. Although you could substitute zucchini in this dish, the characteristic bitter flavor would be missing. The recipe is adapted from my book Sweet Hands: Island Cooking from Trinidad & Tobago (Hippocrene 2010).

Recipe: Caraili (Bitter Melon) With Kalonji (Onion) Seeds i i
Jean Paul Vellotti for NPR
Recipe: Caraili (Bitter Melon) With Kalonji (Onion) Seeds
Jean Paul Vellotti for NPR

Makes 4 servings

3 caraili

1 tablespoon canola oil

1 small onion, chopped

1 clove garlic, minced

1/4 teaspoon kalonji seeds (available in Indian or Middle Eastern Markets)

1/4 teaspoon coarse or kosher salt, or to taste

Freshly ground black pepper

Prepare the caraili by trimming the stem ends and slicing them lengthwise. If there are large, visible seeds, use a small teaspoon to scrape down the middle of the caraili to remove them. Discard the seeds and slice each half of the caraili into 1/4-inch slices. They will look like half moons.

Heat the oil in a wok or large, wide frying pan. Add the onion and saute until translucent. Add the garlic, frying until golden brown, about 30 seconds.

Add the kalonji seeds and fry until they begin to pop, about 15 seconds. Add the caraili and stir well, frying for 1 to 2 minutes, or until they begin to brown.

Stir in the salt and black pepper, reduce the heat to medium-low, and cook until the caraili are soft, about 15 minutes. Serve with rice or flat bread such as pita or roti.

Recipe: Chinese Cakes

Bean cakes made from kidney or black beans, and even sometimes black-eyed peas, are a local variation on Chinese moon cakes made from adzuki beans. Popular in Trinidad and, even more so, Guyana, I've never seen a home cook prepare these, as a number of good local bakeries usually have them on hand. Here is the recipe I've developed for these cakes, which you will find varies slightly in taste and appearance from the authentic Chinese version. The recipe is adapted from my book Sweet Hands: Island Cooking from Trinidad & Tobago (Hippocrene 2010).

Chinese Cakes i i
Jean Paul Vellotti for NPR
Chinese Cakes
Jean Paul Vellotti for NPR

Makes 4 cakes

For The Filling

1/2 cup dried black beans, soaked overnight in 3 cups of cold water, or 1 cup canned black beans

1 small star anise pod

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon mixed essence (a flavoring extract available in Caribbean markets, or find a recipe to make your own here)

For The Pastry

2 cups all-purpose flour

Pinch of coarse salt

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, chilled and cut into small cubes

Ice water as needed

Beaten egg yolk

Red food coloring as needed

Small clean paintbrush or a clean cotton swab

For The Filling

If using dried beans, drain them. Place in a pot with 3 cups of clean water and simmer for a half-hour. Add the anise pod and simmer for another half-hour, until beans are very tender. If using canned beans, drain in a colander, rinse with cold water. Place in a pot with 3 cups of clean water and the anise pod and simmer for 15 minutes.

Drain the beans, removing and discarding the anise pod. Place beans in a food processor and puree until smooth. Push the pureed bean mixture through a fine mesh sieve to remove any remnants of skin.

Combine the bean puree and sugar in a saucepan and place over low heat. Simmer, stirring often, until sugar is dissolved and mixture resembles a thick paste, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat, stir in the mixed essence and set aside.

For The Pastry

Combine the flour and salt in a bowl or the bowl of a food processor. Using a pastry cutter, your fingers or the pulse setting on the food processor, cut in the butter until pea-sized balls form. Add ice water in a thin stream, mixing until a shaggy, dry dough just forms. Add just enough water so no flour remains but the dough is far from sticky. Wrap and chill in the refrigerator for 2 hours up to overnight.

Remove the dough from refrigerator and cut into 8 pieces. Form each piece into a small ball and roll out to a 1/4-inch-thick disc.

Place 1 tablespoon of the bean mixture in the center of a disc and brush the edges with egg wash — 1 egg yolk beaten with 1 teaspoon water. Place another dough disc on top and, using a fork or your finger, press the seams closed. Repeat with remaining dough discs. Place cakes on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and chill in the refrigerator for 15 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Remove the baking sheet with the cakes from the refrigerator and brush the cakes with egg wash. Place the cakes in the oven and bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until the crust turns golden brown. Remove and cool.

Once cool, dip the paintbrush in the red food coloring and paint a 1/2-inch-wide circle or design of your choice onto the center of each cake. Serve.

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