Fieldwork’s Hard Reality is in the Soft Stuff: Part 2: Food
For travelers from India, the first sign of cultural diffusion in Trinidad is the prevalence of “doubles”. “Doubles” are two deep fried bread pieces served with chana (chickpeas curry). In India, “doubles” is called chana batura and it’s considered a sit-down meal. In Trinidad, “doubles” is street food. So imagine my pleasant and very appreciate surprise when I discovered how ubiquitous this delicious meal was in my field site.
Like other aspects of Indian culture, I quickly discovered that Indian food in Trinidad is not really Indian-from-India food. It’s a version of Indian cuisine that has been creolized with local spices and ingredients – finger-licking good food that is simultaneously nostalgic and novel.
Trinis love spice and they love Indian food. I know this because whenever I would pack lunch I had cooked myself (pulao for example), I would get requests to make extra the next time. “Of course!” I said. And so began a symbiotic relationship between food and my fieldwork.
For three months during which I commuted from Port of Spain (POS), I stayed with a single, retired 84-year-old woman. She maintained a strict diet of fish, vegetables and no salt. But I could cook to my heart’s content. At Woo Ling’s Supermarket, I bought nine basic spices for Indian cooking – cumin, mustard seeds, fenugreek seeds, ground cumin, mango powder, red chilly power, turmeric powder, garam masala, and a Trini favorite – Madras curry powder. And I cooked. Everyday I cooked.
After my interviews, I would stroll down Western Main Road and buy vegetables, lentils, and rice for cooking. I cooked yet another creolized version of Indian food that used Indian-from-India techniques with Trini-Indian (really, Chinese manufactured) spices. What I cooked, I loved to share. And over spicy Indian meals, my research sometimes transformed into dinner-table conversations.
I moved from POS to San Fernando next. For a few days, I stayed with a friend of a friend. The family didn’t take any rent from me. As a thank you, I offered to cook dinner the day before I left. Next, I moved into the Raja Yoga Center where I was not allowed to cook food. The kitchen was managed by Raja Yoga Brahmakumaris (“Sisters”) who belonged to the faith. Only they could cook in the kitchen. Their food was “satvik” Indian-from-India food that used no garlic and no onions. I ate simply for the time I stayed with the Sisters. On the one hand, I was grateful for not having to cook every two days for myself but I was constrained by what I could or could not eat, and sometimes by how much. My Raja Yoga experience was one of much solitude, peace and adjustment. Food was a big part of that experience. The Sisters ate meals together. As much as I could, I planned my research schedule around meal times; I looked forward to teasing Sister Maria* about her love for dumplings and pleading Sister Margaret to make her soft bread again. Brother Stephen and I had not yet formally met but every few days in the month of June, he would silently leave mangoes for me from his mango tree. It was the beginning of our relationship and, in a month, I will be returning to the Center to incorporate his experiences more substantially into my own research.
In July, I moved from San Fernando in the south to Sangre Grande in the east. For three months I stayed as a house guest with a family that I was introduced to through a friend. They too would not accept rent from me. Anxious to show my gratitude, I offered to cook. This time however, the Indo-Trinidadian family was keen that I cook food the Indian-from-India way. So we acquired a relatively large list of dry and powdered Indian-from-India spices for this purpose.
In Grande, the food I cooked transformed from a gift into currency.
In my eyes, it was too small a price to pay for the generosity of my hosts but I think it worked. In addition to making lavish dishes like paneer butter masala, chettinad fish, biryani, palak paneer, chole, lemon rice, and shrimp in coconut gravy, I also occasionally cooked everyday meals like dal, aloo gobi and bhindi.
I was cautious about overstepping my boundaries in someone else’s kitchen and eager, still the same, to repay their kindness. On Sundays, I was always requested to cook in bulk so there would be leftovers for the next few days. Mind you, this is a family of six with extra members thrown in for good measure for the Sunday meal. As I huffed and puffed over large cauldrons making copious amounts of food (with much help from my hostess), I felt like a beauty pageant contestant whose hula hoop skills gave her the winning edge. Thank god I knew how to cook.
But my fieldwork didn’t have a routine that always allowed for the regular luxury of planning and cooking meals. The satisfaction I received from cooking food for myself and for others was tempered by the variability of eating on-the-go. There is never any dearth of food in Trinidad, this is true. But I am not one to live on street food, and I have done so on many an occasion here. “Doubles”, deep fried and made with all-purpose flour, can make for at most two lunches in a week. Fast food joints are very popular but I have never been one for KFC or Subway or Royal Castle. There are roti shops (that serve Trini-Indian food) and Creole food stalls that dot the landscape but now I feel the literal and metaphorical weight of ad-hoc sustenance when on the road. These experiences have made me appreciate both home cooked meals and my super power in the kitchen.
There is a lot you learn when you spend an extended period of time in a foreign country. According to Oberg (1960), the four stages of culture shock in the field are Honeymoon, Crisis, Recovery and Adjustment. However, my experience has been less linear and more cyclical, caught between Discovery and Resistance and mediated by bouts of Adjustment. Fieldwork has been a bouquet of roses with a thousand thorns. And during this prickly time, food, as nutrition, cultural identity, currency, gift, and conversation, has become an unexpected source of introspection over the last nine months. As a subject matter, it is not directly related to my research topic, but then again, research is so much more than what you study. And so my love story with cooking and eating my way through Trinidad continues. As luck would have it, one way to this country’s heart is indeed through its stomach.
*Names have been changed to protect identities