“This is tamarind amchar,” says Adessa Barker, pointing to a small bowl filled with a deep purple sauce. “It’s sweet, tart, salty, and spicy all together.”
It’s one of a rainbow of condiments, including a verdant apple chutney and a fiery pepper sauce with a bright orange hue, she has laid out on a counter inside the Edgewood culinary incubator Mess Hall.
Barker then uncovers a series of bowls and platters, identifying dishes as she goes. There’s curried chicken, braised oxtail, stewed lentils, and mushroom masala in a rich coconut milk sauce. A thin roti bread known as buss up shut accompanies most meals. It’s fried and lightly beaten so it folds in on itself like a crumpled napkin. Barker recommends using it like an edible utensil.
This is the food of her homeland, Trinidad and Tobago, a pair of islands located in the West Indies. The culinary culture on the islands is like nowhere else in the Caribbean. It’s a vibrant mash-up of West African and East Indian traditions—the former brought there by slaves starting in the late 1700s, and the latter by indentured servants starting in the mid-1800s. Curries exist alongside Creole elements. On top of all that, chefs have access to a bounty of fresh seafood, tropical fruits, and locally grown vegetables.
Those aren’t the only influences. Almost every colonial power —Spain, France, England, and Holland—had a hand in the islands’ modern history, and there are significant Chinese and Syrian populations as well. To this day, locals often refer to the multicultural country as a “callaloo.” It’s their version of our “melting pot” analogy: Callaloo refers to a popular side dish that brings together a wide variety of ingredients.
Barker’s food is currently available at her “virtual restaurant” Kaiso, which the 36-year-old lawyer-turned-chef operates out of Mess Hall. Diners can access it through delivery services, including UberEats and Caviar, and she aims to launch pop-up dinners in April.
She is part of a new generation of Trinidadian-focused chefs who are bringing the islands to the District. Though there are longtime spots in D.C. serving classic Trinidadian food—most notably Teddy’s Roti Shop in Shepherd Park and 16th Street Heights’ Crown Bakery and Sunrise Caribbean Restaurant—the latest crop of talent isn’t afraid to honor the past, while putting their own spin on the cuisine. (And although the Trinidad neighborhood of Northeast D.C. was named after the island, it’s not a focal point of this Trinidadian renaissance.).
That’s why Kaiso’s website describes its food as having “Trinidadian flair.” “This isn’t going to be your mom’s stewed chicken or your grandma’s rice,” she says. “This is my take on it in a modern way. It’s the same, but different.”
Winnette McIntosh Ambrose, a Trinidad native who owns Souk on Barracks Row, agrees it’s important to signal to clientele that her food is “Trini inspired, but not exactly what you’d get in Trinidad.” These caveats are intended to preemptively ward off criticisms of fellow countrymen who come in expecting to enjoy foods prepared exactly the way they are back home.
Take, for example, McIntosh Ambrose’s lunchtime wraps called Souk roti, which will be available starting March 23. They’re made with dhalpuri roti—an elastic yet flakey fried bread forged from finely ground split peas and spiced with turmeric, garam masala, and ground dried cilantro. Think of it as a Caribbean tortilla. She stuffs them like a square burrito with a trio of fixings: braised boneless oxtail and sweet potato, jerk chicken with caramelized pineapple and black quinoa, and curried chickpeas and potatoes with strips of skin-on curried mango that’s both sweet and savory.
For McIntosh Ambrose, it’s okay that oxtail would never be in a roti and black quinoa is not a widely used product in Trinidad and Tobago. “It’s a reflection of my heritage in a very bold way,” she says. “I’m saying that we as Trinidadians can play with food, too.”
At The Wharf, Kith and Kin Executive Chef Kwame Onwuachi deftly invokes the traditional elements of his Trinidadian roots, while still working to lure diners who might not have tried the country’s cuisine before. “I like to keep the dish’s integrity and then make it the way I make it,” he says.
His grandfather, Winston Phillips, is renowned in the family for his curried goat with roti. Onwuachi has faithfully recreated it, but marinates the meat in a wealth of cilantro, garlic, and ginger to remove its trademark gaminess, then slow braises it until it’s tender. It arrives ladled over roasted potatoes and thinly shaved strips of celery with a neatly folded roti on the side.
The chef knows that his Trinidadian diners are measuring his dishes against the versions they ate growing up. “It’s always an uphill battle,” he says. “Diners know it’s not going to be like their mom’s. I usually say that and they laugh.”
At Spark at Engine Co. 12 in Bloomingdale, Trinidad-born Executive Chef Peter Prime lets his heritage shine through on dishes like grilled oxtail, crispy geera pork rich with cumin, and jerk wings. His Jamaican friends like to claim the jerk wings, Prime says, “but we’ve been doing jerking in Trinidad for a long time.” His fry bread with a curried garbanzo bean dip is a play on the island sandwich known as “doubles,” a pair of baras (fried flatbreads) packed with curried chickpeas.
All the spices and seasoning in Trinidadian cuisine calls for a cooling beverage. But the islands don’t have much of a local cocktail scene save for the Angostura bitters and rums that are produced there. The colorful frozen drinks with the paper umbrellas are strictly for the tourists. “It’s a rum and drinking culture,” says beverage consultant Duane Sylvestre, whose parents are Trinidadian. “Rum and coke. Rum and coconut water.”
That doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy some of the country’s trademark flavors in liquid form. The best place to do so is at Service Bar DC on U Street NW. Its co-owners—Glendon Hartley and Chris Willoughby—both have Trinidadian roots. Hartley’s parents are Trinidadian and Willoughby was born there.
Tamarind fruit, prized for its lip puckering tartness, is prevalent on the islands. Hartley’s “Burning Apple” cocktail is sweetened with a tamarind-honey syrup, perked up with habanero tea, and fortified with Calvados apple brandy.
What’s referred to as hibiscus in the States, but called sorrel in the Indies, is another Trinidadian ingredient in Hartley’s arsenal. It adds a rich ruby hue to drinks and packs a tangy tartness best described as a red-berry-meets-floral flavor. It has appeared in a number of his creations, including as a simple syrup in a rum punch accented with nutmeg and pineapple.
Hartley even helped add some Trini vibes to the food menu by replicating his mother’s beloved fried chicken spiced with clove, curry powder, and garlic. It’s a dish he learned by cooking with her and his grandmother growing up. Hartley believes getting a handle on the country’s cuisine ultimately made him a better barman. “It’s all about how to balance sweet and savory and add in spice, while still being able to taste everything,” he says.
This deft balance of flavors also explains the innate appeal of Trinidadian fare, which these chefs and bartenders believe can connect with a wider audience. Since they are all now at a level where they can call the shots on what they serve, they’ve decided to let their roots shine through. In the process, they’ve brought a little bit of the islands into the District.