7 Questions with Sarina Nicole
7 Questions is a series of interviews with the culinary movers and shakers you want or ought to know better.
One common misconception among American diners is that all Latin American food is the same; it’s all Mexican food. Well, dear reader, nothing could be farther from the truth. Very few Americans have ever eaten real Mexican food.
First off, what most people think of as Mexican food is not. Nachos? American food. Burritos? American food. Crunchy tacos? American food. Flour tortillas? American food. Yellow cheese? English food. Sure in Mexico they eat pinto beans and rice and tomatoes and chilies but so do the folks in New Orleans. But that does not make gumbo Mexican food.
Few people understand this better than food blogger Sarina Nicole. Nicole is a true Caribbean girl – half Trinidadian, half Jamaican. She has dedicated her blog, TriniGourmet.com to educating people to the vast array of foods to be found in Trinidad and Tobago and how it differs from the cuisines of other Latin American countries.
According to her web site her, “. . . motivations are many, however the main impetus is that I feel that for too long now the cuisine of the Caribbean, and especially that of my native Trinidad has remained unexplored by the larger global market.”
Recently the foodie with the movie star smile was nice enough to answer 7 Questions:
1. How old were you when you first started to cook?
I was definitely a late bloomer when it came to moving around a kitchen. Growing up, as an only child, I spent most of my time in the kitchen watching my mother cook. She was a prolific recipe collector with a passion for international cuisine, something that definitely rubbed off on me. However, the kitchen was very much her domain and the message was clear that though I was free to watch, I was also expected to stay out of her way. As a result I never really developed any clear understanding of how to handle ingredients, knives, or even a flame/oven! By the time I entered college, I was in the peculiar position of being familiar with a wide range of recipes, influences, and culinary approaches without actually being able to prepare anything more complex than a grilled cheese sandwich!
It wasn’t until my junior year, during an off-campus summer internship, and no college kitchen staff in sight, that I finally came to the realization at the ripe old age of 20 that one can not subsist indefinitely on frosted flakes, ramen and mac ‘n cheese! For the first time I had access to the Food Network and Emeril Live! was just becoming a phenomenon. His enthusiasm and ‘plain speak’ made me feel that I too could do this. My landlady also had a subscription to Cooking Light magazine that she no longer was interested in. Somehow between the two a light went off in my head and I vividly remember making my first real shopping list, taking a taxi to the nearest Stop ‘n Shop and heading pack to my sublet with a backpack full of ingredients. Needless to say however the first few products of those efforts were pretty near inedible! An exceptionally gritty spinach salad comes to mind
2. Can you describe the unique characteristics of Trini food?
Trini food is especially unique because of the diversity of nationalities which have contributed to our culinary vocabulary. Demographically Africans and East Indians make up the majority of the population and those heritages are probably the most immediately recognizable on any menu, however the Chinese, Syrian-Lebanese, and Portugese communities have also made their mark on our gastronomic lexicon. Centuries of Spanish, French and English occupation have also influenced our technical approach to creating traditional fare. Put it all together and we have a cuisine which is unlike any other in the region and one which can present different faces to the visitor depending on the time of the year in which they visit, and the community in which they stay.
3. Which chefs have influenced you the most?
Without a doubt Mario Batali has probably had the greatest influence on my culinary point of view. His seasonal approach to using the freshest ingredients, and his emphasis on allowing the essence of a main ingredient to shine in as unmasked a form as possible has really shaped my improvisational abilities, as well as how I interpret and re-interpret the dishes that I have grown up with.
4. What would you tell someone who thinks that every Latin American country eats the same food?
It’s a common misconception that the foods of the Caribbean and Latin American are fairly homogeneous. Some of this is because of the narrow range that gets commercialized overseas, the other is the sparsity of actual local content in terms of what tourists get served at the most common hotels around the region. Adding even more confusion for the casual visitor is the fact that many times the same names are used across countries for dishes/ingredients that can vary quite widely! To really understand each country’s cuisine is to take a dip into its history, both agricultural and political. Geographic and trade differences often determine whether the primary starches will be corn, root vegetables or rice and whether key proteins are fish, chicken, or beef. Migration and colonization also affect the approaches and spices which play a prominent role.
5. In your opinion, what are the signature flavors of Trinidadian food?
Like Guyana, (and unlike the rest of the Caribbean islands) we have a very strong East Indian demographic. This has shaped and contributed to our own appreciation and desires for intensely seasoned and spiced fare (cumin or “geera” is particularly important). The African contribution for me is especially prevalent in our stewing and ‘browning’ (caramelization) of meats in sugar. This is a step that has always intrigued my Jamaican mother, but it is integral to getting the key flavors of many of our meat-based Creole dishes. Also notable is our propensity towards garlic-based marinades and sauces as well a liberal love of ‘chadon beni’ or ‘bandhania (also known as culantro) for both seasoning meats and enhancing the final taste of a dish.
6. If you could have dinner with anyone in history, what would you have for dessert?
Oh, that’s an interesting one! There is a small bunch of eclectic historical figures whose stories intrigue me. Anna Pavlova, Olaudah Equiano, Napoleon Hill, Booker T Washington, Hildegard von Bingen. However for dinner I think I would want to sit with the person who is probably the newest (and much belated addition) to my list, Julia Child. We could swap memories of Smith College over croquembouche and turkish coffee and I could find out what/if anything she knew about Caribbean/Trinidad cuisine. Nice dream I think!
7. What’s next for Sarina Nicole?
I’ve been running Trinigourmet since 2006 and it really is a labor of love. In the past year I have gotten more involved in the social media side of connecting with readers and other food bloggers and I’ve really been inspired by the support it has received. Emails and interactions with Trinidadians and those of Trinidadian descent who now live all over the world has made me realize that food is an integral part of our connection to our families, and a shared historical/cultural identity that is highly emotional and powerfully healing at times. The site has evolved since its inception and no doubt it will continue to do so. There is a greater emphasis now on meat-free, as well as gluten-free, dishes now because of food allergies and other dietary restrictions in my home. At first I thought this would cause a huge revolt among my readership but I have been surprised and moved by the response of local residents who also have dietary restrictions (either because of religious or health constraints) and often felt invisible/dismissed in terms of local options and accommodation both by friends, family and eating establishments.
Moving into 2011 I would like to present and offer more recipe options for these people (who are no less passionate or patriotic). I also am considering the creation of more multimedia content (something I dabbled with this year for the first time). I have also started receiving inquiries for books so I definitely will be looking into some product launches as well. The sky is the limit and the more Caribbean voices that join the conversation, the more the true variety of the region will become clear to all