It’s 5 p.m. on the Caribbean island of Trinidad. Dusk is near, and tourists at the famed Maracas Beach are packing it in for the day. A few miles away, in the community of Maraval, Antoinette George meets friends for mezes of tabbouleh, hummus, olives and shankleesh at Adam’s Bagels, the Syrian-Lebanese eatery owned by her son-in-law Adam Abboud. The women — an extended network of grandmothers, aunts, cousins and in-laws — move from small plates to Arabic coffee and pastry, stopping to greet visitors to the shop for Middle Eastern groceries.
They are the matriarchs of the Trinidad’s Syrian-Lebanese community, descendants of generations of refugees from what was once known as Greater Syria, comprising comprising people of Iraqi, Syrian, Palestinian and Lebanese descent. Their forebears arrived in Trinidad more than 100 years ago, and their cuisine — revised to the ways of their adopted home — has been their bridge to Trinidadian society.
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“In the days when our parents and grandparents came, there weren’t the things we needed for our cuisine,” George said. “So they adapted.” Some of those adaptations included substituting local Mexican culantro (recao) for cilantro and instead of spinach using locally popular patchoi (bok choy), brought by Chinese indentured laborers to the island nearly 200 years ago. The popular fresh sheep’s milk cheese called shankleesh is made in Trinidad using cow’s milk.
The first Arab immigrants came to Trinidad from Beirut in 1898, believing they had boarded ships bound for the U.S. The door-to-door peddlers, hauling suitcases filled with sundries, eventually prospered, earning enough to bring wives and families to the island.
The tide of Syrian-Lebanese immigration to Trinidad continued following the regional conflict after World War II and again in the 1980s and now from the war in Syria.
Influencing the cuisine in Trinidad
In Trinidad, like America, immigrants have made their home both by force and by choice, and Syrian-Lebanese immigrants made their home among descendants of Spanish, French and English conquerors; enslaved Africans; indentured Chinese and East Indians of Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim faiths; and Venezuelan cocoa laborers. Of these groups, the Syrian-Lebanese community has remained the most insular, holding fast to tradition and doing business with and marrying each other almost exclusively. Their impact on island cuisine is keenly felt, however.
The most recent example: the gyro stands run by the newest Syrian immigrants that have cropped up along major boulevards the island over.
“People line up for gyros every night,” said Zuher Dukhen who, along with his brothers, arrived in Trinidad in the past few years.
Like their countrymen, the Dukhens remain extremely close-knit but have proved themselves eager new Trinidadians. Nothing exemplifies this more than their love of a full table a “good lime” — the local term for easy companionship featuring food, laughter and chatter.
Bridging the cultural gap
Adam Abboud exemplifies a man who easily straddles these two worlds. Proud of his Syrian-Lebanese roots, he is also “Trini to the bone” — as locals describe someone whose Trinidadian nature is more than skin deep.
Abboud is a master limer, happy to sip coffee and chat for hours. Like any good Trinidadian, his catchphrase is “relax,” but he watches his establishment with an expert eye toward service and works the dining room like the local food celebrity he is. Between shaking hands with male patrons and dispensing kisses and compliments to the ladies, Abboud gestures to his staff to demand extras for customers — a taste of the newly made shankleesh salad, a nibble of a mamoul date pastry, a bottle of pepper sauce. At Adam’s, the Arabic tradition of lavish hospitality is in full effect.
Attention to detail
The delicacies here are all made in house, and the bagels give Lower East Side New York bagel shops a run for their money. Other Arabic pastries baked onsite include pita bread, sesame bread, baklava and various cookies using aleb molds from the Middle East. They are prepared by a United Nations of workers — pita made by a recent Venezuelan immigrant and puff pastry and dough for Arabic cookies made by Haitian pastry chefs all under the watchful eye of the native Trinidadian master baker.
During Sunday lunch, a Trinidadian staple, Abboud gathers with family at his in-laws, the Georges, to munch on goodies baked at Adam’s as well as full table of meze prepared by Antoinette George. Another table of Trinidadian staples — stewed chicken, beans and rice — round out the meal and all-day “lime.”
Extras like olives, stuffed grape leaves, Arabic coffee, dates, olive oil, sumac, mahlab and other items are imported after initially coming through the United States. Years ago Syrian and Lebanese Trinidadians depended on visiting relatives or those making trips home to bring foods for which there are no suitable local substitutes.
The newfound availability of Middle Eastern goods is a boon to Abboud — both in terms of business and personal happiness.
“I love my heritage, but I love my Trinidadian things too,” he said, taking a bite of his favorite breakfast, a Trinidadian-Syrian bagel of his own devising: smeared with labneh and topped with Trinidadian buljol, a cold salted codfish salad.
Adam’s Morning Bagel With Labneh, Buljol & Scotch Bonnet Pepper
Prep time: About 30 minutes
Yield: 4 bagels
Adam Abboud fully embodies his Syrian-Lebanese heritage and multi-generational Trinidadian nationality. This is his favorite morning meal, and it is truly a multicultural experience on a plate. Bagels made in the New York style are topped with labneh (yogurt cheese) and buljol, a cold salad made from salted cod that is a common and beloved local breakfast food. Abboud indulges his Trinidadian nature by topping the salad with thin slices of Scotch bonnet pepper — a fiery final touch that is not for the faint of heart.
3/4 pound salted cod
1 small onion, minced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 pimento pepper (aji dulce) stemmed, seeded and minced
1 medium tomato, diced
1 tablespoon minced shado beni (Mexican cilantro) or 2 tablespoons minced cilantro
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
4 bagels, any style
1 cup labneh
1 small Scotch bonnet pepper, stemmed, seeded and sliced very thinly (optional; see note)
1. Place the cod in a large pot with enough cold water to cover it. Bring it to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for 20 minutes. Drain the water and repeat two more times to soften the fish and remove most of the salt.
2. Drain the fish and place it in a large bowl. Using a fork, pull the fish into shreds.
3. Add the onion, garlic, pimento pepper and tomato and mix very well.
4. Mix in the shado beni and ground pepper and mix well. Set aside in the refrigerator until chilled, about 1 hour.
5. Slice the bagels in half and smear each side with equal portions of labneh. Top each with 2 tablespoons to 3 tablespoons of the chilled buljol salad. Top with thin slices of Scotch bonnet pepper, if desired. Serve open faced.
Note: Wear gloves when handling Scotch bonnet peppers, which are extremely hot. If you get the pepper on your hands, wash them immediately with vinegar and cold water. Wash down your cutting board and any other surface with vinegar and cold water as well — this will remove the volatile oils that cause the extreme burn.
Main photo: Adam’s Morning Bagel With Labneh, Buljol & Scotch Bonnet Pepper. Credit: Copyright 2016 JP Vellotti