Arabic food, as we know it locally, are dishes prepared by members of the Syrian-Lebanese community that immigrated to Trinidad from as early as 1904 according to the history books. Dishes are baked, boiled, fried and grilled with a variety of spices and ingredients which create a unique taste.
According to Public Relations Officer of the Syrian-Lebanese Association, Sandra Salloum, today’s Arabic recipes were handed down from their mothers and grandmothers who brought their cooking traditions with them when they journeyed to Trinidad several years ago.
Much of the ingredients have been adapted to what was available then in Trinidad and what is available now.
“For instance immigrants who came to Trinidad and Tobago did not have lamb to cook with as it was not available. So dishes cooked with lamb in Syria and Lebanon, we cook with beef in Trinidad because we had to adapt and get what was available,” she explained.
Local Arabic cooking incorporates ingredients which were readily available in Syria and Lebanon. One of the main ingredients is garlic. “We use a lot of garlic. Almost everything has garlic or garlic sauce because it is one of the most important ingredients. Long before people recognised its medicinal properties, the Arabs used garlic,” she said.
In addition, Tahini sauce, which is made of sesame seeds and olive oil, is used as a base for popular dishes like hummus and baba ganoush. It is also used to make sauces to put in gyros and wraps and some of the fish dishes.
Wheat is also an important ingredient in Arabic cooking and in the Arabic diet. Three grades of Burghul wheat is used – for salads, the finest consistency or number one and for sweets the third consistency is needed.
Walnuts are very popular for desserts, Salloum said. Syrups used are all flavoured with rose water and orange blossom water. She said this was because backyard farming is popular in the Arab region and those two ingredients are available in abundance there. All spice and pine nuts are also used in Arabic cooking.
Of all the Arabic dishes, Salloum believes the kibbeh is the most popular food locally. “It is more well-known now as it has become mainstream. I remember when I would take a kibbeh in my lunch kit to school and everyone in class will look at me strangely. Now everyone knows what it is,” she said
The basic ingredients for kibbeh are ground meat, usually beef, wheat and seasonings for the outer shell and ground meat, pine nuts and seasoning for the filling. There are several ways to prepare kibbeh including a raw version, which Salloum likened to the Japanese sushi or the French steak tartare. Fried kibbi is the most popular, but the dish can be roasted, baked or boiled.
There are also some recipes which use lentils or pumpkin for a vegetarian kibbeh or fish for a healthier alternative.
Other popular dishes include hummus, salads like the tabouli, stuffed vegetables like stuffed patchoi leaves which is a local adaptation of a traditional Syrian/Lebanese dish and Arabic coffee.
While most ingredients to make Arabic dishes are available in regular supermarkets, other ingredients can be purchased in specialty stores, Salloum said like Vabat Limited in St James and Peppercorns.