Most Americans haven’t heard of Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul, who died today. I hadn’t either, until I met my husband, who enjoyed Naipaul’s early novels depicting quotidian life in Trinidad, such as A House for Mr. Biswas, The Mystic Masseur and Miguel Street. Naipaul was known for having a disparaging view of the country he grew up in and for not always being the nicest man, but he was one of few writers who depicted Trinidad in a way that captured my husband’s childhood memories.
We met Naipaul when he was promoting his novel, Half a Life, in 2001. When we lined up for the book signing, I presented my copy of Half a Life, while my husband was hoping Naipaul would sign the tattered and much beloved copy of A House for Mr. Biswas he had brought along. My husband was too shy and star-struck to speak, so I said to Naipaul, “My husband is from Trinidad.” Naipaul, wearing his more-English-than-the-English ascot, momentarily departed from his formality to say to my shy husband, “What, you too cheap to buy my book?” and then dismissed us with a very British “Carry on.” (No, he did not sign that old book!)
For Mr. Naipaul, here’s a recipe for doubles, one of the not-fancy tastes of Trinidad that he might have turned his nose up at publicly, but would have secretly scarfed down like any Trinidadian. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Trinidad’s cuisine, many of its popular dishes are Indian in origin, as is nearly half the population, including V.S. Naipaul.
Doubles are one of the iconic snacks from Trinidad. In fact, they were invented in 1936 in Princes Town, Trinidad, quite close to my husband’s village in the South of Trinidad. Doubles are basically a snack-sized sandwich made of two flatbreads (hence “doubles”) known as bara, filled with a curried chickpea (or channa, as it is known in Trinidad) filling. Doubles are most commonly eaten at breakfast (and the best vendors will sell out by mid-morning), but they’re also sometimes eaten as a late-night snack. They can be eaten as-is or further customized with condiments, most commonly Trinidadian pepper sauce (made of Scotch bonnet peppers), kuchela (green mango pickle spiced with amchar masala) or a thin tamarind sauce. It’s worth seeking out a Caribbean market to get these ingredients and condiments, or second best an Indian grocery. In a pinch, Mexican habanero pepper sauce (my husband’s favorite is el Yucateco) can be swapped for Trinidadian Scotch bonnet pepper sauce and Indian mango pickle (not chutney) will give a similar tart-spicy flavor as the kuchela. This photo was taken of doubles we ate on a recent trip to Trinidad– served as they are normally sold, wrapped in paper.
This recipe is adapted from the Naparima Girls’ High School Cookbook, a classic community cookbook from Trinidad.
Makes 8 sandwiches
2 cups all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon curry powder (ideally Trinidadian) or ground turmeric
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon yeast
1/3 cup warm water
1/4 teaspoon sugar
1 cup Canola oil (for frying)
1. In a large bowl, combine the flour, curry powder or turmeric, and cumin.
2. In a separate small bowl, mix the yeast, sugar and warm water. Set aside for about 5 minutes, until it foams.
3. Add the yeast mixture to the spiced flour mixture and enough additional water to form a slightly firm dough. Cover with a damp cloth and place in a warm place to rise until doubled in volume, about 60 to 90 minutes.
4. Meanwhile, prepare the chickpea filling (recipe follows).
5. After the dough has risen, punch down and then allow to rest for 10 minutes. Then dampen hands with water or oil and pull off tablespoon sized pieces of dough and roll into 4 1/2 inch rounds. Repeat until you have used up all the dough and have an even number of rounds.
6. Heat oil in a deep frying pan over medium high heat (should be about 3 inches deep). When oil is ready, fry the baras until puffed an golden, about 15 to 30 seconds on each side. Drain on paper towels or a wire rack.
Curried chickpea (channa) filling
1 14 oz can chickpeas, drained and rinsed with cool water
1 tablespoon curry powder mixed with 1/4 cup water
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 medium onion, minced
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon Scotch bonnet or Habanero pepper sauce
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 tablespoon Canola oil
1 cup water
1. Warm a large frying pan or skillet, add oil and warm until shimmery. Add garlic, onion and the curry mixture and sauté for a few minutes.
2. Add the drained chickpeas and stir to coat with the spice mixture and cook for another five minutes. Add cumin, salt, pepper and another 1 cup of water and stir. Then lower heat and simmer for 30 minutes, covered, until the chickpeas are very soft. There should still be sauce. If not, reconstitute with enough water to form a medium-thick sauce. Add pepper sauce and stir.
3. Finally, assemble your doubles by placing one bara on a plate, spooning one tablespoon of the chickpea filling on it, topping with additional condiments as desired (see my notes above). Enjoy at once!
RIP Mr. Naipaul.