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Exploring Carib-influenced cuisine

Thursday, November 13, 2014
First Peoples of Santa Rosa chief Chief Ricardo Hernandez, left, helps prepare cornmeal to make pastelles for the cookbook Kunuwaton. PHOTO: W WATSON

Just imagine feasting on aromatic barbecued meat, curried coconut crayfish, or even sauteed worms. On the side, you might try cassava bread, savoury farine “rice” or plantain pastelles. And for dessert, perhaps some sweet cassava pone, washed down with delicious, creamy, hot creole cocoa, or local fruit wine.

These are just some of the recipes in a new book called Kunuwaton, which celebrates the Amerindian influences in T&T cuisine. The word “kunuwaton” means culture in the Karina language of one of Trinidad’s First Peoples. The book is by Dr Satnarine Balkaransingh, with recipes by Jassie Singh and Ricardo Hernandez.



The book takes us on an educational journey to the culture and cuisine of some of Kairi’s (Trinidad’s) indigenous Amerindian descendants—the Santa Rosa First Peoples of Arima.

In Arima, the First Peoples are descended from mainly the Nepuyo and Lokono tribes, who were later all loosely described as Caribs, the Kunuwaton book explains. At first, the idea was to produce a cook book: but the authors soon realised that almost nobody in T&T knew much about the practices, beliefs and lifestyles of our indigenous peoples. So the scope expanded to include a primer on our First People’s rituals, festivals and culture.

The first third of the book (Chapter One) describes examples of present-day, local Amerindian-influenced traditions: sacred animist rituals such as the smoke and water ceremonies; the Santa Rosa (Spanish, Catholic and Amerinidan fusion) festival in  Arima; parang music (hispanic folk music adopted by First Peoples here, whose own native music had disappeared, except for bamboo rhythms); and an introduction to sacred and secular Amerindian food traditions. 

The next seven chapters dive into cuisine: cassava, corn, cocoa, root crops, meats, fruits and vegetables, and drinks, with clear, helpful recipes that foodies can use to recreate First Peoples foods in their own kitchens. The last chapter gives us some First Peoples folk recipes and healing potions, and explains a bit of the holistic Amerindian world view:

“We are spiritual beings with a human body, and to deny this is to deny yourself the essence of your being, and therefore your good physical health and sound mind,” says medicine man Cristo Adonis, who says all good health must first be based on a spiritual approach—and an understanding of local herbs and the specific needs of individual patients, among other necessary knowledge.

Tasty Amerindian foods

The book Kunuwaton shows the Amerindian roots of many dishes which we might have otherwise ascribed to other cultures. It also shows how Amerindian tastes mixed with Spanish, African, East Indian and other influences to produce some of our favourite local dishes. In recipes like stuffed arepas, for instance, or pastelles, both Spanish and Amerindian influences are there. 

We learn that the precursor to pastelles was probably the early Amerindian “tamales” or corn-paste pies, stuffed with any variety of meats and vegetables, and made by resourceful Amerinidan women as a portable, convenient fast food for their menfolk on warring expeditions in canoes.

There is a saltfish and tomatoes dish, which many may have previously ascribed to the African peoples brought here, rather than to the Amerindians. As for barbecue—the current First Peoples “pyai” (medicine man) Cristo Adonis shares his recipe for authentic Carib “boucaneed meat” on page 71; and there’s another more recent barbecue recipe, involving slow roasting for up to six hours over an open pit.

There are recipes for roasted tomato salsa, stewed beans, and even stir-fried worms—which are really the larvae of bumblebees. 

And the book teaches us that all of our root crops—cassava, yam, potato, sweet potato, tania, dasheen and eddo—have been worldwide staples in First Peoples’ diets for a long, long time.

We learn how much closer to the land the First Peoples were than we are now. 

They knew how to farm sustainably, and lived from cultivating the natural abundance of Kairi (Trinidad), with no imports except for goods they traded with mainland and other Caribbean island Amerindian tribes.

Inspired by Peter Harris

The author, Dr Satnarine Balkaransingh, is an economist by training but is better known as an Indian classical dancer, choreographer, and cultural researcher. 

He is the current artistic director of the Kathak Kala Sangam, an Indian dance/music/singing group formed in 2009.  Dr Balkaransingh has done much research into links between TT festivals and those of India. 

His new research interest into the Amerindians or First Peoples, he says, was sparked by work of the late Peter Harris.

Peter Harris was a senior research scholar at UTT’s Academy for the Arts from 2006-2010, who was working on a history of the First Peoples when he died, says Balkaransingh—who was clearly much moved by this research. 

Balkaransingh also met Patricia Harris, whom, he says, is “the most knowledgeable academic on the Santa Rosa First Peoples community.” 

He consulted her on the rituals and festivals in the book.

The book’s recipes have all been developed by chef Jassie Singh, with lots of input from Chief Ricardo Hernandez, Merlene Hernandez (the Chief’s wife), and other members of the Santa Rosa First Peoples community, explains Balkaransingh in the book’s acknowledgements.

Whether you’re interested in experimenting with specific recipes, or just curious about T&T First Peoples’ culture, Kunuwaton is a friendly place to start.


Kunuwaton—Culture and Cuisine of the Santa Rosa First Peoples of Arima, Kairi by Satnarine Balkaransingh, Jassie Singh and Ricardo Hernandez will be available at local stores including Nigel Khan in Trincity Mall and Jadoo’s in Arima.

Santa Rosa First Peoples Community

7 Paul Mitchell Street, Arima


[email protected]

[email protected]

[email protected]


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