Syrian Trinidadians’ Culture & Food
Nearly every afternoon around five, Mrs.
Antoinette George and several other ladies meet for mezzes of tabbouleh, hummus, olives, and shankleesh at Adam’s Bagels, the Syrian-Lebanese eatery owned by her son-in-law in Port of Spain, Trinidad. The women, who comprise an extended network of grandmothers, aunts, cousins, and in-laws living on the Caribbean island, move from the small plates to Arabic coffee and pastries, stopping to greet others coming and going as they shop for delicacies imported from the Middle East.
These ladies represent the matriarchs of Trinidad’s Syrian-Lebanese community, descendants of émigrés from what was once known as Greater Syria, encompassing modern-day Iraq, Syria, Palestine, and Lebanon. Their forebears arrived in Trinidad more than one hundred years ago, and their cuisine has been their bridge to Trinidadian society at large.
“In the days when our parents and grandparents came, there weren’t the things we needed for our cuisine,” said Mrs.
George. “So they adapted.” Some of those adaptations included substituting the local Mexican culantro ( recao) for cilantro and instead of spinach using the locally popular patchoi (bok choy) brought by Chinese indentured laborers to the island nearly two hundred years ago. The popular fresh sheep’s milk cheese called shankleesh was made in Trinidad using cow’s milk.
The first Arabic immigrants came to Trinidad in 1898 from Beirut, Lebanon, believing they had boarded ships bound for the United States. They were men who worked as simple door-to-door peddlers hauling suitcases filled with sundries. Working hard they eventually prospered, earning enough money to bring their wives and families to the island as well.
Almost fifty years later, at the onset of the Second World War, fellow Arabs—Syrians from the Crac Des Chevaliers—arrived, supported by those families who had gone before and had successfully made Trinidad their home. Today, history is repeating itself and new immigrants with ties both within this community and outside of it are arriving at a steady pace.
Among the many varied emigrants to Trinidad, the Syrian Lebanese community has remained the most insular, holding fast to their traditions, doing business with and marrying each other almost exclusively. Their numbers remain small, but today these families, now in their fourth and fifth generations, comprise a power base in Trinidad with holdings in real estate, oil, media, construction, and food service.
Newly popular gyro stands are the bailiwick of the newest Syrian immigrants, and they line the major boulevards in towns from the capital of Port of Spain all the way down to San Fernando, and everywhere in between. They are in malls as well and represent small independent operators as well as franchises rapidly overtaking foods like doubles, a curried chickpea sandwich, and oyster shooters from mangrove oysters, as the go-to after-party food for the clubbing crowd.
“The people line up for gyros every night,” said Zuher Dukhen who, along with his brothers arrived in Trinidad within the last few years. At their take-out stand, Sami’s Arabian, they make their gyro meat daily, hand forming it using traditional methods. They stay open from five in the evening to three or four in the morning, with customers often waiting hours for the gryos to be finished cooking.
Like the earliest wave of their countrymen, families like the Dukhens remain extremely close-knit. Regardless of religious or neighborhood affiliations, the newcomers have proven themselves eager adoptees of their new home. Nothing exemplifies this more than their love of a full table—a “good lime”—the Trinidadian term for easy companionship featuring food, laughter, and chatter among family and friends.
Adam’s Bagels owner
Adam Abboud is the hallmark example of a man who has straddled these two worlds nicely. Proud of his Syrian-Lebanese roots, he is also in many ways, “Trini to the bone”—as locals would describe someone whose Trinidadian nature is more than skin deep. “I love my heritage but I love my Trinidadian things too,” said Mr. Abboud, whose favorite breakfast is a Trini-Syrian bagel of his own devising: smeared with labneh and topped with Buljol, a cold salt cod salad.
Abboud is a master limer, happy to sip coffee and chat for hours. Like any good Trinidadian, his catch-phrase 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 his customers—a taste of the newly made shankleesh salad, a nibble of a mamoul date pastry. At Adam’s Bagels, the Arabic tradition of lavish hospitality is in full-effect.
Like the bagels, other Arabic pastries are baked onsite like fresh pita bread, sesame bread, baklava, and various cookies using aleb molds from the Middle East. They are prepared by a United Nations of workers who represent what Trinidadians call their “
callalloo” culture. The pita are made by a recent Venezuelan immigrant; Haitian pastry chefs make the puff pastry and short dough for the Arabic cookies; and the master baker managing the ovens is a native Trinidadian.
For other traditional goodies, in years past Syrian and Lebanese Trinidadians depended upon visiting relatives or those who made a trip back “home” to bring the rare ingredients they needed. Today in Trinidad, extras like olives, stuffed grape leaves, Arabic coffee, and dates have finally made their appearance on the table thanks to importers like Vabat who serves the growing demand for goods from that part of the world. Olive oil, sumac, mahlab, coffee, and other items now regularly arrive on container ships to Port of Spain’s harbor, often initially coming through the United States.