Picture from of a roadside Trinidadian Doubles stand. By Tusentakk.
3.30 a.m. Lachoos Road, Penal, Trinidad.
It is dark. The small two storied house stands about thirty feet in from the curb; not a curb really, the road-side . It is still an hour and a half away from the first peek of daylight, which would appear behind the house, over the trees. A soft breeze rustles the leaves of a mango tree in front of the house.
A light in an upstairs room goes on, and within minutes shadows of someone can be seen through the window curtains, moving slowly back and forth.
After some minutes, more lights go on.
A dog somewhere in the close neighborhood lets off a few sleepy barks. Maybe a cat ran by, or other small animal. Dogs have a way to sleep light, useful in this area where it is not uncommon to have a dark silhouette walking in a backyard at night. Just passing through.
Inside the house, Dolly finishes her bathroom routine, washes up, and then proceeds to go wake her husband Mohan. Waking Mohan is not always easy, especially if he had spent some quality time in the early night playing all-fours with the fellas next door.
Soon the kitchen itself began to sputter to live. Within half an hour Dolly had mixed her first batch of bara dough. It sat in a plastic bowl, slowly fluffing up. She turned her attention to another pot in which channa (chick peas) had already started to feel the heat. A mild spicy aroma was filling the kitchen.
Mohan arrives in the kitchen, stepping down one step from the living room. He looks sleepy. “Morning” he says. Dolly responds across her shoulder, “ Get de box ready, an move de bara deh… so we can start cutting. You got to clean out de van, doh forget”.
“and take the chutney out from de fridge” , she continues.
“Ah go put up some tea” Mohan replies.
Dolly soon starts ‘cutting’ bara balls. Bara is a small, thin, slightly spiced flatbread, fried in oil. Two of these breads and the channa, and chutney , comprise what is called “Doubles”, the now world-famous Trinidad street food.
Bara dough is broken into small balls about an inch and a half in diameter. Dolly starts laying them out in rows on a tray. Mohan takes his first sip of a steaming cup of tea. He puts a cup on the table next to Dolly. He rolls up his sleeves and reaches under the sink for a blackened flattish iron pot. He places it on a stove. This is not the regular kitchen stove; it is a five ring burner attached to a tank of cooking gas. Bara has to be fried at very high temperatures. Regular gas stoves don’t have enough juice. Mohan pours oil into the pot. He turns the stove on, and the heat up. He ready fuh dem .*
Making bara is a skill that takes time to acquire. The small dough balls are flattened until they are almost see-through. Then they are placed in very hot oil and very quickly turned over, and then taken out. A few seconds. To be efficient you absolutely need two persons, one flattening and placing in the oil, the other one with a couple of prongs in hand to manage the Bara as it fries.
Dolly does the pressing and Mohan is the fry-man.
Dolly takes her first two gulps of tea. The channa is almost finished. As soon as Mohan takes that pot off the stove they would be ready to start the bara. The smoke from the hot oil starts filling the kitchen and the house, and starts wafting across the trees and the road. Neighbours will soon smell it. This is one of the signatures of bara-making. Lots of smoke.
5.00 a.m. They are running late. They start frying the bara. Now the smoke really starts to build; it can be choking. A cock crows loudly next door. Dolly’s bird replies from the coop in the back-yard. The night starts receding above the trees as the first glow of sunrise pushes up, announcing a new day.
Dolly and Momo (that’s his nickname) frying at a rapid pace. bara in, bara out, bara in, bara out. Momo still has to clean up the back of the station wagon, and he starts to appear anxious.
6.00 a.m. – Momo finishes packing up the station wagon. He is ready to head out. He has to pick up Spokes at Bajnath Street before heading out to his spot on the Erin Road and Penal Rock Road junction. Spokes is his usual helper at the Doubles stand; he is a short wiry fella; real name Ramesh, but picked up the nickname ‘Spokes’ some time ago; rumor has it that late one night, after liming with his friends at Felicity Hideout he had an altercation with the back wheel of his bicycle.
Momo drive ups to Spokes’s house and leans over and opens the door. Spokes jumps in with a “morning”. Momo mutters something like “mm boy”, as he speeds off towards his spot. He sets up his stand and umbrella between the Royal Bank and the Penal Market.
6.45 a.m. – They are ready to sell, and the first customer pulls up in a Bluebird. He hops out and offers “Aaiy boy, you awright”.
“Yeh boy” Momo says as he quickly picks up ta sheet wax paper wrapper and places two bara on it, all sitting on the palm of his left hand. He does a kind of juggle as if positioning the baras just right. “Tree slight ” the customer orders.
‘Tree slight’ means three Doubles with slight pepper. Momo gets into gear and his deft hands quickly fills and wraps three Doubles. First two scoops of channa on the bara, then a scoop of chutney; then he quickly grabs the pepper-sauce bottle and splashes some pepper on the channa and then does the well practiced wrap and twist. It takes about four and a half seconds. Mohan is working as if he has a lineup of fifty customers. He passes the Doubles to Spokes. Spokes already has a brown paper bag open and stuffs the Doubles in it. He collects the payment and throws it in a box. Another two cars pull up. Customer number one moves to the side and opens a Doubles right there and starts eating. As he makes his first bite, his eyes close, and you can see him savouring and concentrating on the flavours. Three customers are now lined up. First customer is almost done with his first Doubles and calls out to Spokes, “Two moh”.
The day is in full swing. Within an hour they may serve another thirty or forty customers. This is a busy junction.
Doubles stands are found throughout Trinidad along the roads. Many people do not have breakfast at home but plan on stopping by their favourite “Doubles-man” on their way to work. It has become iconic of the country, and every visitor to Trinidad is inevitably coaxed into visiting a Doubles stand.
Doubles have spread to other islands in the Caribbean, to North America and to the UK. It is an amazingly tasty snack item, a bit more than a snack, which is evolving as people experiment with newer fills, for example, mixing the channa with shrimp or chicken. But the true connoisseurs of Doubles stick to the original recipe, the Doubles of Dolly and Momo and the countless other couples who build their life and fortune around this simple street food.
Alima’s Roti and Pastry has been serving Doubles for about twenty years. Customers who come for this snack are from many backgrounds, from India and Pakistan, from Africa, Malaysia, Mauritius, and Arab countries. It is becoming a truly international food, and it is only a matter of time before you start seeing Doubles stands set up in Kuala Lumpur, Karachi, Mumbai and Dubai.
If you have not tried it as yet, come on over to Alima’s and order one. Take a ‘slight’, and after that you can order the ‘medium’. Let us know what your experience is. We would love to share it with our friends.
(The names used in this short story are fictional and any resemblance to a true Doubles man or lady is purely coincidental)
* “Ready fu dem” is a Trinidadian term that only a true Trini would fully grasp. Loosely means ‘ready to roll’.