Published on: March 15, 2014
“It’s best to get to the market early. If you come later than 5am, I am leaving you”. He meant it too, so it’s still dark when we set out. Today, distance isn’t the issue, time is; the freshest produce tends to go early.
“You both look like tourists,” he laughs. With the fingers of dawn just tentatively touching the early morning sky everything is washed in shades of blue. If we did not keep our eyes on him, we’d lose him easily.
The market bustles at 5:15am like it runs on a different time schedule. Old beat up trucks are laden with green figs, ripe plantains and the most beautiful deep orange-colored pumpkin we’ve ever seen. When you’re accustomed to shopping at Hi Lo, the central market feels like another world.
He takes us to his regulars selling sweet potatoes, yellow plantains, green figs, fat cucumbers, green striped watermelons and fragrant bunches of chives, chadon beni and thyme. Then there are the specialties – purple mangosteen, prickly red rambutan and green-brown sugar apples.
We enter a large, open building from which wafts the unmistakable smells of curry and fresh fish; an odd combination but we’ve grown accustomed to the complex mixture of scents that would match nowhere else but at the market. The woman cleaning huge, brilliantly colouredred fish calls it North Coast snapper, caught “Right up de road, North Coast side”. She then mutters under her breath in the wake of a customer who tries to drive a little too hard a bargain for her fish: “Steups. I could come and bargain with him when I come to buy curtains in his place? Why he telling me ‘bout the price ah my fish?”
Her face changes as she turns her smile on us once more and tells us to come back for the fish while she scales, cleans and wraps it for us,“ $30 for the whole thing! Can’t get that in Hi Lo!” We laugh. True.
Baskets laden and wallets still relatively full, we head out to a sky now fully lit by the bright morning. We head to the house and production begins. Nothing, however, starts without the perfect playlist. It’s still early and the sounds of Pink Floyd, Stephen Marley, K’naan and James Blake float through the house.
“What are you cooking for us today?”
“I don’t know” he replies “We’ll know when it done.”
He starts peeling the sweet potatoes, tania, pumpkin and the green figs. Food prep becomes a communal exercise with two Trinis, a Viennese girl named Musa and one Jamaican ordering us around.
“Cut up that seasoning and the veggies. Knives in the drawer”.
Soon, the kitchen is filled with the unmistakable smells of thyme, chives, garlic and onion, staples of any West Indian kitchen and the bright red tomatoes, red and green sweet peppers, cabbage and carrots and broad beans fill the room with colour. The blender whirls, combining watermelon, ginger and mangosteen and the sound mixes with laughter and the music of Nicholas Jaar. Musa disappears into her hammock in the next room, the smoke from her cigarette trailing behind her.
Next the pumpkin, green fig and ground provisions go into the pot and the red fish is seasoned.
“What you doing with the cucumber?”
“More juice” he replies, “With some ginger and honey.” Nice.
Musa peeks out briefly from her hammock, where she’s been ensconced with her Kindle, to check on our progress.
“When’s lunch?” she asks
Then he starts to deal with the vegetables. He finishes cutting them up and and put them to steam with seasoning not used for the fish in the wok. The red snapper sizzles in the frying pan, coated with ground oats, instead of flour, egg, salt, black pepper and the fragrant herbs.
As the sun rises higher in the sky and the sounds of the day become more noticeable, it’s time to work on dessert: brownies baked with maraschino cherries, oats, granola and rum. When they’re done they have a rich, crumbly texture, the chocolate further sweetened by the cherries and the rum.
We set the table and sit on the deck to a meal of sweet potatoes, tania, green figs and pumpkin with battered fried snapper and steamed veggies on the side. There are two kinds of juice — cucumber ginger and watermelon mangosteen with a shot of white rum — and it is all topped off with the best brownies this side of heaven.
“I know” he smiles.
It’s Saturday on the island.
If you are interested in the music mentioned, check out the playlist on mixcloud here.
Writer: Ayanna Gillian Lloyd
Writer & Creative Strategist based in Trinidad & Tobago.