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Chinese New Year, Trinidad-Style

It's common to see Chinese New Year good luck symbols in retail centers in Trinidad, and parades, complete with dragon dances, are hosted by various Chinese associations islandwide.

Consider the Caribbean island of Trinidad, and you might think of sandy beaches, palm trees and rum cocktails. What you probably don't think of is the riotous cacophony of a traditional Chinese New Year, with red and gold streamers, fireworks and dancing dragons. But Chinese New Year, just like Chinese culture, is deeply enmeshed with the larger culture of Trinidad and Tobago.

Chinese were first brought to the islands in the 19th century as indentured laborers on British colonial plantations. They soon became part of the general population of Africans, Indians, Europeans and Syrians. Their influence on the island's food was profound, perhaps because once they left indenture, Trinidad's Chinese often owned the island's grocery stores.

Like other transplants, they adapted their cooking methods to local ingredients. Some things, however, remained entirely intact. Grace Young's book Stir Frying to the Sky's Edge & Beyond explores Chinese cooking around the world, particularly in the Caribbean. She told me the steamed porked buns called pow in Trinidad are just like the steamed pork buns called bao in Hong Kong.

For my part, growing up in the wonderful cultural melange that is New York, the Chinese New Year was always a must-do celebration. I spent a lot of my childhood trying to match my father's long strides as he walked purposefully around New York City's neighborhoods seeking the foods of his Trinidadian home. In Chinatown, he'd bargain for fish and vegetables such as bitter melon or bok choy. To my delight, our tours culminated in a visit to one of the many bakeries so we could get pow (or bao) or almond cookies. My father was impervious to the odd looks from the ladies behind the counter who strained to understand his West Indian accent.

He didn't notice their curiosity because in Trinidad, Chinese food is staple fare. We eat fried rice one a week. Chow mein is as common as a casserole. Stir fries with calabaza pumpkin, taro root and hot pepper are everyday foods, and soy sauce is a regular ingredient in brown stewed meats.

So, growing up in a West Indian community with many Chinese, my father considered bao regular Trinidadian food. The same held true for red bean cakes — called, without political correctness, "chinee cake" in the islands — almond cookies and other Chinese sweets baked in a traditional style. There is, though, one major twist. In Trinidad, Caribbean mixed essence is a common flavoring for sweets and essential to baked goods. Similar to vanilla extract, it's redolent of pear and almond, although the original version was made from native tonka beans.

In fact, these cakes and cookies are so popular that they are churned out by factories that supply standard bakeries not just in Trinidad and Guyana, where the Chinese food influence is just as powerful, but also in West Indian areas of New York, Toronto and London.

It's common to see Chinese New Year good luck symbols in retail centers in Trinidad, and parades, complete with dragon dances, are hosted by various Chinese associations islandwide.

To continue the family tradition, I've been taking my 5-year-old daughter to the New York City Chinatown parade since she was an infant. Afterward, though, I prefer to head home for a feast of traditional Trini-style Chinese dishes including pow to honor the memory of my father, red bean cakes to bring sweetness to our year and chow mein because noodles represent longevity.

Keep in mind that Trinidad Chinese food is generally sweeter than American Chinese fare, and often uses rum instead of rice wine. Also, the Scotch bonnet pepper in many dishes adds a kick, but who doesn't need a little kick-start for a great year?

Gong hay fat choy!

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Ramin Ganeshram