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With more time in the home kitchen, it’s a chance to explore new cuisines

I recently delved into the Chinese influence on Caribbean food, born from a troubling history.

While we are stuck at home, it’s a good time to explore some new cuisines. Our family’s latest revelation is the Chinese influence on Caribbean food. It’s a marvelous marriage of tastes, though it has a troubling backstory.

I’ve been posting a series of Instagram photos chronicling my cooking during this time. I call it: “This is what bored people do.” Chapter 7 in this series, which has included sourdough bread and a failed attempt at cinnamon rolls, came from a post-dinner conversation pondering the origins of one of my husband’s favorite hot sauces, Matouk’s.

I knew it was Caribbean, but the lettering on the bottle and the name seemed more Middle Eastern. It has the fire of Scotch bonnet peppers but an underlying island flavor of papaya and mustard. There’s a lot going on.

My teen and I took a deep dive, as we often do. (We once spent two hours on the origins of Walkerswood Jerk Seasoning, which turns out to have saved an impoverished town in Jamaica. Look it up.) We discovered Matouk’s is from Trinidad and Tobago, where the cuisine has a strong line of Chinese influences.

Caribbean fried rice is one of the many island dishes influenced by the influx of Chinese laborers brought to the islands in the 1800s to work the sugar fields.
Caribbean fried rice is one of the many island dishes influenced by the influx of Chinese laborers brought to the islands in the 1800s to work the sugar fields. [ SHARON KENNEDY WYNNE | Times ]

That’s because of the laborers imported in the 1800s. After the British abolished African slavery, they imported Chinese indentured servants to work the sugar fields and to harvest cacao. They ended up influencing the larger culture by cooking their own food.

That led to what is now a signature Trinidad dish: chicken marinated in lime juice and the classic Chinese five-spice blend and ginger. It is then fried in a skillet and brushed with a blend of Matouk’s hot sauce, oyster sauce and lime juice. We used a recipe by Sam Sifton of the New York Times.

We added a side of Caribbean fried rice, also a Chinese-influenced island dish, and we ate till we were sleepy.

The timing in this recipe can be a little tricky, so I made the dipping sauce first and then the fried rice, which I set aside to rewarm just before dinner. The secret to fried rice, by the way, is to make the rice a day ahead. It allows the grains to dry out a little, resulting in a much better texture. We’ve got time these days, so think of this as a two-day recipe.

I used my trusty cast iron skillet to fry the chicken in batches, keeping it warm in my toaster oven as I worked on each batch.

Related: Every cast iron skillet has a story

The chicken pieces require tending. You’ll want to turn them every three minutes or so, until the skin gets that lovely mahogany lacquer. The meat underneath will have a nice combination of five-spice, ginger and soy, and the sauce on top will have the zing of Scotch bonnet peppers mixed with calming oyster sauce.

As Sifton wrote in his discovery of this dish, the end result is “a joyous product of survival under hard odds.”


Trini-Chinese Chicken

8 to 10 chicken thighs, legs and/or wings (about 3 pounds total)

2 tablespoons Chinese five-spice powder

3 or 4 limes

3 tablespoons soy sauce

1 (2-inch) knob fresh ginger, peeled and minced

½ cup neutral oil, such as canola or grapeseed

2 tablespoons sesame oil

½ cup oyster sauce

1 to 3 tablespoons Scotch bonnet pepper sauce, such as Matouk’s

Freshly ground black pepper

¼ cup chopped green scallions

In a large nonreactive bowl, toss the chicken with the five-spice powder, then with the juice of 2 of the limes, the soy sauce and ginger. Cover and marinate in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes and up to a full day.

Combine the oils in a large skillet set over medium-high heat. There should be at least ¼ inch of oil in the pan. When the oil is hot, remove the chicken from the marinade, allowing the excess marinade to drip back into the bowl, and fry, in batches if necessary to not crowd the pan, turning the pieces frequently, until well browned and cooked through, 15 to 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, make the dipping sauce. Combine the oyster sauce, 1 tablespoon of the hot pepper sauce and the juice of the third lime and stir to combine. Adjust the seasonings with more hot sauce, lime juice and black pepper to taste.

Garnish with the scallions and serve with white or fried rice, with a drizzle of the sauce over each piece of chicken and the remaining sauce on the side.

Serves 4.

Source: See You on Sunday by Sam Sifton

Trini Fry Rice

⅛ to ¼ cup sesame oil

1 tablespoon minced ginger

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1 cup carrots, diced

2 bell peppers, diced (yellow, red or green)

¼ cup chopped green onions

¼ cup chopped celery

2 cups cooked rice

1 cup frozen green peas

2 tablespoons soy sauce

Salt and pepper, to taste

Cilantro for topping, optional

Heat a medium skillet or wok over medium heat. Add sesame oil. Once oil is heated, add ginger and garlic and allow to cook for 2 minutes.

Add carrots, peppers, green onions and celery and allow to cook for 2 minutes. Add rice and mix until fully incorporated, then add frozen peas. Cook until warmed through. Add soy sauce and salt and pepper to taste. Top with cilantro, if using.

Serves 4.