Trinidad-style aloo, channa infuses Indian classic with Caribbean flavour

Brigid Washington

THE WASHINGTON POST – There’s no denying the simplicity of Trinidad-style aloo and channa. Creamy Yukon Gold potatoes are coated in curry powder, then simmered until soft. Canned chickpeas are added, and the whole pot is then zapped with a bright burst of aromatics and heat.

This vegan mash-up is both fortifying and forgiving; it sticks to one’s bones without requiring much elbow grease. However, behind the no-frills ingredient list and everyday ease is something more galvanising – an unlikely story of origin that travelled across the seas.

In the mid-1800s, after slavery was abolished in the Caribbean and other British colonies, the first group of indentured labourers from India was brought to Trinidad and Tobago on a ship called the Fatel Razack. This system of indenture was meant to replace the formerly enslaved workers, but for the Indian immigrants, the conditions and the contract of their tenure were oppressive and predatory.

Despite the harsh beginnings, East Indian customs – both culinary and cultural – continue to exert significant and celebrated influence in Trinidad and Tobago.

Indian Arrival Day is observed each May to commemorate the advent of a new culture in the twin-island nation. Many Indian foods – and their preparation – were adapted to the new, tropical locale.

Trinidad-Style Aloo and Channa. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

This Trinidad-Style Aloo and Channa stew clearly borrows a page from the classical Indian version popular on the subcontinent. Aloo is the Hindi word for potato, and channa for chickpeas.

In India, aloo and channa is prepared differently, with a heavy hand of fresh ginger and tomatoes, along with turmeric, cumin and garam masala, among other spices, which give the dish more body and firepower.

However, in Trinidad and Tobago, where the East Indian population is 35 per cent of the nation’s 1.2 million residents, the recipe takes on a bright and deliberate Caribbean slant. Trinidad-style aloo and channa is a product of geographic syncretism, and like many other dishes from the East that were hybridised in the West Indies, this version displays its own touch. It’s also a bit more laid-back.

This Caribbeanised stew, unapologetic for its island lilt, uses fewer ingredients and comes together quickly, while still embodying a striking sense of place. For instance, the Trinidadian version uses ground Chief brand curry powder instead of individual spices. Developed by Sayeed Khan, who was a grandson of indentured labourers, the brand’s spice mix is a household staple, adored for its nuanced and spiky flavour.

In addition, Trinidad-style aloo and channa enlists the pungent, floral herb culantro. Known as shado beni or bandhania in Trinidad and Tobago, the herb grows wild throughout the country and is akin to cilantro, but its taste has more fire and fight. In the absence of culantro, a combination of green onion and cilantro delivers a similar, albeit slightly more mellow, effect. A handful of freshly chopped garlic, as well as a small addition of fruit-forward chillies – Scotch bonnets are ideal, but habaneros make an acceptable substitute – inject the potatoes and peas with bite and dimension.

As a child growing up on the island, I ate aloo and channa frequently in myriad applications: draped over a bowl of steamed white rice; cocooned into a pillowy dough for a fried, handheld, aptly named “aloo pie”; and sometimes piping hot, straight from the pot, by the spoonful, when impatience got the better of me.

Each time, I marvelled at the brand of magic my mother convoked to exact big, dynamic flavours from a couple of potatoes and a can of chickpeas. I was always rapt. It turns out, as childhood magic tricks go, there was no real bewitchery, just fresh ingredients that I paid little attention to during those formative years.

Now as an adult, making and eating this dish provides an anchor to my Trinbagonian heritage and alleviates the bouts of homesickness that are most acute during these punishing winter months. Eating the dish lets me access – in edible form – a sweet slice of my childhood.

Making this dish for my Jamaican husband and our two small “Trin-Ja-Merican” children – a fitting portmanteau to describe their multicultural heritage – I appreciate the warmth and satiating quality that aloo and channa confers.

TRINIDAD-STYLE ALOO AND CHANNA

Active time: 30 minutes | Total time: 45 minutes

Four to six servings

Trinidadian Chief brand curry, with its unique combination of bright and smoky spices, gives this vegan potato and chickpea stew a touch of the unexpected. By using naturally buttery Yukon Gold potatoes – and leaving the skin on – the dish comes together quickly with minimal attention. It shines when paired with toasted and buttered naan or draped over a bowl of freshly steamed brown rice. It’s a comforting and creamy workhorse – especially during the winter.

If Chief curry powder isn’t readily available, substitute Madras curry powder.

Storage Notes: The stew can be refrigerated for up to three days.

Where to Buy: Chief curry powder can be found in Caribbean grocery stores or online.

INGREDIENTS

Three tablespoons neutral oil, such as canola or vegetable

Two tablespoons curry powder, preferably Chief brand; may substitute Madras
curry powder

Four to five (about two pounds) large Yukon Gold potatoes, well scrubbed and cut into half-inch dice

One tablespoon plus one teaspoon kosher salt, divided

Half teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 2/3 cups water, divided, plus more as needed

One (15-ounce) can chickpeas, drained and rinsed

Quarter cup chopped scallions, white and green parts

Half cup chopped fresh cilantro

Five large cloves garlic, minced or finely grated

Half teaspoon chopped habanero chile pepper (about half chile), seeded and minced, or a few dashes of fruit-forward hot sauce, such as Yellowbird habanero hot sauce

Fresh chopped cilantro or scallions, for garnish (optional)

Naan or cooked brown rice, for serving

DIRECTIONS

In a large, heavy pot over medium heat, add the oil and curry powder. Allow the curry powder to bloom, constantly stirring, about 30 seconds.

Add the potatoes and stir to coat them with the curry-oil mixture. Add one tablespoon of the salt, the black pepper and one cup of the water. Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover and simmer until the potatoes are tender, about 25 minutes.

Using a wooden spoon, mash some of the potatoes against the side of the pot and stir to thicken the cooking liquid. Add the chickpeas and two thirds cup of water and stir to combine. Stir in the scallions, cilantro, garlic and habanero, if using, and simmer until the chickpeas are warmed through and everything is coated in the golden sauce, five to seven minutes.

If the stew is too thick or sticking to the bottom of the pot, add one third cup water. Stir in the remaining one teaspoon of salt and a dash of hot sauce.

Ladle the stew into bowls, garnish with the cilantro or scallion, if using, and serve hot, with naan or brown rice.

Nutrition (based on eight servings) | Calories: 177; Total Fat: 6g; Saturated Fat: 1g; Cholesterol: 0mg; Sodium: 689mg; Carbohydrates: 27g; Dietary Fibre: 5g; Sugar: 2g; Protein: 5g.