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Food, Dining, & Drinks in Trinidad & Tobago

Historic Diet

Trinidadian and Tobagonian Food - Cod fritters
Cod fritters

Trinidad & Tobago's historic diet was based on what the islands naturally grew, but as small islands the diversity of foods is somewhat limited, although larger than one would think for an island nation of its size. Most of the island's oldest foods actually arrived with the earliest settlers; these native and early imports included plantains, pineapples, sweet potatoes, maize (corn), cassava (yucca), mangoes, papaya, bananas, coconuts, beans, and numerous other foods.

On the small islands that make up Trinidad & Tobago the land life was limited and viable food options were sparse as few local animals truly provided food for the people. This differed greatly from the surrounding waters though as there is a huge number of seafood in the area, including flying fish, bonito, king fish, conch, lobster, and crab.

Culinary Influences

The first influence to the diet of Trinidad & Tobago came with the first people to arrive who brought with them new foods and cultivated these foods. This led to the introduction of new ingredients as well as organized agriculture.

The first great change to the historic diet arrived with the Spanish. The Spanish brought new foods, animals, and spices to the island, giving the food an entirely new dynamic. The most important aspects the Spanish introduced were their spices, animals including cattle, fruits including breadfruit, oranges, and lemons, their vegetables, and rice.

The British continued to influence the diet after they took over the islands in about 1800. Like the Spanish, the British brought with them new spices, animals, fruits, and vegetables.

The British were more influential in other ways though as they expanded the slave trade and later people from the British Empire settled on the islands, including Indians. The slaves from Africa led to slave owners seeking to feed their slaves as inexpensively as possible, giving a rise to the popularity and heavy use of rice in the diet. Maize, beans, and potatoes were also important foods for the people of the island from this point forward. Later, the Indians arrived with their traditional spices and foods, altering the local cuisine even further.

In the past century or so, the food has continued to change in multiple ways. Indian foods and other ethnic foods have gained a larger market, while these outside influences have also altered the more traditional foods. Today it is common to see a traditional fish or dish as a whole covered in an Indian curry sauce. The influence though isn't just limited to Indian influence; today a large number of ethnic restaurants can be found on Trinidad & Tobago including American, French, Italian, and Chinese foods.

Staple Foods

Plantains: often a side dish or an ingredient in the main course
Rice: a common base to meals or simply a side dish

Regional Variations, Specialties, & Unique Dishes

Pelau: the national dish; consists of rice and is generally spicy, but little else is consistent as it can be fried, curried, or served with Spanish spices
Souse: animal feet (pig, chicken, or beef) cooked with onions, garlic, and spices

Dining Etiquette

Dining in Trinidad & Tobago is an event that has a primarily purpose of socialization, not eating. This doesn't mean you won't be fed well, but rather means meals can go on for hours and you are expected to join in on the conversation.

When meeting locals for a meal, dress a bit more on the formal side and try to arrive a few minutes late (up to 15 minutes). Once inside, let your host show you your seat as a seating arrangement may already be made, but don't sit until you are invited to do so.

Once the meal begins, which may begin with drinks, eat in the continental style (knife in the right hand, fork in the left) and keep your hands within sight by resting your wrists on the edge of the table. Your napkin should be on your lap and if eating in a home, don't ask for a second helping of food, although your host will likely offer you one and accepting is fine.

As you finish eating, place your fork and knife together on your plate to indicate you have finished. If eating in a restaurant, call the server over by making eye contact; don't wave or call his/her name. Most restaurants will include a service charge in the bill, but if not, add up to 10% for good service.

Celebrations & Events

Carnival takes place just prior to Lent in Trinidad & Tobago and this is the best time to meet the people and try the local foods. Since it seems everyone is out in the streets, it makes sense that fatty street foods rule the day as creole and curry dishes of deer, iguana, and opossum are offered during this time; these meats are rarely found during other times of the year.

Another important food holiday in Trinidad & Tobago is also a religious holiday, Christmas. Ham, turkey, beans, pork, pastelles, and fruit cakes are all consumed on Christmas, but this is truly a family event and it is difficult to partake in this holiday dinner without having a local friend.

Other occasions that merit unique foods are other official holidays, which are times when the people generally get outside to celebrate with family and friends. On some of these occasions street vendors take to the streets in droves to help you try the local cuisine and, if you're fortunate, some of those meats served during Carnival.

Drinks

Trinidad & Tobago offer all the world's most common non-alcoholic beverages although not all are significantly popular. Numerous ethnic minorities drink differing drinks based upon their cultures and traditions, but none are extraordinarily unique to the country. The most authentically local drinks are local soft drinks like "Chubby" or "Solo." Other common drinks that are primarily limited to the Caribbean includes malta, which is a drink flavored with barley and molasses. Coconut milk/water is also commonly consumed.

If you are seeking out alcohol in Trinidad & Tobago, rum is the easiest to find and the local favorite. Rum is often used in mixed drinks and numerous flavored rums are available in the country. Beer is also common, most notably international beers, while wine and other hard liquors aren't as popular, but are available.

The tap water is generally safe to drink in Trinidad & Tobago, but in some areas, particularly in rural areas, it might not be safe. The most cautious course of action is to entirely avoid the tap water and items that could be made from or with the water, such as ice, fruits, and salads. If you do decide to drink the local tap water, first check with your local hotel or guesthouse to learn the cleanliness of the water in that area. If the water is safe, remember that many people may have trouble adjusting to the local tap water as it will most certainly be different from what your system is used to if you are not from the region.

This page was last updated: March, 2013