While riding the New York City subway I either do the daily sudoku puzzle or I read the New Yorker or one of many books or magazines about botany, gardening or garden/landscape design. Sometimes I just grab whatever reading material is nearby as I rush out of the house. For a few weeks I read a book titled Fruits Trees of the Caribbean. It covers the Caribbean in general but fails to include many of the fruits I grew up eating and cherished while growing up in rural Trinidad. I decided to seek out some of these missing fruits on my next trip home. I wondered how many of my nieces and nephews ever ate a tonka bean fruit or topi tambo or peewah or balata. My Plan was to photograph these fruits and write about them along with some other not-so-familiar fruits and educate myself and others in the process.
balata (Manilkara bidentata)
My trip began at the end of December 2010. After a night out on the town, my sister and I returned to our room at the Hyatt in Port-of-Spain at about 4:30 on the morning of New Year's day. We were exhausted and happy. Dancing is so much fun. There on the table sat one of two magazines highlighting the history and culture of T&T. To my delight and chagrin there was a short article about fruits of Trinidad and Tobago with a note that the author had just completed a chart listing all ninety-four (94) fruits found on the twin-island republic. Alas, he had not just beaten me to it but had gone far beyond the scope of my plan. I made a note to seek him out.
A couple weeks later, after emails and phone conversations, we met at the foot of Lady Chancellor Road leading to the Horticultural Society of Trinidad and Tobago. His name is Nasser Khan and he is a feature writer for the Trinidad Guardian and other local newspapers. Mr Khan has written many articles on cricket and the history of Trinidad and Tobago. Check his work out at http://www.bestoftrinidad.com/profiles/nasserkhan.html. As a result of the work on the fruit chart Mr Khan has been commissioned to create similar charts for each of the Caribbean islands. He is also working on the publication of a text book to be used as a guideline for students studying local agriculture. All this is done outside of his role as a businessman in the commercial industry of Trinidad and Tobago Carnival. He is a very knowledgeable, energetic and passionate man and I thoroughly enjoyed the little time we spent talking while driving around Port-of- Spain. In addition to admitting to the fact that I am ignorant about many of the fruits on the chart, speaking with Mr Khan made me aware of how little I know about current events in T&T. I am inspired to keep more informed (as if the constant political drama of America is not enough to keep me occupied and depressed).
Unlike many Caribbean islands, Trinidad shares the flora and fauna of much of South America. Many trees which are endemic to Trinidad are also native to Brazil, Guyana and Suriname. We also share many of the poisonous snakes and primates. Think of all of South America packed into one small island, separated from the continent by a few miles of ocean. Fruit names like cocorite, gru-gru and gang gang, and of course, peewah always remind me that I am the daughter of the soil shared by natives or Ameriandians who populated the island at the time of Christopher Columbus' “discovery”. I imagine that these fruits, especially peewah, were the source of starchy powder to make breads and other nutritous foods for Caribs and Arawaks. I crave these fruits and identify with them as much as I feel the need to move my body when I hear drummers beating out their rhythms on the subway platforms.
Cocorite (Attalea maripa)
Sweet and yellowish brown when ripe, cocorite's lure is in the thin layer of sweet flesh which surrounds a dense pit, wrapped in a papery skin. The pit which is about 1.5 inches long is smooth and brown and shaped like a zeppelin with two eyes on the rounded end. As children we would rub the eyes on concrete until the area around them became thin enough to pierce the eyes with a pin or small nail. We would then pry out tiny pieces of the coconut-like flesh inside until the seed was a hollow vessel into which we could blow and voila, we had a whistle. Cocorite is eaten whole and dispersed by forest animals. My father grew up near the Pitch Lake in La Brea and still today talks of his adventures through the cocorite fields on his way to and from school.
Peewah (Bactris gasipaes)
Some of my favorite childhood memories are of waiting for the freshly boiled peewah (chataigne or topi tambo) to become cool enough to be handled and eaten. Cooked in salted water, peewah is a starchy treat with a thin shell housing a little coconut in the middle. A seedless version called kerekel may be the result of an undeveloped or unfertilized ovules. Kerekel is often acorn shaped and has a milder flavor than the darker-fleshed and skinned peewah.
Tonka Bean (Dipteryx odorata)
The fruit in best known for the treasured seed which is often compared to vanilla bean with hints of caramel, vanilla and almond. It contains a chemical called coumarin which is harmful if ingested at high levels. Tonka Bean is used to flavor sweets, ice-cream and it is a common ingredient in perfumes. It is rumored that tonka bean extract is the secret ingredient in the much coveted recipe of the legendary Angostura Bitters, produced solely in Trinidad.
Most people do not realize that the seed is just one intriguing part of this delicious fruit. The papery skin covers a half inch thick layer of marzipan-like sweetness held together by short fine hairs attached to the large seed. As children, we used our bottom teeth to scrape off the pasty flesh and ended up with teeth-full of fine fibers. It was always worth it. The washed and fluffed hairy seed was an excellent throw thing and with some grooming and eyes it made an excellent and very quiet pet.
Balata (Manilkara bidentata)
I vaguely remember some story about balata trees being the home of poisonous snakes. That never interfered with my love for this hard-to find fruit. It is a small fruit of about an inch in diameter with a rather large seed surrounded by a very sweet, grainy pulp containing a gummy milk. The milk makes it unpleasant to eat sometimes but that problem can easily be solved by using a spoon to scoop out the delicious, sapodilla-like flesh. It was difficult to keep my objective in sight. I was so excited about finding some balata that I ate almost all before remembering to photograph them. Balata trees are known as rubber trees and my father described how his mother and other workers cut “V” slits on the trunks to collect the sap in rubber fields common many years ago. The sap is used to make latex and other rubber products.
Like the wood of poui (Tabebuia), a tree well known in Trinidad for its beautiful habit and colorful blossoms, balata wood is extremely dense and has much commercial value for its strength and durability. Deforestation continues to rob us of natural habitats for diverse creatures and makes some once-common fruit trees almost rare. I could only hope that as these very significant trees are harvested for furniture and construction or cleared for housing and roads that seedlings are planted to avoid decimation of the population. The cocorite fields through which my father and his siblings walked to and from school have almost all been cleared by expanding oil companies. Peewah is rarely seen on the market. I would like my sons and later generations to experience the joys of tasting and knowing these unique fruits and realize that they are part of the natural history of the islands, most carried over from the continent and all harvested by myriads of ethnic groups for centuries. These fruits are a record of our illustrious past. Today balata trees are almost always found deep in the forest, possibly and justly so, guarded by massive pythons.