An excerpt from The Undiscovered Country: Essays, by Andre Bagoo
Forthcoming in September 2020 from Peepal Tree Press
Not the tennis game but, rather, the internationally acclaimed street food from Trinidad. A thing of contradiction. Deep-fried and hearty, yet totally vegan. Soft, delicate, yet hardy and meaty. Neatly wrapped for eaters on the go, yet messy, drenched in finger-licking deliciousness. One word, yet both singular and plural like barracks, binoculars, shorts. Seemingly everywhere, yet available only at certain times and certain places. Mornings and nights. Never in restaurants, always at roadsides, under tents, or off mobile carts — Trinidad’s version of the trendy food truck.
Some people say the main ingredient is chickpeas or channa. It’s an ingredient that harks to a history predating the dish itself. Chickpeas were found in places of power and reverence, buried with Egyptian mummies from 6000 BC. The Greeks, according to Plato, ate them with figs for dessert, and the Romans made dishes from them as offerings to the goddess of love. Pliny the Elder reportedly called the chickpea “the pea of Venus” and a physician to emperor Marcus Aurelius believed that chickpeas increased sperm count. The sexiness of the pea may have something to do with the fact that it looks like a butt, something which could explain its popularity among Trinidadians, though few biting into a doubles are aware that its main ingredient helped change the world. The chickpea was an affordable source of protein in ancient Rome; its cultivation supplemented the diet of subsistence farmers. In this way, the pea, the size of a very small coin, helped sustain the Roman Empire.
There are people who say the main ingredient of doubles is the bara, the bread, the deep-fried bake, the fried flatbread, between which the channa is sandwiched. In the Bible, the Hebrew word bara (meaning to shape, fashion, create) appears seventeen times in Isaiah, eight times in Genesis and six times in the Psalms. When used with God as the active subject, it means to make heaven and earth, to birth man, to engender something new, to bring about a miracle. Many hungry bellies will agree about doubles miraculous qualities in the morning. But bara has other meanings — to cut down or cut out. It also means to make yourself fat, which again is appropriate.
Yet other people say the main ingredient of doubles is not an ingredient, but the sauces. If the humble chickpea propped up empires, empires conspired, through the march of history, to give us the toppings for our doubles. The mango, that relative of the cashew, came, like the curry used in the channa, from India. It lends a sweetness to complement the savoury. Indigenous peoples of the Americas bestowed the shadon beni, a more intense cousin to cilantro, with serrated leaves and blue flowers. The tamarind, from Africa, was brought to the Americas, along with slaves, by the Spanish who, like us, enjoyed its bittersweet tartness. And then there’s pepper, an ingredient for which the nuances are so complex to the average Trinidadian it would take an entire book to discuss. But with regard to doubles and pepper, one thing is clear. When requesting “slight” pepper from a vendor, the novice should be aware there will be no real difference between “slight” and the full dose of fire. To be thorough, we must also mention the humble cucumber, also from India and also ancient. It appears in the legends of Gilgamesh and in Numbers in the Bible, before ending up as a savoury topping at Ariapita Avenue.
The consumption of doubles is a barometer of society. When the economy is healthy, robust vendors spring up like mushrooms after rain, congregating at night in hives near popular watering holes, capitalising on the flow of inebriated citizens looking for something to hit the spot after a night of excess. When the economy is going even better, “gourmet” doubles appear — stuffed with unorthodox ingredients like cheese, chicken and beef — things no proper doubles connoisseur would ordinarily want or need. But such are the ways of decadence. Economists, whenever tax revenue has fallen, call on governments to tax profligate doubles vendors.
The darker side of society, too, manifests itself around this meal. In 2012, a man was planassed with a cutlass while buying doubles. Crime, citizens said, was becoming intolerable. In 2014, three people tried to rob a doubles vendor after buying a meal. Crime, citizens said, was at an all- time high. In 2019, a doubles vendor was murdered at his doubles stand. Citizens said nothing.
I’ve heard stories about people stowing doubles in their carry-on luggage on long flights to gift hungry fans of the dish abroad. I’ve read accounts of people experimenting with the idea of freezing and shipping the bara and channa separately for reassembly elsewhere. I’ve yet to come across, however, anyone who makes doubles in their home. The recipe, involving a long process of allowing dough to rise, soaking dried beans overnight, then boiling them for a long time, then frying the bara over high temperatures, is too much even for domestic gods and goddesses. Which resonates with doubles’ central contradiction: it is casually available on the streets yet in many ways is inaccessible. Its simplicity belies its reliance on the economies of scale and collective appetite. Its flavours and textures curdle into its own realm of enjoyment — a realm with a history and complexity as multitudinous as Trinidad itself.
Yet, Trinidadians treat doubles the way they treat their own. On an ordinary day, the fact of doubles selling at the side of the road is taken for granted. But when a foreign travel writer, famous internationally, films a documentary and reports on doubles as a unique “street food” and a “speciality”, the doubles is suddenly back in vogue, restored to its status of being part of our national heritage. That heritage is at once rich as it is contingent, layered as it is unstable, unique as it is universal, succulent as it is frail, innovative as it is stale.
© Copyright 2020 Andre Bagoo
Courtesy Peepal Tree Press