Caribbean Indian Summer
Tuesday, January 8, 2008. It was an unusually warm and sunny winter's day in New York, the thermometer climbing to 64 degrees. I had time on my hands, so I figured this was as good a day as any to make my first trip out to Richmond Hill, the Queens neighborhood that is home to a large community of Indians from Guyana and Trinidad. Richmond Hill is the end of the line on the A train (Lefferts branch). The main drag of Liberty Avenue is a stretch of Caribbean businesses and eateries for well over a mile.
My pre-trip research revealed that while there are many roti shops in the neighborhood, Singh's, which I believe is Trinidadian, appears to be the most highly esteemed. Singh's has, I believe, three branches in Richmond Hill, the largest being at Liberty and 132nd Street, which was my ultimate destination, about fourteen blocks from the subway. When I exited the Lefferts subway station, however, I noticed one of the sattelite Singh's nearby, so I decided to stop in for a first bite. I ordered two items, a "doubles" and an order of phulories. Phulories are little fried balls made from split-pea flour that reminded me a bit of hush puppies. Rather bland, they're served with a tamarind sauce. An order of ten goes for $1 at Singh's. I ate two; I didn't want to stuff myself on Caribbean Indian hush puppies when I had plenty of other snacks on my agenda. The doubles--that's the singular form--I don't know whether one asks for two doubleses--is Trinidad's most popular street food. A doubles is made with bara, a fried, slightly puffy, slightly chewy bread (I'd call the consistency somewhat crullerlike), stuffed with channa (chick pea) curry. The name refers to the two pieces of bara bread used for the sandwich, though Singh's uses one longer piece folded over, as is now common practice. This was delicious, one of the best bangs for my single buck I've had in ages.
Two dollars down, I headed up Liberty Avenue to take in the sites and the menus. Many places looked interesting, but I decided to stick with my original plan of a roti at the main Singh's branch. At Singh's the rotis are served with the bread on the side and your curry on a plate, which is actually a good idea. I remember the first time I had tried a Jamaican roti and discovered that this "sandwich" (actually a wrap, but nobody used the term back then) was full of bones. The bread for a roti is called dal puri, a flaky, thin wheat bread augmented with ground dal (yellow split peas). I ordered a goat roti, but decided not to eat the whole thing, as I still had one other snack on my short-list agenda. So I ate the meat, nibbled at the potatoes, and dipped just a little of the dal puri in the curry sauce. It was very good, and had I eaten it all I would have been stuffed by this point. But I figured if I played my cards right and paced myself I might be able to try some Guyanese Chinese food.
There are a number of Guyanese Chinese restaurants on Liberty Avenue. Chinese people flocked to the Caribbean in the 19th century, as merchants and laborers, and over time Chinese cuisine in the islands became creolized. I'm always interested in the ways Asian cuisines have morphed in the new world. Guyanese Chinese menus are especially heavy on fried rice and lo mein, but at these places you can get those dishes with jerk chicken. I figured that was the way to go. I picked a place that had a $4.50 lunch special, Good Hope (121-15 Liberty Avenue), and ordered the jerk chicken fried rice. The rice was slightly spicy, and I only ate a few forkfuls, since I wasn't really hungry any more. The chicken, served on the bone and atop the rice, was hardly spicy at all, only having a hint of jerk seasoning (I don't know if this is common in Guyanese Chinese versions), but much to my surprise it was fabulous nonetheless. The meat was amazingly plump, juicy, tender and flavorful. I don't know how they did it, but this was some of the best chicken I've tasted in a long time.
Given the long subway ride, I don't expect to become a Richmond Hill regular, but as I write this I find myself craving some Chinese jerk chicken and a doubles.