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 galvanizing — an unlikely story of origin that traveled across the seas.
In the mid-1800s, after slavery was abolished in the Caribbean and other British colonies, the first group of indentured laborers 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.
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% 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 hybridized in the West Indies, this version displays its own touch. It’s also a bit more laid-back.
This Caribbeanized 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 laborers, the brand’s spice mix is a household staple, adored for its nuanced and spiky flavor.
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 chiles — 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.
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
4 to 6 servings
If Chief curry powder isn’t readily available, substitute Madras curry powder.
Storage Notes: The stew can be refrigerated for up to 3 days.
Where to Buy: Chief curry powder can be found in Caribbean grocery stores or online.
3 tablespoons neutral oil, such as canola or vegetable
2 tablespoons curry powder, preferably Chief brand (see headnote); may substitute Madras curry powder
4 to 5 (about 2 pounds) large Yukon Gold potatoes, well scrubbed and cut into 1/2-inch dice
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon kosher salt, divided
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 2/3 cups water, divided, plus more as needed
1 (15-ounce) can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1/4 cup chopped scallions, white and green parts
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
5 large cloves garlic, minced or finely grated
1/2 teaspoon chopped habanero chile pepper (about 1/2 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
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 1 tablespoon of the salt, the black pepper and 1 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 2/3 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, 5 to 7 minutes.
If the stew is too thick or sticking to the bottom of the pot, add 1/3 cup water. Stir in the remaining 1 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 8 servings) | Calories: 177; Total Fat: 6 g; Saturated Fat: 1 g; Cholesterol: 0 mg; Sodium: 689 mg; Carbohydrates: 27 g; Dietary Fiber: 5 g; Sugar: 2 g; Protein: 5 g.