East Meets West-Indian Food

On the Nostrand Avenue strip between Eastern Parkway and Fulton Street, there are several Chinese restaurants and dozens of Caribbean restaurants but only one spot where East meets West-Indian head-on. A neon sign out front of Trinidad Golden Palace heralds Chinese Food Trinidad Style, where two migration stories are wrapped up in one noodle dish.

“Trinidad style Chinese food has a mix of African, Indian, and Chinese spices,” explained Wazo Rahaman, who started Golden Palace, both a take-out and bakery, in Brooklyn’s Caribbean neighborhood of Crown Heights 15 years ago. Their dishes like chicken and shrimp chow mein are typical of a hybrid cuisine native to Trinidad where Indian, Chinese, and Caribbean cooking styles mixed as a result of a South- and East-Asian diaspora in the islands.

The Trinidadian chow mein differs from the westernized take on the noodle dish that is soaked in soy sauce. “Have you ever had chow mein here?” Rahaman asked, referring to an American-Chinese joint on the same block. “It’s all wet and moist and sloppy.”

Like Cuban-style Chinese food, another hyphenated cuisine that came to New York along with the influx of Cuban immigrants in the sixties and seventies, Trini-style chow is hotter. “We Carribeans love the spice,” said Russel Baptiste, owner of Caribbean restaurant Janelle’s (671 Washington Ave.) in neighboring Prospect Heights. But while Cuban-style chow mein is usually spiced with chili sauce, the Trinidadian variety uses the exceptionally hot Scotch Bonnet peppers, known as Balls of Fire in Guyana. At Janelle’s, their lo mein is seasoned with these as well as shadon beni, an herb similar to cilantro and common in West Indian cooking.

In one noodle dish here in Brooklyn, there’s a story of two migrations—the Chinese to the West Indies and the Islanders to America in more recent history.

The Chinese community in the Caribbean dates back to the 1800s. Around the time the slave trade was abolished, British colonies organized settlements and imported indentured laborers from China to replace African slaves on their sugar plantations. In the 20th century, immigration continued as Chinese families moved to open shops and restaurants.

“There’s something that’s in the food and what people eat day-to-day that represents this but the origin and actual migration story is not usually well articulated or well remembered, it’s just there,” said John Eng-Wong, a Brown University researcher studying the globalization of Chinese food.

Although Trinidad Golden Palace (788 Nostrand Ave.) is the only Caribbean-Chinese joint in Crown Heights, it’s not uncommon to find the odd Chinese-infused dish on a menu of West Indian favorites. Chris’s (613A Nostrand Ave.) serves chow mein and lo mein on the weekends only and Trini-Gul (543 Nostrand Ave.) advertises Shark Fin Soup, a Chinese delicacy dating back to the Ming dynasty.

“The spread of Chinese food has to do with economic opportunity,” explained Eng-Wong. “It may be that Chinese food is tasty, but it’s also a place where the Chinese were able to make a living. It’s true in North America, and it’s true in Trinidad and many other places in the Caribbean.”

The story is not unlike that of Caribbean immigrants here in New York, who moved for a brighter future and started small businesses, often West Indian restaurants. “It’s the American dream,” said Baptiste.

On the weekends, there's usually a line out the door of Trinidad Golden Palace.

On the weekends, there’s usually a line out the door of Trinidad Golden Palace.