Lisa Nelson runs the Trinidadian food shop in the back of Hank's Meat Market on St. Claude Avenue, which her family purchased in 2013. (On social media and to her customers, most people know her as Queen Trini Lisa.) Nelson also is among several vendors participating in the NOLA Caribbean Festival June 24 and 25. Nelson spoke with Gambit about her Trinidadian cooking and the nuances in different styles of Caribbean and Creole cuisines.
What is your background in Trinidadian cooking?
Nelson: I was [raised] in Trinidad and Tobago, and learned by watching my mom in the kitchen. My mom is of East Indian descent, so her cooking would (reflect that) and included a lot of curried dishes. When I moved to New York with my dad in 1996, that's where I really started learning about jerk chicken. In Trinidad, we rarely did jerk chicken. But in New York, I lived in Crown Heights, Bed-Stuy, Brownsville, East New York — and in all of those places I met people from all over the Caribbean with different cooking styles.
After Hurricane Katrina my family moved to New Orleans in 2006. Back in 2013, the opportunity to buy Hank's Meat Market came around and eventually I started cooking at the store and giving out tastes. I started out slowly, just on Sundays only, but then it got to the point where it was almost every day. Business at the store hasn't been so great, but the food keeps it alive and keeps it going. I don't have a set menu, but I kind of do it now based on what mood I'm in.
On weekends, I'll often have oxtails, rice and beans, callaloo. And on Sundays it's my curry day, where I'll have curried fish, curried chicken. I make a curried goat — and at first a lot of people would come in and didn't know about goat, and then said they never knew goat could taste like that. I always say, "Don't knock it till you try it."
I'm pretty good with my vegetables, like cabbage, spinach and green beans. I try to keep the side dishes vegetarian because there are a lot of vegetarians in the neighborhood who come in. I do a vegetarian corn soup, and if it's rainy and cold I'll try to do a lot of stews.
What similarities exist between New Orleans Creole and Trinidadian Creole cuisine?
N: It's pretty similar, actually. ... The food has a lot of similarities too. We cook a lot of seafood in the Caribbean, even though it's not boiled. Jambalaya is very much like a dish we call pilau and we often cook dishes called Creole fish or Creole chicken, and we use a lot of the same ingredients.
But I do things differently, too. I put tomato in my red beans and rice, which surprises some people. I started making something that my customers call Trini yaka mein: it's a similar concept, made with my stewed meat, which I brown with caramelized sugar, and then I add the egg and the noodles and the green onions. I often try to combine the Trini and New Orleans culture together. And I love using Tony Chachere's — I use it in my cooking all the time.
Have you seen a shift in the Caribbean and West Indian culture and cuisine in New Orleans?
N: Definitely. I think it's growing a lot and people are getting to know and understand that there are other countries besides Jamaica in the Caribbean. There's a better understanding now that we have different foods with different influences. ... For instance, we have a lot of East Indian and African influences that [were] passed on from slaves. My grandfather is East Indian and my grandmother is black, so we have that clash of the cultures too that affects the food. My family back home — some are Christian, some are Hindu and Muslim. You learn a lot that way about different cultures and what they eat.