From Kay at Tiffin's, Port-of-Spain
Trinidad and Tobago
Serves 4 to 6
The chokas of the Trinidadian Indians are so interesting in their evolution and history, much of which can only be deduced. It is likely, however, that they came with the indentured laborers drawn from the northern Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar after 1846.
The name of this dish gives this emigration pattern away. Choka is obviously a corruption of the Hindi word chhownk (which has the same meaning as bhagaar and tarka—for more on this, see tarka, page 737 of the book). This is the name for a common Indian technique used to flavor dishes:
Seasonings are sprinkled into very hot oil, where they quickly intensify in taste or change character, and then the newly flavored oil as well as the seasonings are poured over a cooked food to give it an extra fillip.
So, what in India might have been chhownka timatar or "tomatoes with a chhownk" has now turned into Tomato Choka for a people who no longer speak Hindi or even understand it—forget about the hard-to-pronounce consonants like chh—and whose common language, along with all the other immigrants, is Caribbean English. The dishes, as well as their seasonings, are simple, giving further proof that the villages that were abandoned in the nineteenth century for an uncertain future in the Western world were poor but that as in all the villages of India even today, the food that was eaten was utterly delicious.
In Trinidad, tomatoes are sometimes roasted very simply by sticking a fork into them at the stem end and holding them over a low flame until the skin is burnt off and the flesh turns soft. You may use that method or the oven-roasting method that I have used here.
This is sometimes eaten on bread, with lashings of Trinidadian Pepper Sauce (page 717). At other times, hard-boiled eggs are put into a dish of Tomato "Choka" and the two are eaten together. And of course, it is also eaten plain with Roti (page 448) and Spinach Bhaji (page 230) or with a dish of chickpeas.
For the final "choka"
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.
Line a baking tray with foil and lay the tomatoes on it. Bake for 25 minutes. Remove the tomatoes and put in a bowl. Let them cool off a little so they can be handled. A little liquid should have accumulated under them. Discard the liquid. Peel the tomatoes and remove the cores. Chop them coarsely and put them back in the bowl. Mash the garlic, red chile, and salt together in a mortar or on a cut- ting board with the flat side of a knife. Add to the tomatoes and stir to mix. Taste for the balance of seasonings.Put the oil and crushed garlic in a small frying pan over medium-high heat. Stir until the oil heats up and the garlic turns golden. Now pour the contents of the frying pan, oil and garlic, over the tomato mixture. Serve warm, at room temperature, or chilled.
These days tomatoes seem to come in all shapes and colors. I wish I could say that I cared. All I ask for is flavor and texture, and sadly, those remain elusive. Markets now have tomatoes from Holland, from Israel, from Mexico, but the best ones are our own local tomatoes, which make an appearance in the summer and then vanish for the rest of the year.
Once, on the almost barren, dry island of Santorini, a single tomato bush was pointed out to me. It seemed to be growing on sand. All its leaves were yellow. And yet, a few, very red, slightly shriveled cherry tomatoes clung to the stems. I was told to pluck one and eat it. It was extraordinary, seemingly made up of a sun- ripened essence of tomato. That is what I am always aiming to find, that tomato of my childhood, which grew in my garden and which I plucked and ate—sweet-and-sour, full of crunch and juice.
How to buy and store tomatoes: Search for the best tomatoes you can find. Red- ripe is what you want, not overripe and rotted and not pink and cottony. Once you bring the tomatoes home, leave them unrefrigerated, in a single layer in your kitchen, until they are fully ripe. Sometimes this can take a whole week or even longer.
How to peel, seed, and chop tomatoes: For certain dishes, where you want raw, diced tomatoes, you might want to peel very ripe tomatoes with a vegetable peeler or a paring knife. Otherwise, the easiest way to peel a tomato is to drop it in boiling water for 15 seconds and then peel the skin away. To seed the tomato, cut it in half crosswise. Now hold the cut side down over a bowl or sink and, with a light hand, squeeze out all the seeds. The shell is ready to be diced.
How to grate a tomato: When a coarse tomato puree is required, the easiest way to get it is to hold a ripe tomato over a bowl and grate it on the coarsest part of a grater. The skin stays in your hand while the puree collects in the bowl. Sometimes the tomato slides along the grater and does not engage with the sharp holes. In such cases all you do is cut a thin slice off the tomato. This will get it going.
Page created 1999. Modified March 2007
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