Ever thought of combining cassava with chocolate for dessert? Probably not, but you will after reading this.Mention food and cooking to Sarina Bland, and get ready for an animated and passionate conversation with one of T&T's premier food bloggers about experimenting with classic recipes, and preserving the legacy of our local dishes.Bland, 36, started TriniGourmet.com in 2006, a Web site where she blogged about local food and recipes because she felt T&T's unique dishes deserved to be cooked in kitchens around the world, by Trinis and non-Trinis alike.Her enterprise has grown and evolved over the past seven years, as Bland now gives virtual cooking classes, writes and sells e-cookbooks, tries new and unthinkable cooking fusions and showcases other cooking enthusiasts on her internationally-recognised blog.
This energetic, outspoken, and self-taught foodie is on a mission: "To help us realise that Trinidadian food has a place on the world stage."I don't think Trinidadian food has to prove itself, it just is. But we don't promote it and we don't put it on a world stage in any true, meaningful way."She said she got the idea of becoming a T&T cuisine ambassador after chatting online with an old college friend who lived in the United States and was attending culinary school at the time, and had never seen or heard of a swizzle stick before. "It never occurred to me that, for true, you know? We use swizzle sticks. You don't go away and find swizzle sticks," she laughed.Bland, whose all-time favourite local dish she can't get enough of is dhalpourie, realised she did not know enough about her own culture and the local cuisine that surrounded her. "It never occurred to me that, for true, you know? We use swizzle sticks. You don't go away and find swizzle sticks," she laughed.
Bland, whose all-time favourite local dish she can't get enough of is dhalpourie, realised she did not know enough about her own culture and the local cuisine that surrounded her."I realised this could be a fun journey for me, I could learn to make these dishes and I can share it on the Internet."Bland admitted her affinity for the kitchen came later in life, as she learned to cook at 21, after completing her degree in film at Smith College, Massachusetts."I was a really bad cook. I never had to cook. But my mother is one of those people who was like: 'I'm cooking now, get out the kitchen,'" she said, smiling.She re-emphasised: "I was bad!"Then she decided to empower herself, taking advice from other foodies around her, to become an expert cook.
"I was self-taught all the way...That's why when I started I wanted people to go on this journey with me. I have my cooking disasters on the blog too. I wanted people to know I'm no Martha Stewart," she joked.
There were times when she tried recipes several times before getting them right. "Now nine times out of ten anything I try comes out real good. But it did not start that way."As Bland continues to progress, she has not limited herself to the same recipes, but seeks out new ways to use local ingredients."I started playing around with ingredients...I came up with a vegan chocolate cassava pudding...If you cook cassava down and blend it with chocolate, it turns into pudding, and you don't have to add any thickeners.""People don't think of cassava in dessert. But why not? We see cassava, and we go boil it, and we done," she quipped.While Bland has received tremendous support from an international audience, she admitted that finding support in T&T was difficult in the beginning, and still is to some extent."When I started they (family and friends) were laughing at the idea that I would put local recipes online. They just thought that was so stupid. Like it was a waste of time."Bland said while she receives "lovely letters and feedback" from her local audience, most of them come from her international fans."Those encouraging letters mean a lot...It's what keeps me going. You know, when people say (about her recipes) 'It was just like having my mother with me.' Things like that."
As her smile widened and she became misty-eyed, Bland recalled an old letter she received several years ago from a missionary in Indonesia (or Malaysia, she couldn't remember exactly), who asked her to help with a pelau recipe to surprise a colleague, who was Trinidadian but hadn't been home in about 30 years. The missionary group used her pelau recipe to surprise their colleague with the dish, telling Bland the recipient cried happily when he ate it after so many years."It's just that feeling of Trinidad, of home," Bland explained. "I'm proud we have a culture that's so identifiable. This one dish, that pelau, it conveyed everything. It's ours. It's so awesome that we have these dishes that are so specific, that you could take it anywhere in the world and a Trini will go: 'That's mine.'"She said it's such feedback that keeps her committed to her food blog."At the end of the day it fuels me to believe in what I am doing."
Whether you're a Trini who migrated and missed your mom's Sunday callaloo, or went away only for a few years to study, local food is a strong link to T&T roots and memories. Bland is facilitating that link to nostalgia by making it possible to create your grandmother's curry aloo yourself, wherever you are, with a simple click.Just as her blog has grown, so have her dreams. She has her sights set on attending Food Blogger Connect 2014 in London, to take her passion to the next level."I feel the London conference is key to advance the image and the brand that is Trinidad cuisine. Just for people to know, to know what we have."Bland has launched an online funding campaign, where her supporters can make donations to help realise this dream. She has been trying to attend the annual conference for the past four years, but never had enough funds.Her "London Calling" campaign entitles each sponsor to a special treat from Bland, who is offering access to her e-cookbooks or even private cooking classes online."If I ask people to support me on this, I have to make sure they get a lot back too."In the end, Bland says she is a dreamer who loves cooking for people."I never cook the same thing twice, because I just love to experiment. I don't have a dish that I keep returning to. If I repeat myself it's because of a request."When asked why she has not opened a restaurant or started a catering business, Bland said that has never been her dream, and never will be. She simply wants to remind T&T, and show the rest of the world, that our food is legit.
For more information about Sarina Bland's London Calling project, visit her blog at trinigourmet.com or check out her Facebook page, facebook.com/Trinigourmet