The Irresistible Joy of Doubles
Celebrating a vegan delicacy that has satisfied from the markets of Trinidad and Tobago to a storefront in Brooklyn
The market opens early in the morning. I wasn’t certain when, so around 6:30am, I hailed a taxi on the main road and hopped in for a relaxed ride from Couva to Chaguanas market. Held close on my arm was one of Ma’s many colorful market bags; this one she only uses for carrying vegetables. Inside was my mobile and cash to buy ingredients like hot-peppers and garlic for homemade pepper sauce; Ma promised to make me some to “take back up,” as my trip home was coming to an end and I would be making my way back to New Jersey in just a couple of days.
It may have been too early that Friday morning for market-goers to check off a full list of fresh produce as vendors were still setting up piles of washed lettuce, white and green marbled cucumbers, large whole and perfectly sliced pumpkins (an essential for Sunday lunch callaloo), and more produce reaped from their own fields or bought from other producers for resale.
Some vendors were also having breakfast as they took short breaks between unloading crates and uncovering selling tables in the public market. They’d sip from small hot Styrofoam cups of milky black tea or instant coffee to wash down their doubles. Still, greasy lips would quickly catch the walking customer saying “whatever yuh looking for, I have it right here”.
The true reason I traveled to the market was for a breakfast of the country’s most popular street food. The Doubles man — their presence needing no bright neon signage or rehearsed haggling as they are never hard to locate. Even in between the stalls of ground provision, seasonal tropical fruit, and bundles of fresh herbs that lined the market area, returning customers can easily spot them.
The white food boxes on steel standing carts; their thin white work shirts that would remain spotless, and white caps to cover bowed heads as their fast hands assembled and wrapped many a doubles. Agile and methodical, quick hands dip spoons in and out of the food box’s different compartments to complete the assembly while still taking more orders, that they would recite out loud while also tallying the cost silently in their heads. Large, portable plastic coolers of cold bottled waters and colorful sodas nestled between fresh chunks of ice would be their companion as I stood on the other side, eating my warm breakfast.
It’s also the taste: the combination of regional spices and fresh herbs used in the boiled channa. The thin and slightly chewy texture of the bara, with its subtleties never working against the saucy channa. And all the spicy, sweet, and cool to the tongue toppings. “Yes, dats is what we talk’n bout!”
This Indo-Trinidadian vegan delicacy, a must-try food hailing from the twin isles, is made of boiled channa (chickpeas) cooked with a blend of fresh herbs and a yellow curry powder blend. Spoonfuls of channa are served between two fried pieces of thin dough called bara and doused with colorful chutneys and pepper sauce. Doubles are served wrapped in greaseproof paper and they are typically sold on the roadsides in Trinbago. In the US, New York specifically, you can find doubles at pretty much any restaurant or cafe that serves food from Trinibago.
What makes doubles so irresistible that they are ubiquitous? It starts with the action of eating with your hands, at the side of the road or at food sheds. Eaten for breakfast, late afternoon, and as a late night snack, the convenience and taste hits the spot at all times. It’s also the taste: the combination of regional spices and fresh herbs used in the boiled channa. The thin and slightly chewy texture of the bara, with its subtleties never working against the saucy channa. And all the spicy, sweet, and cool to the tongue toppings. “Yes, dats is what we talk’n bout!”
How to eat doubles? You eat it like a pro!
Doubles are named for the two fried circular pieces of dough (bara) that are used to eat the liquidy boiled channa, which is complimented with various sweet and savory sauces. You can use one hand to pinch the top bara grabbing enough of the filling to be able to taste all elements in every bite. Like eating tacos, tilt your head as you bite into the doubles not to have any spills or drips. The other hand should be holding the wrapper with the other bara and left-over filling. Use the wrapper to help get all the channa and sauces onto the second bara before devouring.
How doubles became doubles
In the 1930s, Mamoo Deen, a descendant of indentured laborers, was brought to Trinidad to take over working in the cane fields. He began selling fried channa in cone-shaped brown paper wrappers as an easy snack for theater patrons, then later developed the first recipe for channa and bara. Though he always had an entrepreneurial spirit and saw it fit to gradually bring his other family members into the doubles business (in an unofficial franchising scheme), I’m not sure he ever imagined that this simple match of boiled seasoned channa and bara would become a vegan, Indo-Trinidadian snack that would stand the test of time. One that would not only bring his family out of poverty, but also place the twin aisles of Trinidad and Tobago on the map for yet another uniquely delightful dish.
In the 1700s and within the three hundred years of Spanish rule, Savana Grande was an area of south Trinidad where settlements were built to convert Amerindians to Catholicism. It was later in 1880, under English rule that this remote village was renamed Princess Town and holds that name to this day. Princess Town, re-inhabited by many indentured laborers of Hindu and Muslim faith alike, was back then a fortune of cane fields and barracks for living quarters.
He never attended school, which wasn’t a deterrent but encouraged him to work harder at proving that he too could make it. That he too could be successful and not have to wait with hands open for whatever the plantation’s owners deemed as just pay.
It was in this countryside village that, out of necessity, the Deen family exhausted their meager resources to create and sell the first doubles in 1936. Birthed from a smoking Chulha that stood on the floor of his doubles kitchen, the history of doubles began and was sold to the hungry, inquisitive, “poor man” in the main shopping area of Princess Town and soon after that in the neighboring southern villages.
MamooDeen, nicknamed after his given name of Emamool Deen, was a proud man. He never attended school, which wasn’t a deterrent but encouraged him to work harder at proving that he too could make it. That he too could be successful and not have to wait with hands open for whatever the plantation’s owners deemed as just pay.
His toils on the sugar plantations awarded him enough money to buy his first freight bike. Driven by sheer necessity to provide for his family and rid them of generational poverty, he rode this bike to transport his first and very humble offering of packaged boil & fry channa. He’d ride that same bike, far and wide, and the freight bike’s presence promised the delicious and tasty “hot-hot” saucy channa to be eaten with a single bara.
It was so satisfying that his customers turned his single bara offering into a frequent double-bara request, birthing the name “Doubles!” MamooDeen also had no problems using his natural charismatic charm and customer service skills to set himself apart from the others that came after him.
Traditionally, various sauces are splashed and dolloped on doubles to satisfy the palate. There are the cool greens of plain grated cucumbers and mild chandon beni sauces; the white coconut chutney; glossy browns of sweet sauces made with seasonal fruit like pommecythere and tamarind, and the bright alerts of the mustard yellows and cherry red colors of the pepper sauce. We also love spicy foods in Trinbago and the best vendors are known for their pepper sauce: a melee of fiery hot and sometimes roasted piquant capsicums. Proceed with caution if you enjoy spicy food but are new to eating doubles. You can always ask for slight peppa’ and get your fill on all other sauces while you are at it.
New York City’s best doubles
I first had doubles for breakfast on Saturday morning market visits, and I think that’s why I now begin my market days in Brooklyn. An A train ride and a short walk to A&A Bake & Doubles for a hot and hearty belly full before heading back into Manhattan to the Greenmarket off 14th street to purchase locally sourced produce. The only difference is that in Trinidad, the doubles came as a treat after carrying around heavy bags from stall to stall for enough produce to provide my family’s table of four with a weeks’ worth of food.
The walls are adorned with Trinbagonian bottled condiments and snacks, and pictures of the husband and wife team posing with Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, Dr. Keith Rowley, posters of the Obamas, and, of course, the legendary Bob Marley.
A&A Bake & Doubles, before its 2019 James Beard Foundation America’s Classic recognition, stood a tiny breakfast shed on Nostrand Avenue, feeding the neighborhood breakfast foods we ate back home: baigan and aloo choka, smoked and salted fish over mixed with tomatoes and onions, spicy sautes of spinach, canned meats and hard scrambled eggs. All that can be eaten stuffed into fried and roasted bakes, wrapped in greasy paper, and eaten on the go. But the long lines that spilled out to the sidewalk of both loyal and new customers were there for the doubles, served until they ran out for the day and closed.
Geeta and Noel Brown, owners of A&A Doubles, have moved their breakfast shed into a bigger location on Fulton Street. The walls are adorned with Trinbagonian bottled condiments and snacks, and pictures of the husband and wife team posing with Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, Dr. Keith Rowley, posters of the Obamas, and, of course, the legendary Bob Marley. They’ve added new menu items, but customers in the same long lines are still there mostly for the doubles, a now all-day menu item that people can’t get enough of.
Making doubles at home
If you’d like to make doubles at home, I’d suggest wandering through pages of beloved cookbooks written by groups and individuals that have joined in to document our food. Like “Sweet Hands: Island Cooking from Trinidad and Tobago” or the infamous “The Multi-Cultural Cuisine of Trinidad & Tobago & the Caribbean”, known to many as the “Naparima Girls’ High School Cookbook”. The books contain glossy pages of pictures and stories enough to make a reader’s mouth water.
Up until last year, my attempts at making doubles at home was a total flop and, frankly, not worth the pity consumption of my invited guests. Getting doubles right took me two trips to London to study with Shon-El St Louis, owner of the catering company Trini Gourmet With A Twist. She helped me to understand the recipe, and shared cooking tips handed down to her by her step-mother, a woman that has made doubles in steamy commercial kitchens in Trinidad for many years.
Invite friends over and have them assemble their own meal for a fun gathering. With the great advice I received on my past two trips to London, here are some tips for making doubles at home:
- Channa for doubles should be boiled, but not made into a stew. Allow the chickpeas to cook until very soft, almost breaking apart before adding curry powder, blended herbs and other spices until the desired consistency and taste is reached.
- Canned chickpeas can be used with a two-step process of boiling the chickpeas with baking soda, rinsing, then placing back on the fire for the water and peas to come to rolling boil, then adding herbs and spices.
- You can pick up a variety of Caribbean produced pepper sauces at landmark specialty food stores in NYC such as Kalustyans, or in your grocery’s international food aisle.
- The dough for the bara should be soft, so don’t over-knead. On an oiled service form the dough out into a circle with fingertips. Thee thin dough will puff up and cook in a matter of seconds in hot oil. No need to look out for a golden brown color, that will give you a crispy bread and that’s not bara.