When our friend and fellow creative pro Mwenda told us about his aunt’s cooking skills, we were interested. But we were not expecting to be moved by a shoot in this way. What was anticipated to be great footage documenting a known local sweet, turned out to be a reminder of something deeper. Food feeds a family in a literal sense, but it also strengthens and nourishes family ties, communities, culture, economics, and the list goes on. Aunty J is the embodiment of this. A veteran in the kitchen, she’s spent years making delicacies that are rooted in the traditional T&T experience.
Home made wine for example.
She also makes the most golden of pepper sauces, but we were there for a specific demonstration of a sweeter profile. Toolum. The revealing thing about the process is it is very simple, which makes it a perfect example of how simple it is for traditions to be kept alive. And the benefit of that is more than being able to cook a pot for your family, it’s teaching skills that anybody can use to generate income. The conversation almost ignored the fact that the kitchen was fragrant with delightful smells coming from this pot, and revolved more around the role Aunty J and her family played in the community through food, education and the arts. (You can hear more about that in the video below and more clips to come. We havin’ plenty tings from dat chat.)
It starts with sugar. By the way, Aunty J was pretty old school about the whole thing. Very loose measurements, controlled by sight and familiarity. This is kinda by design, because everybody has their own spin on it which is controlled by the amounts of ingredients used as opposed to the range of ingredients used. It’s more or less the same ingredients. Anyway, she uses more or less equal parts.
At this point, you realize the process is more tedious than difficult. Constant stirring is needed so the mixtur doesn’t burn. burn = bitter.
When the sugar caramelizes to around this point, it’s time for the next phase.
The trifecta of flavor that forms the taste we know.
Grated coconut with ginger mixed in for a spicy note.
Dried orange peel for a little citrus kick.
And of course, molasses ties the whole thing together.
The molasses goes in first.
Now we need proper integration of the wet ingredients so the dry ingredients can be well distributed in the mix.
Coconut and ginger mix goes in.
More mixing. It really is slaving over a hot stove.
And finally a couple spoons of the very powerful orange peel is added.
By this time, the fragrance is recognizable. Constant stirring is needed to prevent burning that can happen easily at this stage. The mixture is allowed to reduce until it begins getting tight to the turn
And that’s it. Spoonful by spoonful it’s placed on a table to cool, causing the sugars to crystallize again into that sweet, sticky clump of goodness we call Toolum. Straight up, somebody should look into a Toolum air freshener. The smell of fresh Toolum is nostalgic and calming. But that could also be because the smell of fresh Toolum is usually accompanied by the stories and wisdom of a boss like Aunty J.
Thanks to Mwenda and Aunty J for inviting us not just for a taste of some traditional food (we enjoyed wine, TAMBRAN ball and pepper sauce too), but even more so for giving us some great food for thought. See some of our chat in the video below.