Sort-of Secret: Purple Hibiscus, a pop-up bringing the original doubles, a piece of Trinidadian food history, to Toronto

Sort-of Secret: Purple Hibiscus, a pop-up bringing the original doubles, a piece of Trinidadian food history, to Toronto

Part of our series spotlighting the city’s edible hidden gems

A person squeezes a bottle of hot sauce over Trinidadian doubles

More Sort-of Secrets

The sort-of secret: Purple Hibiscus, a weekly pop-up series at Bloordale’s Daily Grind café serving Trinidadian staples
You may have heard of it if: You’ve been to the original 28-seat restaurant in St. Boniface, Winnipeg, in the early 2010s
But you probably haven’t tried it because: Chef Avé Narinesingh relocated to Toronto, where she’s now staging at Michelin-starred Alma

For as long as she can remember, Avé Narinesingh has been on the move. After migrating to Canada from Trinidad in the 1970s, she travelled the world—first as a sailor circumnavigating the globe in the ’80s, then as an Air Canada flight attendant for 25 years.

An older woman and a younger woman in a kitchen smile at each other
Chef Narinesingh (left) with her daughter Shannon

Through it all, Narinesingh often found herself thinking back to her childhood in Trinidad, particularly the weekends she spent with her grandmother Rosidan Ali, who would wake up at 2 a.m. every day to prepare channa (chickpeas) and bara (flatbread) for doubles, a popular street snack.

“There’s a photograph that my mom took of my grandfather Ashraf Ali–it’s the iconic picture of a doubles vendor in Trinidad,” Narinesingh says. “He would set up his bike, and people would come from far and wide just to have his doubles.”

Related: Sort-of Secret: The Daily Grind, a Bloordale gem serving Vietnamese-inspired brunch

That’s because these weren’t just any doubles—these were Ali’s doubles, the original doubles, which Narinesingh’s grandparents and the rest of the Deen-Ali family are credited with creating back in the 1930s.

It’s a remarkable piece of food history that Narinesingh is dedicated to documenting and sharing through Purple Hibiscus, a restaurant she opened in Winnipeg in 2012, after retiring. That brick-and-mortar location out west eventually morphed into a catering company and travelling pop-up, which attracted long lines at Caribana when Narinesingh would travel to Toronto for the festival. Now, Narinesingh is back in the GTA full-time, and she recently took up a residency at Bloordale’s Daily Grind, where she makes doubles to order every Friday night until they sell out.

Narinesingh says Ali’s doubles are descended from “fry-bake and talkari,” a fry-bake bread and curried kidney beans dish that, like doubles, would often be served with tamarind chutney and hot sauce. Apparently chickpeas weren’t widely available in Trinidad until the 1930s—and when they did arrive, so did “bara and channa.”

A pot filled with chickpea stew

“When chickpeas hit the islands, it was like he went crazy. He was the ‘channa man’; he was incredible,” says Narinesingh of her great uncle and Rosidan’s brother, Mamool Deen, who is often credited with popularizing doubles in Trinidad.

According to Ali family legend, doubles didn’t truly become doubles until Rosidan’s husband, Ashraf, and his brother, Asgar, started biking their carts around the local schools and selling bara and channa to hungry students, who would often ask them for an extra bara.

“‘Just double it up! I’ll take a double, Mr. Ali!’ they would say. So he started doubling up for them,” Narinesingh says. “It’s so fitting that the people in Trinidad and Tobago gave this dish the name we still use for it today.”

A sign in a kitchen advertises doubles

The name wasn’t the only thing that changed. Narinesingh says that her grandmother, who was a wizard with flour, ended up changing the bara to make the economics of a two-bara lunch work. “My grandmother told me, ‘We’re not rich, but now everybody wants two baras, and they don’t want to pay anything more.’ So she took enough dough for one portion and stretched it into enough for two. And that’s how bara evolved to what we have today: it’s much thinner and lighter than the original fry-bake.”

I thought about this as Narinesingh used the pads of her fingers to stretch two small portions of glossy dough into thin and perfectly imperfect petals, each roughly the size of a palm—which is surprisingly large given the small amount of dough she started with.

A person stretches dough to make doubles on a baking sheet

Two baras for Trinidadian doubles

After plucking them from a bath of canola oil, where they bobbed and puffed into two disc-shaped baras, Narinesingh placed one onto a piece of wax paper. She applied a spoonful of channa on top, which she then irrigated with a swirl of syrupy tamarind chutney and various toppings that she says were also the product of resourcefulness.

“My grandfather’s older brother Asgar was a whiz with the sauces. He could make them with whatever fruits or ingredients were in season. Being poor, he would just find whatever was in season, or whatever they were growing in their yard, and he would make a sauce out of it.”

A bara topped with chickpeas and sauces

A row of squeeze bottles containing colourful sauces

Purple Hibiscus follows this tradition with a rotating series of “toppings du jour.” My doubles had sauce made from chadon beni (a green herb similar to culantro), a vivid green mango chutney, a spicy chili pepper sauce and a refreshing julienne of cucumber, all of which was covered by the second bara to form a sandwich.

Eating Ali’s doubles feels a bit like biting into a chickpea cloud. The soft, steamy bara pulls apart effortlessly yet stands up to the filling, which is perfectly balanced: sweet, savoury and vegetal with a hint of spice.

A person uses tongs to add greens to an order of Trinidadian doubles

“When you meet me and eat my food, you are intersecting with my tiny dot on the planet, which is St. Julien, Princes Town,” Narinesingh says. “That’s where I was born, and I bring with me all these flavours and recipes that were born out of slavery, indentured servants and the native peoples of the Caribbean. There’s a whole history that I bring with me through my doubles.”

Narinesingh’s mother still sometimes makes doubles for her grandchildren, and she always insists they eat them out of the original wax paper, which is folded into a dumpling shape that makes them easy to carry and enjoy on the go.

A person wearing plastic gloves wraps up doubles in wax paper

“I’m not good at this part,” said Narinesingh’s daughter Shannon, who often lends a hand at Purple Hibiscus pop-ups. To create the convenient pocket, you place the doubles in the centre of a rectangular piece of wax paper, then you lift the whole thing up by two corners and quickly whip it toward you and over your wrists. It feels perilous given the precious—and often steaming hot—cargo. Yet, despite some hesitation, Shannon nails it on her first try.

Purple Hibiscus, purplehibiscus-wpg.square.site, @_purplehibiscus

A takeout box filled with doubles wrapped in wax paper