I was on a press trip to Trinidad and Tobago. Nearly all of my expenses — flights, hotels, meals, including this damned sandwich — were paid for by Trinidad/Tobago Tourism.
“You gotta have the bake and shark.”
“Have you had a bake and shark yet?’
“The bake and shark is the best sandwich I’ve ever had.”
Upon hearing that I was bound for Trinidad, many people instructed me about this sandwich. And they were correct; the bake and shark is a damned fine sandwich. You get bake and shark at Maracas Beach on the island of Trinidad. The beach is damned fine too, a beautiful scoop of sand lined with palm trees. On one side of the highway is the beach, on the other, a parking lot, a changing room with showers and loos, and a bunch of bake and shark stands. One of these stands is Richard’s, made internationally famous by Andrew Zimmern on an episode of Bizarre Foods. That’s where my bake and shark came from. (The full episode is here; jump to the 33 minute marker to go straight to Maracas Bay.)
The bake and shark is a piece of fresh shark, breaded and fried. It’s served between two pieces of fried bread. There’s a buffet of toppings that you pile on top of your bake and shark — cilantro sauce, cole slaw, fresh pineapple, mango chutney, chili sauce, tangy tamarind. There are more than a dozen different offerings, including the more pedestrian ketchup, mustard, and mayo — my local guide told me to skip those and go right for the good stuff. The bread is fluffy and has just a little bit of crisp to the crust. The fish is hot and flaky and the batter isn’t even a little bit greasy. These qualities, slathered with sweet and spicy toppings, combine to make a perfect sandwich. I was not led astray, the bake and shark is amazing. I’m with Andrew Zimmern and my friends on this, it might be the best sandwich I’ve ever had.
But it’s shark, and that’s a problem. Or maybe it’s not shark, and it’s not a problem.
Typically, the bake and shark is (or was?) made from blacktip reef shark — that’s what it’s called out as in Zimmern’s Bizarre Foods show. Shark — including the blacktip reef shark — are overfished.
Most shark populations worldwide are at historically low levels due to serious overfishing. With just a few exceptions, shark is rated as “Avoid.” — Seafood Watch
I asked what kind of fish I was eating and was told it was shark — but it might not be. Stories in the Trinidad press say that some bake and shark vendors are using catfish instead — a (currently) sustainable alternative. I also found mention of lionfish, but that wasn’t so well received as lionfish can be poisonous. I was also told that in Trinidad, there’s no shark finning, but another source listed Trinidad as the sixth largest exporter of shark fins to Hong Kong.
Should you eat a bake and shark sandwich? I don’t know. It’s likely that the impact of half a dozen sandwich stands has nothing on the Taiwanese fishermen who cull the Caribbean’s shark populations and bring the fins back to Hong Kong. But marketing real shark is a thing here.
“People say is catfish you all serve and not shark, any comments?” I inquire.
“The amicable expression on Whiskey’s face disappears and she gives me a matter-of-fact look. “This is a bake and shark stall not a bake and catfish stall. We serve real shark here!”– Trinidad Sunday Express
My sandwich would have been no less delicious had it been made with catfish and I would not be asking all these questions.