Thinking of Caribbean cuisine as a monolith of a few flavors, mostly spicy, would be an injustice. Throughout a history of colonizers and immigrants, the region, consisting of twenty-eight island nations, has inherited a cornucopia of culinary influences. Colonial incursions blended European tastes with those of indigenous Arawak, Carib and Taino peoples. Slaves from West Africa, laborers from India and Chinese merchants contributed their culinary traditions, staples and spices into the communal Caribbean pot. Visitors who might be inclined to think only of jerk chicken and hot sauce will be surprised at the variety of dishes available on the islands. A trip to the Caribbean is a food lover’s journey through an exquisite and fragrant landscape of flavors.
All of the islands have fresh off the boat seafood, picked-this-morning fruits and vegetables and a growing climate that yields a cornucopia of spices. “Seafood is a constant on the islands,” says Billy Boyle, Executive Chef of Capella Marigot Bay Resort & Marina in St Lucia. He’s been cooking local Caribbean dishes for a decade and, he says, the seafood is delicious, but nothing beats the morning view of the harbor full of a “patchwork of little fishing boats bringing in their daily catch.” Snapper, grouper and mahi mahi are abundant as is spiny lobster, found throughout the warm waters of the Caribbean.
“Don’t miss the conch, especially in the Bahamas,” says Chef Guillermo Pernot. The two-time winner of the James Beard Award who runs Cuba Libre, with locations in Philadelphia, Atlantic City, Orlando and Washington D.C, reminds visitors that the Caribbean is also the place to have conch fritters, conch chowder, conch salad (right) and in Turks and Caicos you can even visit a conch farm.
Fresh seafood is royalty in the Caribbean, but one popular dish found in the kitchens on many of the islands is salted codfish, with a lineage straight out of the Caribbean’s maritime history. When ships traveled from the colonizing nations to the islands it was necessary to have preserved fish and meats on board for the long journey. Thus, explains Billy Boyle, the different versions of salted fish that appear on so many Caribbean menus. For example, Chef Boyle points to St Lucia’s national dish, green figs and saltfish. “Green figs aren’t the figs we know,” he explains. They are, he says, tiny bananas poached in their skins with a taste similar to artichoke. “Green figs and saltfish (along with another very local saltfish dish, accras), is a must try in St Lucia,” he continues. In Barbados try saltfish buljol with a side of “bake”, a type of fried bread. In Jamaica the national dish is ackee and saltfish. Ackee is a lychee-like West African fruit that migrated to Jamaica most probably on a slave ship. It is is delicious but must be prepared very carefully because a small part of the tropical fruit can be poisonous.
Beans, Beans, Beans
Another staple of Caribbean cuisine found on all the islands is some version of rice and beans. “Red beans, black beans, white beans…” says Chef Pernot listing the incredible variety of legumes found across the region. Cubans, he says, favor black beans. His Cuba Libre restaurants serve up a most traditional Cuban black bean soup, along with black beans and white rice (a side dish that is an absolute staple on the island) and a not-so-traditional but equally tasty black bean humus. The list of bean dishes from island to island goes on, Chef Pernot says. In Puerto Rico ask for habichuelas guisadas (right) and you’ll get a delicious stew of red or pink beans in tomato sauce seasoned with a mixture of Puerto Rican spices called sofrito, or in Trinidad try stewed red beans a “Trini” favorite Sunday lunch.
When it comes to meat, says Chef Pernot, oxtail stew is found throughout the Caribbean. Goat stew, he says, is popular on Nevis and St Kitts but probably nowhere as popular as in Montserrat, where the national dish is goat stew which they call goat water. “It’s not just the national dish,” he says laughing. “It’s the national obsession!” But, he continues, it is pork that is king in the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Cuba, “You cannot take pork away from them!” Cuban puerco asado (roasted pork) is a meal for celebrations. Chef Pernot marinates the pork for several days and then roasts it in coals in a special box called caja china. Served, of course, he says, with black beans and rice!
While gourmet restaurants of all types abound throughout the Caribbean, eating local at a hole-in-the-wall joint is a culinary and a social experience not to be missed. Piled high on market stalls and in those simple eateries you will find “ground provisions,” which are vegetables such as yam, sweet potato, eddoes, dasheen, taro, tania, cassava (tapioca), breadfruit, plantain, moko and green fig (banana). Sometimes snubbed as “poor people’s food”, these humble crops are hearty and a great source of complex carbs. Visiting Dominica? You’ll hear hawkers in the market shouting “salt fish and ground provision” which is a combination of cod and any number of different ground provisions. Sancoche, popular in Trinidad and Tobago, is a thick pea soup loaded with ground provisions, spices, coconut milk and often a scotch bonnet burn-your-mouth pepper.
The basic ingredients of many dishes in the Caribbean might be the same, but there are literally hundreds of different spices and herbs throughout the islands creating infinite possibilities for different tastes and textures. And, of course, there are dozens of hot peppers, from Trinidad’s scorpion to the ubiquitous habanero for bravest of travelers to try. And with so many islands to visit (and feast on), both Chef Pernot and Chef Boyle agree that it isn’t possible to try everything. Just get started! In the meantime, keep an eye out for some recipes straight from the islands, coming soon.