The food of the Caribbean is the living product of its tumultuous history, with influences and ingredients introduced from all over the world. Back in the 11th century, the islands’ first inhabitants, the indigenous Arawak and Taíno Indians, subsisted on the fruits, vegetables (guavas, yams, casavas), fish, and mainly poultry then available and they cooked in simple pots or roasted over open fires. Sometime in the 12th century, fiercely hot, pepper sauces were added to the culinary mix by the Carib people, who migrated from South America and lent their name to the region.
The Caribbean Sea soon became a crossroads of culture. Colonizing Europeans rushed to set up tobacco plantations on the islands, and as they emigrated they brought European trees with them. What we see today as Caribbean specialties – fruits such as limes, lemons, bananas, and plantains, along with ginger, date palms, coconuts, sugar cane, and tamarind – were all introduced from Spain in the 16th century. Breadfruit, another firm staple, was brought in from Polynesia, and later American plantation owners imported corn, potatoes, beans, squash, and even chili pepper to the islands.
When the plantation owners converted from growing tobacco to labor-intensive sugar production in the 17th century, slavery was introduced and the cuisine changed again. African foods were combined with local staples; thus saltfish, fish cakes, okra, and ackee merged into the Caribbean lexicon of food.
After years of social unrest, slavery was abolished between 1834-48, but soon cheap labor was being imported from the Far East, adding another dimension to Caribbean cooking. Rice was introduced from China – now an everyday basic – and spices such as cumin and turmeric were brought in from India.
On top of this great influx of foodstuffs and influences, each of the 22 island territories of the Caribbean has added its own individual style to its own cooking; few islands produce exactly the same dishes although strong mutual roots are evident.
Traditional Caribbean foods
Perhaps the most famous dish of the Windies is jerk; it originates from Jamaica, where African slaves cooked pork or chicken slowly over coals – the world’s first BBQ – after being marinaded with hot pepper sauces. Curry goat also comes from Jamaica – via India – and is slow cooked with spices and hot chilies until the meat is flaked and tender. It is usually served with rice, boiled potato, or fried plantain, and can also be made from mutton.
Rice and beans is a fundamental Caribbean dish, originally coming from Costa Rica, and either served with meat to pad it out or on its own as a snack. It can be pepped up with anything from hot chilies to oregano or coconut, depending on where you are eating it. Roti is also served all over the Caribbean but is most popular and flavorsome on the heavily Indian-influenced islands of Trinidad and Tobago. It consists of flatbread stuffed with curried chicken or dhalpuri (split peas) and liberally doused with heart-stopping ‘mother-in-law’ hot pepper sauce.
West African in origin, Callolo soup is made from a spinach-like vegetable that varies from island group to island group. Taro or dasheen are often used and the soup can be flavored with coconut, okra, tomatoes, and onions. In Barbados it is served with macaroni pie, in Grenada with meat and rice. Beef steak is slow cooked for up to 10 hours to produce Cuban ropa vieja (literally ‘old clothes’), a tasty spiced stew served up with bell peppers and cilantro and popular in the western Caribbean.
The cuisine scene today
For many years the reputation of Caribbean cuisine was non-existent. There was little more to eat than the homogenized pseudo-European dishes served in the hotels that sprung up when mass tourism first hit the islands. There was a dearth of top-class restaurants and the traditional gastronomy of the region, so heavily influenced by its history, all but disappeared for everyone apart from the lucky locals.
Today all has changed. Barbados led the way with the advent of top-class restaurants in the gold-plated hotels of its west coast, and now many world-famous chefs have set up shop here, from the UK’s Michelin-starred Gary Rhodes at Calabash on Grenada to Paul Newman at the prohibitively expensive Coyaba on Provo in the equally expensive enclave of Turks and Caicos. Blue by Eric Ripert, the four-Michelin-star French chef, on Grand Cayman is an offshoot of New York’s peerless Le Bernardin; the Bahamas boasts Michelin-starred sushi chain Nobu, owned by Japanese superchef Nobu Matsuhisa and Robert de Niro, at the Atlantis; while renowned French chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten runs the brigade at Dune in the exotic One and Only Ocean Club, both hotels on Paradise Island.
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Caribbean food at its best
A surge in exciting gastronomy has hit the whole Caribbean region. Island-wise, St Martin/St Maarten, the cosmopolitan French/Dutch hybrid island, has gained a reputation for some of the best international restaurants in the archipelago; and Guadeloupe’s tamarind- and spice-infused Creole cuisine combines French dishes with African flavors in an expensive melange of tastes. The following islands have all made their mark on the world’s gastronomic stage of late.
This is the new Caribbean island to watch in culinary terms, with new restaurants springing up all the time. Historically the cuisine is the typical West Indian polyglot; today an influx of international restaurateurs has added sophistication and quality. Top tip: Sample spiny lobster on the lovely verandah of KoalKeel, a plantation-house restaurant offering a menu merging local and international influences.
Here you’ll taste the island’s British heritage combined with European, East Indian, and African cuisine to form Bajan cuisine. Vegetables and cereals feature heavily and colorful presentation is paramount. The dish to go for is Bajan chicken and macaroni pie, washed down with copious amounts of locally distilled rum. Barbados’s mega-developed western Gold Coast is awash with quality restaurants. Top tip: go for the seared tuna at romantic, candle-lit The Cliff, where every table has a sea view over the rocks.
Enjoy the best jerk in the place where it was invented. Served from open pits, wood fired and topped with corrugated metal, the jerk’s secret ingredients are allspice (called pimento on Jamaica) and Scotch bonnet peppers. Chicken, pork, fish, and even goat can be ordered by the plateful. Top tip: head straight for the simple beach huts of the Boston Jerk Centre in Portland for jerk perfection – reggae is often thrown in for free.
4. Puerto Rico
Although the island is now heavily westernised, there are plenty of places to sample true Puerto Rican gastronomy, which had its roots in Taíno Amerindian, African slave, and in particular Spanish cooking. Top tip: Try mofongo – garlicky fried plantains mashed with shrimp or chicken accompanied by beans and rice – in street shacks around San Juan.
Sample Puerto Rican food on a food tour in San Juan
5. St Barts
The epicurean delights of this smart Gallic outpost understandably have a French influence, but here it’s combined with Creole, the Caribbean’s spicy fusion of European and African flavors. The waterside restaurants of capital Gustavia are hard to beat, but don’t leave the platinum credit card at home. Top tip: treat yourself to a seafood extravagance as the sun goes down on the west terrace at Bonito, the brainchild of chef Laurent Cantineaux, latterly of award-winning Daniel in NYC.
With the greatest gastronomic diversity in the Caribbean, Trinidad’s food has been tweaked by its Indian, African, Middle Eastern, European, and Chinese origins – all served today with a spicy island taste. Top tip: Sample Trinidadian roti at street shacks across the island.
The heads up on my favorite places, where the bill won’t be wince-inducing.
Sample great Bajan cooking at the Barbados Food & Wine and Rum Festival in November 2013. This annual shindig captures the carefree, celebratory atmosphere of the island and its firey cooking perfectly.
Local girl Loucine Brooks has recently been named the new Chef de Cuisine of open-air gourmet restaurant Sjalotte on Curacao in the Dutch Caribbean – go for top-quality Caribbean-European fusion cooking before the prices hit the roof.
Treat yourself to dinner at hilltop Brandywine Estate on Tortola for glorious Mediterranean dishes and the best sunsets in the BVIs. Sit back on the gorgeous paved terrace and sip Painkiller cocktails as the sun slips gently beneath the waves.
The kitchen at legendary water-side Basil’s Bar on Mustique in the Grenadines is open for fresh seafood all day; take a boat trip from Bequia or St Vincent to join in the fun, accopanied by live blues music.
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– Sasha Heseltine