Shortly after Christopher Columbus arrived in the Caribbean in 1492, word got out about the warm sunny climate, the sugary white beaches, and the clear turquoise waters. A mad rush for colonization ensued as Europeans fancied themselves relaxing under palm trees, drinking from coconuts, and watching the sun set while being serenaded by steel drums.
That may not be exactly how it happened. We know that the next few centuries were rife with conflicts, skirmishes, and even wars as the Spanish, French, English, and Dutch all vied for territory in the newly discovered tropical haven. Fortunately for today’s traveler, this clash of cultures, combined with the Caribbean’s food resources, yielded some unique culinary traditions as hungry settlers perfected ways of preparing local meats, seafood, vegetables, tropical fruits, and exotic spices.
Today, the Caribbean’s natural beauty makes it one of the most popular vacation destinations on the planet. As a result, touristy gift shops, markets, and restaurants are becoming commonplace, particularly in the port cities. To experience authentic cuisine you’ll have to resist the temptation of eating at the places you see advertised on billboards and in fancy brochures in hotel lobbies. Good marketing does not necessarily equate to good food.
Viewfinder tip: Following the advice of locals will not only enrich your eating and cultural experiences, but also can save you money as you venture away from tourist hubs.
Instead of asking the concierge where to eat, ask a cab driver, a maid, or construction worker . Their suggestions will sometimes take you away from the main tourist hubs, but if you’re willing to gamble a bit for the sake of cultural immersion, your taste buds will thank you.
Whether island-hopping on cruise ships or touring specific destinations, we make a point to eat like locals whenever we visit Caribbean nations. Here’s a culinary overview of our favorite discoveries.
Red beans and rice are a staple in many of the islands. Red kidney beans served over a plate of rice may sound uninspiring, but spices and techniques used in preparing the beans yield a dish flavorful enough to convince a carnivore to become a vegetarian. Though recipes may vary, our favorites are found in Jamaica, where the beans often are cooked with garlic in coconut milk and seasoned with salt, pepper, scallions, and thyme.
Jerk chicken is most readily found in Jamaica but variations can be found in throughout the Caribbean. Before it is grilled, the chicken is marinated overnight in a concoction of each cook’s choosing. The marinade often comprises berries, onion, ginger, garlic, hot peppers, allspice, salt, and pepper.
Porridge is typically thought of as a breakfast food with a consistency similar to oatmeal. But recipes in the Caribbean vary greatly as oats are usually substituted with cornmeal, tapioca, rice, or even green bananas. The porridge usually is cooked in coconut milk and sweetened with honey or berries. If you try porridge and one place and do not like it, don’t let that stop you from trying it somewhere else. It is likely to be totally different.
Empanadas are a common street food in the Eastern Caribbean islands, particularly in the Dominican Republic. These fried pastries, typically stuffed with spiced meats and/or cheeses, are relatively inexpensive and make a savory snack.
Pepper Pot is a thick and rich slow-cooked stew, with beef or pork and just about anything else the cook may have on hand. Common ingredients include eggplant, black beans, tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic, pumpkin, spinach, dumplings, and any number of spices. Because no two recipes are alike, eating Pepper Pot is the epitome of eating local.
Conch fritters are an incredible appetizer and appear on menus everywhere in the Caribbean. The meat of these flavorful sea snails usually is combined with onion, garlic, green pepper, flour, and seasoning before it is rolled into bite-sized balls and deep fried to golden perfection. Though most restaurants serve fritters with a side of dipping sauce, try some with with a dab of local hot sauce.
Pan Bati is a round and thin, bread-like side dish that tastes like a cross between pancakes and cornbread. Though it usually is cooked on a griddle, like pancakes, it is not as sweet, and a mix of cornmeal and flour gives it a denser texture. It is usually served as a side dish with soups and stews but also can be eaten with fruit or cheese toppings, depending on your mood.
Goat Stew is a local favorite throughout the Caribbean. Though we don’t generally consume a lot of goat meat in the United States, it is a must if you want to totally immerse yourself in Caribbean culture. Goat stew is prepared much like any other stew, except the featured ingredient is goat meat, which is extremely lean. In the stew it is tender and quite flavorful, tasting like beef and lamb.
Ceviche is a seafood salad made from fresh, raw seafood. Since the Caribbean waters supply a bounty of fish, mollusks, and crustaceans, cooking is not necessary as freshness is not a problem. Almost all ceviche dishes comprise seafood, a citrus juice, tomato, onion, and cilantro. A combination of mango, pineapple, avocado, and hot peppers sometimes are added by chefs to give their own twists to this wonderful salad.
What are your favorite Caribbean dishes?