Food’s such an important part of the travel experience. Not only is it a way of learning more about a culture, but through the ingredients and methods used it’s a chance to find out about the country’s history and traditions too.
The Caribbean region is a fusion of many different cuisines including African, Amerindian, East Indian, Arab and Chinese cuisine, which blended with the traditions of the indigenous population. Europeans have left their mark – the British, French and Spanish especially, bringing coconut, garlic, limes and rice. This blend of ingredients and cooking styles adds a unique dimension to the dishes you’ll be served during your travels across this vibrant region.
What you’ll eat varies from place to place, but there are certain elements that span country boundaries. As you’d expect, seafood features prominently, but pork, chicken and goat meat are also popular sources of protein. Using the barbecue, roasting or grilling are far more common than deep frying, so the food is rarely greasy. Spices add flavour, whether as a dry rub or in the flavoursome liquids of the many stews. Beans and rice, as well as being nutritious, help to bulk out meals. And of course, the plentiful tropical fruit is used to great effect.
Whether you’re planning a visit or cooking up a storm in your own kitchen, here are eight delicious Caribbean dishes you must try.
Puerto Rico: mofongo
Plantains are the main ingredient of mofongo. The dish is a favourite on the island of Puerto Rico, but you’ll also find variations in places like Cuba, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic. The dish originated in West Africa, where they call it fufu; there, it’s made with mashed cassava. The plantains used to make mofongo should be green. They’re fried and then mashed together with olive oil, salt, garlic and some broth. Puerto Rico’s dish draws on Spanish influences too and has a firmer texture than elsewhere in the Caribbean. It’s shaped in a mould and served with pork, shrimp or beef, stuffed inside or placed on top.
Strictly speaking, pepperpot comes from the South American country of Guyana, but it’s popular in many parts of the Caribbean including Barbados. pices and peppers add flavour to the stewed meat, most commonly mutton, beef or pork. On the island, it is chefs traditionally cook it in earthenware jars. Cassareep, a natural preservative made from grated cassava, is the magic ingredient. Cooks can then reheat the stew without detriment to the flavour or texture. Don’t be tempted to refrigerate it. Just leave it on the stove and boil it up each day. In the old days, meat was continually added to the pot. That would make it last for months if not years.
Jamaica: jerk chicken
No roundup of Caribbean food would be complete without Jamaican jerk chicken, one of the region’s most iconic dishes. The tradition began with the indigenous Taino and was adapted by African slaves. Jerk seasoning packs a punch: the key ingredients are allspice and Scotch bonnet peppers. Cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, garlic, ginger, scallions, onion, black pepper and thyme, all grown locally, add to the flavour. The meat is usually chicken but sometimes goat, boar, pork or beef. Methods are either a dry rub or marinade. Then, the meat is slowly grilled over a fire to add that all important smoke to the dish.
The Bahamas: conch fritters
Queen conch is native to the Bahamas and is the key ingredient in the popular conch fritters you find there. On its own, the flesh is sweet and doesn’t have a strong flavour. So typically chefs season it with salt, pepper and hot sauce. They mix it with onion, green pepper and tomato, before being fried in batter. It’s a popular hot appetiser across the Bahamas, so visitors won’t experience any difficulty finding it. Each restaurant has its own unique blend of ingredients, however, so it’s worth sampling it from several. Elsewhere in the Caribbean, there’s a conch festival in the Turks & Caicos islands; time your visit for November to join in the fun.
Montserrat: goat water
Goat water is Montserrat’s national dish, though you’ll also find it on other islands such as Antigua and St Kitts & Nevis. The name’s misleading, for it’s not water but a scrumptious stew. Made with goat’s meat, there’s an art to getting the liquid just right. It shouldn’t be too thick or too thin. Vegetables, breadfruit, onion, tomato, spices and herbs accompany the meat. Cooked over a wood fire, the smoke adds an extra dimension to the dish. Traditionally, you eat it on Fridays. Restaurants serve it with bread or rice to soak up that flavoursome sauce. Variations of goat water include the heartier kabritu on Aruba and Bonaire. Mannish water, a Cayman Islands speciality comes with a goats head and foot.
St Lucia: creole bread
Bakers across the island of St Lucia turn out hundreds, if not thousands, of loaves of creole bread every morning. You can eat it anywhere there’s a bakery. But one of the best spots in the country is in Soufriere, where you can munch on fresh bread in front of a million dollar view of the sea and the Pitons. Kneading the dough is a time-consuming ritual but one that’s essential to keep locals and visitors alike supplied with this carb-laden treat. Bakers shape the dough to resemble short, study baguettes. When it’s proved, it’s baked in wood-fired ovens. The result, particularly if served warm, is one of the simplest but best things you can eat anywhere in the Caribbean.
Jamaica: ackee and salt fish
If you’ll forgive us for revisiting Jamaica, our final selection is the country’s national dish: ackee and saltfish. It doesn’t matter where you eat. From the most basic of beach shacks to the fanciest of fine dining restaurants, it will be on the menu. Ackee is the country’s national fruit, brought over around 300 years ago from Ghana. Salted cod was introduced as a cheap source of protein for enslaved people. To the two star ingredients you add onions, Scotch bonnet peppers, tomatoes and spices, particularly paprika. Often, Jamaicans eat it for breakfast, with breadfruit, dumplings, boiled green bananas or bread. Later in the day, mix it with the staple rice and peas, bulking it out to make a filling one-pot meal.
Cuba: ropa vieja
The name of this humble dish translates as “old clothes”. The name comes from a legend which tells of a penniless man who couldn’t afford to feed his family. He cut up his clothes and boiled them up to make a stew. As he prayed over the mix, a miracle happened and it became a tasty meat stew. Back in the real world, the Spanish brought the recipe with them where it had been a stalwart of the Sephardic Jews. They must not cook on the Sabbath, so this slow cooked dish was ideal. In time, it became Cuba’s national dish. It is simple to prepare, made with shredded beef, onions, and tomatoes. Bell peppers (and sometimes a spoonful or two of sugar) add just the right amount of sweetness. Though it’s a rustic looking dish, the inclusion of beef puts this beyond the means of many Cubans, except on special occasions.
As you can see, there’s a huge amount of choice when it comes to Caribbean food. Which of these dishes has you salivating?