To most people, the Caribbean is viewed mainly as a tourist destination for family vacations and luxury tropical getaways. People dream of an island vacation filled with pina coladas and exciting jet ski rides. The truth is, one of the greatest treasures the Caribbean has to offer is the delectable food! It can be easy for people to get swept away in the exotic indulgence of the Caribbean and forget that it is actually home to millions of people and a mixing pot of rich cultures. This cultural blend is unlike any other and is the birthplace for unique Caribbean food that will enrich your taste buds and your cultural experience.
An Overview of the Caribbean
The Caribbean is made up of hundreds of islands and cays (pronounced like “keys”) that stretch from off the coast of Florida in North America, all the way down to the coast of Venezuela in South America. The islands of the Caribbean are often separated into two groups, the Greater Antilles and the Lesser Antilles. In addition to these groups is the Lucayan Archipelago – composed only of The Bahamas and Turks and Caicos, which lie in the Atlantic ocean and not in the Caribbean Sea. The combination of the Greater Antilles, Lesser Antilles, and the Lucayan Archipelago are known collectively as the West Indies.
In order to appreciate Caribbean food, we must first understand the culture and history of the countries. Unfortunately, not much is known about the area before the arrival of Europeans in the 15th century. Christopher Columbus, who is incorrectly known for arriving in America, actually arrived in The Bahamas first. From there, he traveled to Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic), and finally to South America. The indigenous peoples of the Caribbean, the Arawaks and the Caribs were quickly slaughtered by the European colonizers, leaving some islands completely stripped of any native populations. The islands were then repopulated by European colonizers as well as African and South American slaves. Even now, much of Caribbean culture can trace its roots back to African and Latin American influence. While some countries have gained their independence, many still remain as territories of other countries.
We all dream of taking a cruise throughout the tropics, but cruise ship cuisine doesn’t come close to these sensational Caribbean dishes. Let’s take a tour of the Caribbean through some popular national dishes!
The Bahamas: Conch
Conch, (pronounced like “konk”, the “-ch” actually makes a hard “k” sound!), is a large sea snail native to the warm shallow waters of The Bahamas. Due to its close proximity, you can often find conch dishes in Florida. The conch was once native to Florida, but unfortunately were overfished, and its harvesting is now banned. It is a versatile seafood, it can be eaten raw, such as in a conch salad (a diced salad of fresh conch meat, onions, peppers, and citrus juices), or tenderized and battered, such as in cracked conch. It can also be used to make chowder, fritters, burgers, and more! Bahamians cherish conch in as many dishes as possible. It has a soft chewy texture, and mild in flavor, allowing it to reflect whatever seasonings are used. Conch is typically the main component of a dish and is usually accompanied by pigeon peas and rice.
Barbados: Cou Cou and Flying Fish
This national dish is composed of two elements, cou-cou, which is similar to polenta, and flying fish, which is typically steamed. Barbados is known as the “land of flying fish” – a species known to launch themselves out of the water and appear to be flying while escaping predators – making it an obvious choice for starring in the national dish. Cou-cou, on the other hand, is made using cornmeal and okra. The cornmeal is cooked similarly to polenta, by gradually adding liquid until the cornmeal is done absorbing it all and cooking. In this case, the liquid used is often the water in which okra and other seasonings have been. Okra slices are also added directly into the cou-cou, which is then served with flying fish and covered in a scrumptious gravy.
Cayman Islands: Turtle Stew
As you may know, the sale and consumption of turtle meat is prohibited in America and in many countries across the globe. This is usually done for conservation purposes, to help various turtle species that are at risk of endangerment to repopulate. No need to worry though, the turtle meat that is consumed in the Cayman Islands is one-hundred percent farm-raised, no turtles from the wild are consumed. Turtle farming began back in the 17th century and is considered a national delicacy. The one of a kind farm that operates today has not taken any new turtles from the wild since the 1970s, all turtles from that time have been bred within the farm, with populations now reaching over 5,000! The farm focuses on feeding the Cayman population in a sustainable manner that does not rely on wild populations, moreover, the company also raises money to support research and conservation efforts for wild turtles. Additionally, a percentage of turtles raised in captivity at the farm are released into the wild to replenish the population.
Turtle meat is typically used for making stew. Turtle stew resembles typical American beef stew, it has potatoes and onions in a hearty brown broth. Turtle meat can also be made into steaks and burgers.
Cuba: Ropa Vieja
The national dish of Cuba is Ropa Vieja, which literally translates to “old clothes”. The recipe dates back hundreds of years, based on the lore that a penniless old man once tore up his own clothes and cooked them – he then prayed over the meal, and it magically turned into a delicious meat stew. The dish was brought over from Spain and has gained popularity in other South American countries. It is comprised of shredded beef (typically flank steak), stewed with bell peppers and onions, and is usually served with rice. This hearty dish is so tasty, you’ll want a hot bowl even in the summer.
Grenada: Oil Down
Raposala, Aimee. “Salt Beef Oil Down.” World Food Guide, 2017.
Grenada’s national dish is a hearty one-pot stew of robust flavors. This dish is a must-have in Grenada, so much so that the national government website even lists a recipe for it! There are multiple variations to this dish, but the main ingredients, according to the national website are salted meat, chicken, dumplings, callaloo (also called “dasheen leaves” which come from a taro or amaranth plant), and breadfruit. Along with onions, carrots, and spices, the ingredients are jam-packed into a pot and cooked in coconut milk for a decadent taste. The stew boils down, resulting in a generous portion of food and little broth. Shockingly, the recipe does not call for oil, but it can be very starchy!
Jamaica: Ackee and Saltfish
Typically served as a breakfast dish, this two-part dish is a staple in Jamaican culture. Ackee (also spelled achee or akee) is a fruit that originated in Africa and was brought over to Jamaica in the 1700s, since then it has been the national fruit! The fruit grows in a bright red-orange pod, which naturally breaks open when ripe to reveal shiny black seeds. Fun fact – the importation of raw ackee fruit is banned in the USA! While canned imports are allowed, the raw fruit is prohibited because it can be poisonous if it is eaten prematurely. When the fruit ripens, it blooms open like a flower, releasing a toxic gas that dissipates. Once cooked, ackee has a soft buttery texture and appears similar to scrambled eggs. As for the saltfish, salted cod is the standard, but almost any salted fish can be used. The saltfish and ackee are sautéed with vegetables for a hot mouthwatering breakfast!
Puerto Rico: Arroz con Gandules y Lechón
This national dish translates to, “rice with pigeon peas and piglet”, which is what the dish is in its simplest form; however, there is much more that goes into this dish. The four main components of this dish are rice, pigeon peas, sofrito, and pork, along with a myriad of seasonings and optional ingredients. Sofrito is essential to Puerto Rican cooking, though it is debated what makes up a proper sofrito and what doesn’t, depending on where you are in Latin America. It is used as a base in many recipes, and typically is made up of aromatic ingredients such as herbs and vegetables cut up finely then blended into a puree. The sofrito and pigeon peas are combined in a pot, then broth is added. Once it comes to a boil, the rice is cooked to a vibrant yellow hue and the dish creates an irresistible fragrance. When arroz con gandules is paired with pork, it is considered Puerto Rico’s national dish.
Saint Lucia: Green Fig and Saltfish
Similar to the ackee and saltfish dish found in Jamaica, Saint Lucia replaces the ackee for another fruit – bananas. The “green fig” called for are actually green bananas! The bananas are boiled with the skin on, making them soft and tender and are often served whole or in large chunks. The saltfish (again, cod is traditional, but any salted fish should do) is boiled until the meat flakes off, then the meat is sautéed with onion, peppers, and spices like garlic and thyme. This dish is enjoyed for breakfast and for celebrations!
Trinidad and Tobago: Crab and Callaloo
Much like other Caribbean countries, Trinidad and Tobago’s national dish is a flavorful soup! The star of this beautiful green soup is callaloo – aka dasheen or taro leaves (bonus: you can use spinach instead). The callaloo leaves are combined with okra, pumpkin, coconut milk, onion, and seasoning. The ingredients are combined into a deep saucepan, allowing the vegetables to break down. The thickness of the soup is up to you, you can use an immersion blender for a smoother consistency, or just break up chunks with a spoon for a thicker soup. Callaloo can be eaten alone as a vegetarian option, or with chicken, but crab is recognized as the national accompaniment to callaloo. The crab is added last to the boiling soup, often added whole.
It is impossible to capture all of the rich flavors unique to the islands of the Caribbean in writing. This week we encourage you to treat your taste buds to a tropical vacation!
Search for a local Caribbean restaurant or try out one of the recipes yourself! We hope you find the value in trying international food along with a respect for the cultures that made them!