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CARIBBEAN FOOD —
ISLAND RESTAURANTS AND COOKING STYLES

Story and photos by

Every time we visit the Caribbean, we are amazed by the islands' distinctive cuisines. Foods and cooking styles vary with each island's produce, seafood and spices, and its heritage from the indigenous Arawaks, African slaves and colonizing nations.

Gwen Tonge stirs a coal pot in Antigua.
Gwen Tonge stirs a coal pot in Antigua.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

To sample these culinary treasures, we visited the markets, food stands and island restaurants where local people eat. We will never forget our first culinary lesson, in Antigua, from former senator, Gwendolyne Tonge, who sadly passed away in 2012. Officially, she was called Dame Tonge, but unofficially, she was "Auntie Gwen" to the thousands of women who took her cooking classes.

Traditional recipes

No collection of Antiguan recipes existed until Tonge published her two Cooking Magic books. In 1964, she began hosting a television show, which featured local foods and guests, such as Rastafarians demonstrating their vegetarian ital cuisine.

Tonge's interest in cooking began, as a youngster, when her mother gave her a toy coal pot. The pottery utensil consists of a bowl atop a base filled with burning charcoal. At the Heritage Market in St. John's, Tonge showed us several coal pots.

"We cook fungi, which is cornmeal porridge with bits of okra, in a coal pot," she explained. "You stir the fungi with a wooden stick until it's really thick, then shape it in a bowl into individual servings." (In Barbados, fungi is called coocoo and elsewhere, foofoo.)

"Fungi is usually served with saltfish (dried salted cod)," noted Tonge. "We used to buy cheap saltfish from Canada. It's very expensive now, so some families reserve it for Sunday morning breakfast." This brunch-like meal also includes cooked and mashed green papaw (papaya), mashed antrobers (eggplants), fried plantains (starchy bananas) and sometimes duccana, dumplings of grated sweet potato and coconut, wrapped in banana leaves and boiled.

Pepperpot

Any discussion of Caribbean food requires learning a new vocabulary. Ground provisions, for example, are yams, sweet potatoes and other root vegetables. "We mix ground provisions with meat and other vegetables to make a stew called pepperpot," said Gwen Tonge.

Ironically, there are no peppers in it. "People add hot sauce, made from scotch bonnet peppers, to taste, after it's cooked," she explained.

Antigua's most popular bottled hot sauces are Susie's. Rosie McMaster uses the same recipe her mother, Susie, used when she started making Susie's Original Hot Sauce in 1960.

Antigua black pineapple
Antigua black pineapple
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Fresh pineapple

Tamarind drinks and ginger beer are the perfect accompaniments. For dessert, she recommends the Antigua black pineapple, reputed to be the sweetest in the world.

Although the fruit has a dark skin, its flesh is yellow. It's important to eat it from the top down, because the sweetness concentrates in the base. You can also buy Antigua black pineapple in St. John's Heritage Market. Vendors cut it up and put the pieces in plastic bags, so you can quench your thirst as you stroll around town.

The Caribbean is known for its luscious fruits. Don't limit yourself to familiar mangoes and bananas. Try star apples, jackfruit and soursop, which is delicious in ice cream and drinks. In Jamaica, the national dish is made from a fruit called ackee, which is poisonous when unripe. Boiled and mixed with saltfish, bacon, scallions and spices, it looks and tastes like scrambled eggs.

Traditional breakfast

A traditional plantation breakfast includes ackee and saltfish, boiled green bananas, callaloo (a spinach-like vegetable), fried plantains, fried dumplings, liver and onions and boiled yams.

Traditional Jamaican plantation breakfast — boiled yams, fried plantain, boiled dumplings, cabbage and sausage.
Traditional Jamaican plantation breakfast — boiled yams, fried plantain, boiled dumplings, cabbage and sausage.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Jamaica also evokes fond memories of mouth-watering jerk chicken and pork, barbecued in converted oil drum smokers. Seasoned with scallions, scotch bonnet peppers, pimento (allspice), cinnamon and nutmeg, jerk is slow-cooked over a pimento wood fire, creating delectable aromas. Once you've tried it, your backyard barbecue will never compare.

With the jerk, try bammy, which is fried or grilled cassava (a root vegetable) bread, breadfruit (boiled, mashed, fried or baked like potatoes), or rice 'n peas (rice 'n beans on some islands), cooked with herbs and coconut milk. Cubans make the latter dish with black beans and call it moros y cristianos (Moors & Christians).

Local aphrodisiac

Coconut also flavours one of our favourite Jamaican dishes, called rundown (oildown on other islands), which is often made with fish. Seafood is popular on all the islands, from clawless spiny lobsters to conch (pronounced "conk"). Also called lambie, conch is the tasty mollusc found in those beautiful pink spiral shells. You'll find it stewed, made into salad and fried in fritters. (If you need more incentive to try conch, it's reputedly an aphrodisiac.)

Lunch at the Cracked Conch in Grand Cayman.
Lunch at the Cracked Conch
in Grand Cayman.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

We especially like the cracked conch served at the Cracked Conch restaurant in West Bay, Grand Cayman. The restaurant also serves green plantain crusted grouper filet and an incredibly tasty braised turtle steak, in coconut cream sauce. Don't miss the pistachio cinnamon ice cream.

Cayman Turtle Farm raises turtles commercially. Turtle meat has the taste and texture of veal, and is delicious in soups and stews.

Flying fish

Other seafood dishes to sample? Try flying fish (its wings are overgrown fins) in Barbados, stuffed crab backs in Trinidad and Tobago, and fish tea (a spicy soup) in the Cayman Islands.

For snacks, we like roti, stuffed with curried meat (goat is especially good) in Trinidad, and Jamaican stamp & go (salt cod fritters), meat patties and festival (cornmeal hush puppies). In Grenada's Saturday morning market in St. George's, we found stands selling fish and bakes. Vendors fry the light-as-a-feather breads in a wok, until they're puffy and golden, then top them with pieces of fried cod. Wrapped in wax paper, they make a walkaway meal.

From Puerto Rico's lechon asado (spit-roasted suckling pig) to the ubiquitous sweet and sour tamarind balls, Caribbean cuisine offers many more delectable discoveries. The next time you head to the islands, go on a culinary odyssey. It will be a delicious journey.


More Caribbean Foods & Drinks:

Cayman Islands Chocolate Lady

Tortuga Rum Cake

Homemade Grenada Liqueurs