When you sit down for a meal in the Caribbean, you might be in for some surprises. Island cuisines are as varied as the islands themselves, and chances are you and other visitors might never have sampled many a Caribbean dish.
While major hotels and cruise lines always serve standard American foods, they are also offering more Caribbean-based specialties.
“I’ve noticed that many of the high-end resorts are having talented chefs develop menus that appeal to the international palate, yet support local growers by purchasing local ingredients,” said Hector Rodriguez, who writes about Latin/Caribbean cuisine for www.about.com.
Cruise ship passengers, too, may find Caribbean dishes on their menus. “We offer jerk pork at dinner in our dining room, jerk chicken in Lido, and roti and conch fritters in our Pub,” said Peter Leypold, executive chef of Carnival Cruise Lines.
But it is at smaller inns and restaurants on the islands that one will encounter many dishes not often seen in mainland America.
Caribbean cuisine is a blend of many cultures with foods native to the islands.
“The basic influences are African, English, Spanish and Indian/Chinese,” said Bill Moore of www.pushcartfoods.com, an expert on Caribbean foods who will host the Taste of the Caribbean event in Miami next weekend.
Curry came with laborers brought from India, rice from the Chinese. African slaves brought in pigeon peas and taro. Spanish influence is felt most in Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Dominican Republic. The Dutch, who settled Curacao and Aruba, brought the traditional rijstafel, a meal with many small dishes. Tea and Cornish pasties reflect English tastes.
Meats flavored with spices and chiles are found throughout the islands. “Jerk and curries are synonymous with the Caribbean,” Moore said.
Jerk seasoning, widely used in the Caribbean, is a mix most commonly used in traditional jerk chicken and jerk pork. Its ingredients vary from island to island, but generally include allspice, thyme, cinnamon, black pepper, scotch bonnet or cayenne pepper.
Stewed or curried goat is another meat dish prepared on several islands.
Stews are a form of one-pot cooking, which Moore said is the foundation of Caribbean cuisine. Another is pepper pot, prepared on many islands, which combines a variety of ingredients in one pot — pork or chicken, greens, vegetables such as okra and onions, plus such seasonings as scotch bonnet pepper, allspice and thyme.
Also found widely in the Caribbean is callaloo, brought to the islands by West African slaves. It is a combination of a leaf vegetable like dasheen bush stewed perhaps with chopped okra, onions, peppers and other spices, coconut milk. It can be made with or without meat or fish.
But tastes and recipes vary from island to island. Callaloo made in Jamaica, for example, may not use the same ingredients as callaloo made in Trinidad or St. Lucia.
Seafood, as one might expect, is a major component of island diets. Visitors will find it prepared in many ways — boiled, salted, fried, stewed. Flying fish are the national dish of Barbados. Saltfish and ackee — a native fruit — are Jamaica’s national dish, along with jerk chicken. Turtle steaks and turtle stew are big in the Cayman Islands. Conch, a shellfish, is served in many ways in the Bahamas — in chowder, fritters, salad, cracked or curried.