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.
Cuban dishes, quite familiar to Floridians, generally are not as spicy as some other island foods. Among widely prepared Cuban dishes are black beans and rice, picadillo (ground beef, onions, green olives and spices), arroz con pollo (chicken and rice) and ropa vieja (shredded beef with spices). Arroz con pollo is also a staple in the Dominican Republic, along with mangu (mashed plantains). Bacalao (cod) fritters are popular in Puerto Rico.
Breadfruit, brought to the Caribbean from the Pacific by the notorious Captain Bligh, is another food common to many islands. It is roasted, baked or fried before eating. Although it is a fruit, breadfruit as well as plantains are considered “ground provisions” by islanders, because they are often cooked with root vegetables such as yams, cassava, eddoes and taro.
Caribbean foods are becoming more widely known because today’s chefs are bringing a new approach to those foods, said Moore.
One adaptation, he said, takes oxtail and beans, a basic Caribbean dish, and integrates it with ravioli to create a new dish, oxtail ravioli and white bean ragout with rum sauce. Still another is jerk pork stuffed into rice paper spring rolls, served with a dipping sauce.
Rodriguez, the food writer, also sees this trend.
“A great example of modern chefs adapting Caribbean dishes to create new dishes with more contemporary appeal would be chef Wilo Benet, who opened his flagship restaurant Pikayo at the Conrad San Juan Condado Plaza in 1990. Chef Benet creates a type of fusion fare using local Puerto Rican and Caribbean ingredients to create globally inspired dishes,” Rodriguez explained, citing as an example Benet’s cold yellowfin tuna served rare with sauteed baby bok choy and spicy citrus ponzu sauce.
Other celebrity chefs also are adapting Caribbean recipes. On the Food Network website, for example, Emeril Lagasse offers recipes for callaloo, jerk pork and jerk chicken. On her site, Martha Stewart tells how she makes jerk chicken and Caribbean pork with avocado and pineapple salsa. Moore himself says he makes a vichyssoise breadfruit.
All of which, together with the global influences brought to the region since tourism became its main industry, is making the Caribbean today a melting pot for foods.
“I like to think of the Caribbean as the one place on Earth where all the world’s cuisines converge,” said Rodriguez.