Dining in the Caribbean means much more than mere nutrition; it’s part of the whole vacation experience. Your island day can start with a taste of the world’s best coffees and fresh-picked bananas from a nearby tree. Lunch might mean a savory roadside dish in a manner perfected by the Caribbean’s first inhabitants centuries ago. Dinner can be the evening’s entertainment.
Wherever you plan your vacation in the Caribbean, you’ll find a full menu of offerings that reflect the many cultures that settled this area. With dishes such as East Indian rotis served throughout Trinidad and Tobago and cheesy Dutch keshi yena in Aruba, Curaçao and St. Maarten, the islands are a cornucopia of cultures and cuisines.
If you’d like to spice up your next Caribbean vacation, don’t miss these culinary capitals of the region:
Jamaica. Along with reggae, Jamaica’s top export is jerk, the island’s own special barbecue. One of the Caribbean’s best-known dishes, this spicy wonder weaves a smoky web across Jamaica and has spread to other islands as well.
Barbecue is no newcomer to the Caribbean. In fact, it was the native Arawak Indians who, by many accounts, gave us the word “barbecue.” These early Caribbean residents built green-stick grills upon which they prepared meats covered in leaves to enhance the smoke. When the Spanish arrived in the Caribbean islands, they borrowed the natives’ word: “barbacoa.”
Jamaica puts its own special twist on barbecue to create jerk. The meat – pork, chicken or fish – is marinated with a fiery mixture of spices including Scotch bonnet (a pepper that makes a jalapeño taste like a marshmallow), pimento (known in the U.S. as allspice), nutmeg, scallion and thyme. It’s usually served with even more hot sauce, a dish of rice and peas and a wonderful bread they call “festival.”
Where should you go for the best jerk? That’s a topic even hotter than the Scotch bonnet. Most agree that modern Jamaican jerk originated in the 1930s along Boston Beach, east of Port Antonio. Even today many aficionados return to Boston Beach for the “real thing.” Others prefer the roadside stands of the North Coast like Scotchie’s in Montego Bay and Scotchie’s Too near Ocho Rios.
You’ll also find jerk and other Jamaican dishes at resorts including the island’s many all-inclusives. Sandals Resorts has its own culinary ambassador, Walter Staib, who searches local roadside stands and farms for a true taste of Jamaica, bringing the essence of the island to the tables of the popular resorts. In addition, SuperClubs offers Jamaican and Caribbean restaurants in each of its many properties, serving up authentic island specialties to vacationers both new to the island as well as frequently returning guests.
French Islands. Look for fine French food – plus plenty of local twists on Gallic cuisine – on St. Martin and St. Barths, islands that share the same neighborhood but boast very different vacation experiences.
Dining is as much an adventure on St. Barths as watersports or hiking. For many vacationers, its reason enough to plan a trip to this outpost of Gallic culture. In fact, the island has earned a reputation as the “French cuisine capital of the Caribbean.” Expect meals here to set you back at least $50 per person in most cases and often much more. Not in the mood for French food? Check out Le Select (aka Cheeseburger in Paradise) in Gustavia which claims a link to Jimmy Buffett’s “Cheeseburger in Paradise.”
A short boat ride away on St. Martin (shared with the Dutch who call it St. Maarten), dining is tops in the town of Marigot, a charming community that is a distinct blend of French and Caribbean. The tricolor of France flies here over distinctive West Indian gingerbread architecture. The seaside community, rife with historic buildings and overlooked by the graceful ruins of Fort Louis, is known for its sidewalk cafes and wine bars, many featuring fresh lobster grilled and served en plein air. North of Marigot, the town of Grand Case is the island’s culinary capital. Along with gourmet fare, small barbecue joints called lolos line the waterfront of this fishing village.
Dutch Islands. The Dutch islands – including the popular Aruba, St. Maarten and Curaçao – combine their European heritage with local ingredients to create a cuisine that’s unique to the Caribbean.
The most distinctive Dutch Caribbean dishes are found on the southern islands. In Aruba look for stewed lamb with pan bati (pancake) and keshi yena (a hollowed wheel of Edam cheese filled with meat and baked to combine flavors).
With its culturally mixed population, nearby Curaçao enjoys a variety of cuisines. Indonesian rijstaffel (rice table) is especially popular – but you’ll also find local specialties like stoba di cabrito (stewed goat) and a popular after-dinner liqueur, Blue Curaçao. Made from bitter oranges produced on the island, you can select from flavors including orange, chocolate, rum raisin and coffee.
Spanish Islands. The Spanish islands of the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico boast a distinct cuisine featuring a blend of Spanish, African, and Taino Indian elements.
Start with an appetizer of tostones (fried plantains) or empanadillas (little meat turnovers). Other dishes include asopao (a chicken and rice soup), and mofongo (fried plantains mixed with fried pork rinds and seasoned with garlic). Save room for flan (a wonderful custard), or our favorite, tembleque (a custard made with coconut milk and sprinkled with cinnamon).
And plenty more. Especially in the Bahamas, Cayman Islands and Turks and Caicos, you’ll find plenty of opportunities to try a local delicacy: conch (pronounced konk). You’re probably familiar with this mollusk because of its shell: a beautiful pink curl that covers a huge piece of white meat with a somewhat rubbery texture. Conch meat is chopped, sliced, diced, fried, marinated and served just about every imaginable way. Look for cracked conch, conch salad, conch chowder, conch fritters, you name it. The shellfish is popular with visitors and residents – who favor the conch not only for its taste but also its reputed aphrodisiac qualities.
Here’s a sampling of island dishes found on many Caribbean menus:
• ackee and saltfish: Ackee is a small fruit that when cooked resembles, and tastes, much like scrambled eggs (Jamaica)
• johnny cakes and boiled fish (Bahamas)
• conch (pronounced konk), a shellfish served chopped, battered and fried in conch fritters
• grouper, a large fish caught in the waters just offshore, also appears on every menu
• flying fish
• pattie, a turnover filled with spicy meat (Jamaica)
• nempanadillas, little meat turnovers (Puerto Rico)
• roti, a burrito-like fast food that traces its roots to India (Trinidad and Tobago)
• peas and rice, the number one side dish in the Caribbean usually prepared using red beans or pigeon peas; called rice and peas in Jamaica
• cou-cou, a cornmeal and okra dish (Barbados)
• jug-jug, a dish made of Guinea corn and green peas (Barbados)
• dasheen, a root vegetable similar to a potato
• mofongo, fried plantains mixed with fried pork rinds and seasoned with garlic (Puerto Rico)
• afungi, a pudding of cornmeal and okra
• fungi (pronounced foon-gee), a tasty accompaniment that’s somewhat like cornbread dressing (Virgin Islands)
• ducana, a pudding made from grated sweet potato and coconut, sugar, and spices, and boiled in a banana leaf
• flan, wonderful custard
• tembleque, a custard made with coconut milk and sprinkled with cinnamon (Puerto Rico)
Rice & Peas
1 cup dried kidney beans, soaked overnight
4 cups unsweetened coconut milk
3 garlic cloves, minced
8 scallions, finely chopped
2 sprigs fresh thyme
3 cups uncooked rice
1 scotch bonnet pepper, whole
2 1/2 cups water
2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon sugar
Drain the soaked beans and combine with the coconut milk in a medium saucepan. Cook covered over medium heat until the beans are tender but not mushy, about 1 hour.
Add all the remaining ingredients and cook covered over medium heat until the rice absorbs all the liquid, about 15 to 25 minutes.
Remove thyme stems and scotch bonnet pepper and serve. Serves 8-12.
4 oz. butter (salted)
12 oz. all purpose flour
6 oz. cornmeal (yellow)
3 oz. baking powder
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1 1/2 tsp. salt
4 oz. sugar
1 tsp. almond extract
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 cup whole milk
Work butter into dry mixture. Add extracts to milk. Work milk into stiff batter. Form into ball. Portion into finger size hush puppies and deep fry. Consistency of finished product should be elastic. Makes 3 dozen.
Recipes courtesy Sandals Resorts and Chef Walter Staib
About the authors. Paris Permenter and John Bigley are Caribbean experts and the authors of numerous guides to the region including Caribbean with Kids. The husband-wife team editsCaribbeanFamilyTripper.com, an on-line guide to family-friendly travel throughout the region.