Caribbean: The Lesser Antilles - Insight Guides (2016)
Between American fast-food joints and the international haute cuisine of the big hotels there is the delicious food of the Caribbean to be enjoyed.
As the word “creole” generally means “born in the islands but originating from the outside world,” it seems an appropriate collective name for the region’s home cooking, given its history. However, despite the common thread uniting the creole cuisine of the islands, the miles of water that separate them, along with their diverse historic influences from the outside world, ensure that the food of each one is usually quite distinct.
A man cutting into fresh lobster.
The common thread is provided by the region’s rich Amerindian and African heritage; the readily available fresh produce of the fertile land, with its year-round growing season; and the abundance of superb seafood from the surrounding Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean. Meanwhile, the wonderful variation within the styles of cuisine has been created by the diversity of the European countries that colonized the islands, the introduction of indentured labor from the east, and the wide range of differing topography throughout the region.
Fruit vendor in Ste-Anne, Martinique.
Fresh from land and sea
When the European settlers started arriving, there was already some wild game on the islands, such as agouti, iguana, deer, hogs, land tortoises, and guinea pigs, and they added chickens, cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs. Today, people in the country are still happy to run a small farm or raise their “stocks” on whatever pasture is available. On land the swamps and rivers can supply crabs and crayfish, but the best and most plentiful source of protein is the fish and other seafood which abounds in the ocean.
Caribbean seafood can be rated as some of the best in the world. As a result of the generally short distance from the sea to the table, it is served particularly fresh, which contributes to its intense flavor. Grouper, barracuda, kingfish, swordfish, sea bream, jacks, parrotfish, snapper, tuna, albacor, bonito, and dolphin are the names of fish most heard in these islands. Dolphin (also called dorado and mahi mahi) is an ugly, scaly fish not to be confused with the friendly mammal, which is known as a porpoise, often referred to as a dolphin. Flying fish are widely served in Barbados, where the intricate skill of deboning them has been perfected and passed on down the generations.
The Caribbean waters also contain plenty of sea crab, spiny lobster, conch (sometimes called lambis) with their large beautiful shells, sea egg (sea urchin), octopus, and, in the south, very large shrimps, also referred to as “giant prawns.” The result of this exciting array of fresh ingredients, prepared in a variety of tantalizing ways, is an exotic culinary extravaganza.
The barbecue is intrinsic to Caribbean culinary culture.
A culinary legacy
Foods that can be traced back to the Amerindians are still found throughout the islands. Pepperpot stew, a mixture of meats, vegetables, and hot peppers, cooked in black cassava juice (casareep), a natural preservative, was originally a means of preserving the hunter’s bounty. Once brought to the boil daily, it will not go off. Even in this day and age, some establishments and households keep a pepperpot on the stove for months, in a traditional pottery coneree, adding fresh ingredients as required. Pepperpot soup, freshly made with vegetables such as okra, pumpkin, and yam, has been only slightly modified since the Amerindian days, with the introduction of imported salt meat.
Another Amerindian favorite, and still a popular snack, was roasted corn. The husk is removed and the corn cooked over an open fire until completely black. It was these highly self-sufficient people who gave the world the barbecue, derived from their word barbacoa meaning cooking over a fire. Street food today is usually based on the barbecue, using an oil drum full of charcoal to cook on. Several islands have a fish-fry one day a week in one fishing village or another, where you can find delicious lobster in season or the catch of the day, fresh from the sea, basted in seasoned oil and put straight on the griddle, accompanied by roasted corn, bread, and various vegetables and sauces.
The Amerindians also made delicious bread from cassava (casabe) and corn (fungi or funchi). Fresh bread made with bran and wheat flour is the most common staple and can be smelled baking in the early morning in virtually every village and town.
A fair exchange
In the early days of colonization and exploration, there was a tremendous exchange of horticulture and agriculture around the world. While the Caribbean gave the world the pineapple, pepper, cashew, cocoa, avocado, runner bean, potato, sweet potato, and tomato, to name some of the more famous produce indigenous to the region, the outside world returned the favor with many of the fruits, vegetables, and herbs that are now frequently associated with this area - such as mango, lime, orange, banana, coffee, sugar cane, pigeon pea, yam, okra, nutmeg, cinnamon, clove, ginger, shallots, thyme, parsley, breadfruit, and coconuts.
An African inheritance
The African slaves were given rations of rice, imported salt cod, salt meat, and dried peas and beans. They were also given small plots of land to grow produce to supplement this meager fare. From this paltry larder came the basis of the delicious food served today. Every island has its own recipe for rice and peas, usually made with salt beef or pork and fresh herbs such as shallots and thyme. Fish cakes, made of salt fish, flour, a variety of pepper and herbs, dipped in batter and deep fried, have an irresistible aroma. Salt fish is still commonly eaten for breakfast.
To season their food, slaves grew thyme, marjoram, mint, sage, rosemary, shallots, and peppers. Today, every island has its own “seasoning” made from finely chopped herbs, onions, garlic, and pepper; and each one offers its own version of a fiercely hot pepper sauce, which should be sampled with caution.
Chicken, roasted, fried, or stewed; roast pork, garlic pork, pickled pig’s head, tail, and trotters, pork stew, whole suckling pig roasted on a spit, and ham have always been weekend and celebration fare - not a piece of the pig is spared. All the islands prepare variations of black pudding, made from pigs intestine stuffed with the blood mixed with sweet potato and seasoning.
Most citrus comes from the Pacific region but the grapefruit originated in Barbados in the 18th century. It is a cross between a sweet orange and a bitter citrus fruit called a shaddock, brought from Polynesia by a Captain Shaddock.
Harvesting the sugar crops, Barbados.
With most of the cooking being done over an open fire, usually with only one pot, many recipes developed for “one pot meals” which included a large variety of tasty soups such as split pea soup, callaloo, made from eddoe leaves and crab, pumpkin soup, fish soup, peanut soup, and a “big soup” that you can stand the spoon up in, made with an assortment of root crops and fresh vegetables. Other one-pot meals known as cook-ups are based on a starch such as rice or yam, to which is added any vegetables, seasonings, fish, meat, or chicken the cook can find to make a tasty and nutritious meal. Because of the ingenious use of herbs and spices, stews in the Caribbean are full of flavor.
An interesting observation about Caribbean cuisine is that the Amerindians, when first encountered by Europeans, were preparing many foods in exactly the same way as some West Africans thousands of miles across the Atlantic Ocean. For example, cou-cou or fungi - ground corn, boiled up with okra and mashed into a thick paste - is an indigenous dish of both the Caribbean and Africa. Still enjoyed today, it’s usually served with a pungent salt fish, fresh fish, or beef stew.
Caribbean sweet tooth
With the introduction of sugar cane in the 17th century, Caribbean people developed a very “sweet tooth,” blending sugar with island fruits to create such delicacies as tamarind balls, guava cheese, coconut sugar cakes, toolum, comforts, and shaddock rind - candies that have been prepared for generations of children. Preserves of lime and orange marmalade, guava jelly, nutmeg jelly, chutney, and fruit jams are of a very high quality because the golden crystals of Caribbean sugar are bursting with tangy flavors.
Traditional desserts are a combination of British heritage and Caribbean style: bread ’n’ butter pudding, rich fruit cake laced with rum, banana and coconut bread, jam puffs, chocolate pudding, and coconut turnovers. Restaurants everywhere include their own versions of the delicious coconut pie on their dessert menu.
The strawberry guava, one variety of this immensely versatile fruit.
The islands generally have a very separate and distinct cuisine from each other, depending on who they were colonized by. The French brought their pâtisserie (pastries), stuffed crab back, tomato and herb fish stews reminiscent of Provence, escargots in garlic, and frogs’ legs (coyly called mountain chicken in Dominica).
Jug Jug, a Christmas dish of pigeon peas, guinea corn flour, salt meat, and herbs, a corruption of the Scots haggis, was introduced to Barbados by the Scots when they were exiled there after the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685.
The Spanish left Trinidad a delicious legacy: pastelles (meat and grated corn steamed in a banana leaf), escoviche (pickled fish), buljol (salt fish, tomato, lime, pepper, garlic, and avocado), to name just a few. Later, Indian and Chinese food was introduced to Trinidad by immigrants from Asia, and the roti - a thick curry wrapped in a chapati - is sold throughout the region, keeping the American burger joints on their toes. Trinidadian Chinese cooking has also evolved into a new and delicious style, modified by the use of different ingredients.
The abundance of fruit on the islands means that fresh fruit juices are served everywhere: guava, mango, and soursop are some of the most exotic. Mauby is a bitter-sweet drink made from tree bark, and sorrel is a traditional Christmas drink created from the dried bright red blossom of a type of hibiscus. Sea-moss is a mixture of algae, milk, and vanilla, not to everyone’s taste. Herbal teas are usually freshly picked and blended for medicinal purposes. Cocoa tea is served at breakfast. Recipes vary, but generally a length of cocoa stick is melted in hot water with the addition of cinnamon and sugar.
The Dutch islands enjoy an Indonesian flavor to their dishes, due to the Netherlands’ connections with the Far East. So the food of the Caribbean is as diverse as the origins of its people - a multitude of exotic flavors, all drawn from the sun-blessed, fertile land, the bountiful seas, and the creative genius of generations of multi-ethnic cooks and chefs.
It didn’t take long to discover that sugar was not just a sweetener but could constitute the basis of a highly alcoholic drink - rum.
Rum has long been associated with pirates, smugglers, and sailors and featured in many a classic “Boys’ Own” adventure story as barrels of the liquid gold were rolled on to British shores by the light of the full moon - duty free.
It didn’t take long to discover that a forceful fiery liquor could be produced from sugar cane, and in Barbados in the 1640s the first batches of locally distilled spirits were introduced, or, rather, experienced! Referred to as “kill-devil” by the English Royalist refugee Richard Ligon in A True and Exact History of the Island of Barbados in 1657, the drink was strong and barely fit to drink; those who imbibed it quickly felt its effects. As Ligon wrote, “It lays them to sleep on the ground.”
Or else, too much of it ended in a “rumbullion,” an old English word for a noisy brawl - hence the name rum. Another early visitor to Barbados wrote that “the chiefe fudling they make on the Island is Rumbullion, alias Kill Divill, and this is made of sugarcanes distilled, a hot, hellish and terrible liquor.”
Rum is usually made from molasses, the thick, black treacle left after the juice from the sugar cane has crystallized, although the French islands make theirs from sugar-cane juice. Spring water - in Barbados it is filtered through coral rock - is then added and it is left to ferment. After distilling, more fresh water is added to what is now a colorless liquid of almost 95 percent alcohol, and it is poured into oak barrels to slowly mature; the best rum is stored for at least 7 years. The golden color develops from the secret ingredients added by the master blender, which may include vanilla, almond extract, caramel, or older types of rum, combined with the smoked interior of the barrel, which are often recycled Bourbon whiskey barrels. It remains colorless when kept for a short time in stainless steel barrels.
Many of the islands have their own rum factories with their own brand that they are fiercely proud of. For example, Barbados, where it all began, has Mount Gay and Cockspur; Trinidad has Angostura; and Martinique produces several kinds, including Trois Rivières and St Clément.
Keeping up naval morale
For sailors in the British Royal Navy, rum was an important ingredient in their daily rations - it helped keep them upright in stormy seas and raised morale. But they were extremely upset in 1731 when Admiral Vernon ordered that the spirit should be diluted with water. This concoction was disparagingly called a “grog” after the admiral, whose nickname had been Old Grog because he always wore a cloak of a coarse material called grogram.
Since then rum has been diluted with a wide variety of juices and mixers, creating some wonderful cocktails and punches. However in the rum shops on islands such as Trinidad and Barbados (where you will find one in most villages) rum is drunk neat or “on the rocks.” A rum shop is not merely a bar; it is a village store, a community center, an arena for fiercely competitive domino-playing, a place where tongues are loosened, politics discussed, and rumors spread. “Man, leh we fire one on that!” is the exhortation prompted by a happy event.
It is still largely the province of men: “Men in de rum shop; women in de church,” so the saying goes. And Lord Byron may have been thinking along the same lines when he wrote,“There’s nought no doubt so much the spirit calms/as rum and true religion.”
An old advert for Clement Rum Distillery, which still operates on Martinique today.