Gary Noakes samples the diverse flavours of the region, liberally seasoned with myriad influences from cultures and cuisines around the world
Food is a major part of the charm of the Caribbean, with each island serving its own specialities, be it saltfish, jerk chicken or rice and peas.
These are dishes passed down through the generations and shaped by the region’s myriad cultures and influences. One destination that sums up the evolution of Caribbean cuisine is Trinidad and Tobago. Here, generations of sailors and refugees from as far away as the Middle East and China have left their mark on the local food scene. An example is the popular street snack Doubles, a variation on the Indian chana dal or curried chickpeas topped with spicy chutneys.
Influences like this mean Caribbean food is not all fish and seafood, but it is this that will probably beckon first. One dish that might be under the radar is conch, a giant whelk-like mollusc found particularly in the Bahamas, and Turks and Caicos. You will also find it in the Cayman Islands where there is an incredible array of local fresh seafood available. Here, it is served in stews, soups and fritters and often presented as a ceviche – raw slices marinated in lime juice with other flavours. Other seafood options include Cayman-style lobster and Wahoo – a sweet, succulent white fish of the mackerel family. There’s also lionfish, an invasive species, which following chef Thomas Tennant’s innovation (upon hearing that lionfish were becoming a problem around Grand Cayman, he turned them into a delicacy) is now in high demand with local chefs and restaurants.
Back on land, another local staple is ackee, Jamaica’s national fruit, which traces its origins to Ghana and the slave trade and is an integral part of saltfish cuisine. Saltfish and many other Caribbean dishes get their heat from another key ingredient, the Scotch bonnet chilli pepper, which, despite its name, is native to the Caribbean and is also called bonney pepper, or just plain Caribbean red peppers. Beware, they are anything but plain.
When it comes to meat dishes, Cuba is perhaps an anomaly in the region in that limited boat ownership means many restaurants are more likely to major in meat dishes. The growing number of paladares – restaurants set up in private homes – mean excellent home cooking is now widely available. Goat in curried form is another Caribbean staple and one that made its way from Asia. It is widely served in the region and is a particular Jamaican favourite.
The islands attract an upmarket clientele, and where there is demand, it is attended to in style. Try Gary Rhodes’ restaurant at Calabash in Grenada, or Daphne’s in Barbados, sister establishment to that in London’s Kensington.
Whatever your tastes or budget, the islands will cater for you.