Served on a Multicultural Platter: The Delights of Caribbean Cuisine

[Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.] Veronica Stoddart (Discover Silversea) reports on the multicultural roots of Caribbean cuisine. Read full article for full descriptions of examples of Caribbean cuisine’s African, Indigenous, Spanish, French, British, Dutch, and East Indian heritage. [Yes, she had me at bacalaitos!]

As vibrant and varied as the islands themselves, Caribbean cuisine is a tantalizing, multi-faceted stew of the many cultures and heritages that have shaped this dynamic region. When Columbus landed in the West Indies, he encountered the native foods of the indigenous peoples. The successive waves of settlers and laborers that followed — West Africans, Spanish, French, British, Dutch, and East Indians — added their own culinary influences to the region’s bubbling melting pot.

[. . .] Two imports, in particular, run like a culinary leitmotif throughout the islands: cod fish and sugar. Nothing transformed the cuisine of the Caribbean as much as dried and salted cod, brought to the islands centuries ago by English ships from the North Atlantic. Today, you can sample it in everything from Jamaican ackee and saltfish, to Barbadian codfish cakes to ubiquitous cod fritters, called accras de morue in the French West Indies and bacalaitos in Puerto Rico.

Meanwhile, nothing transformed the region’s agriculture as much as sugar cane, which became a profitable plantation crop on virtually all the islands for its cherished by-products: sugar, rum, and molasses. King Sugar revolutionized the Caribbean socially, politically, and economically and gave way to a myriad of sweet treats from candied tropical fruits and brown sugar fudges to coconut patties and Creole candies. And it sweetened a cornucopia of delectable local fruits — mango, guava, tamarind, coconut, soursop, passion fruit, papaya, and pineapple — in ice creams, sherbets, and custards. Over time, rum became almost synonymous with the Caribbean, where distilleries range from small batch to ultra-modern. You can go rum tasting to sample signature brands in the Bahamas, Barbados, Grenada, Jamaica, Martinique, Puerto Rico, and St. Maarten. And you can swoon over such desserts as moist dense rum cake, a specialty of the Cayman Islands, and banana pudding with hot rum sauce most anywhere.

Indigenous Heritage

Caribbean cuisine began long before Columbus’s arrival. Native Arawak and Carib Indians were cooking with chili peppers to season and preserve their foods. Spicy-hot chilies have remained a staple of the Caribbean diet, turning up the heat in the region’s many varieties of salsa, which means “sauce” in Spanish. Each island boasts its preferred hot sauce, often starring indigenous Scotch bonnet peppers. You can pick up a bottle to add zest to your cooking at home.

Other New World crops favored by the indigenous people, such as pumpkin, papaya, corn, cassava, and sweet potatoes, are still an essential part of West Indian cuisine. For example, the cassava flatbread that is eaten throughout the region, called bammy on Jamaica, originated with the Arawaks. And the signature Caribbean soup, pepperpot, also harks back to the Arawaks. Flavored with cassareep, from the juice of the bitter cassava plant, this hearty meat stew has as many versions as there are islands. In the twin-island nation of Antigua and Barbudafungee (cornmeal and okra balls) and pepperpot is the national dish. Another Amerindian tradition that has defined the Caribbean is barbecue, from the Taino word barbacoa for grilling on a raised wooden grate. Jerk, the region’s iconic method of smoke-grilling seasoned pork, chicken, or fish over green pimento, or allspice, wood, originated with the Tainos (an Arawak subgroup) in Jamaica and was later adopted by African slaves. These days, fiery jerked meat spiked with incendiary Scotch bonnet peppers shows up everywhere from humble roadside firepits to sophisticated seaside restaurants throughout the Caribbean.

African Heritage

The Africans who came to the West Indies as enslaved people brought with them the tastes and foods of their homelands. They adapted the West African staple foo-foo, which is cooked and crushed cassava, yam, or plantain, into cou-cou, a cornmeal dish with okra popular in Barbados. And they turned it into mofongo, a beloved Puerto Rican side dish made of fried mashed green plantains, mashed garlic, and crunchy chicharrón, or pork cracklings.

West Indian dokono or dokunu — grated corn, sugar, and other ingredients steamed in a banana leaf — became the corn and sweet potato dumpling called duckanoo in Jamaica, conkie in Barbados, and ducana in Antigua, St. Kitts and Nevis, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Callaloo, a native West African dish made from the heart-shaped leaves of the taro, or dasheen, plant, was transplanted into a flavorful, spinach-like soup widely eaten from Grenada and St. Lucia to Jamaica, St. Vincent, and Dominica, where it’s the national dish. Ackee, a savory African fruit that resembles scrambled eggs when cooked, is combined with dried and salted cod fish (there it is, again!), peppers, onions, and spices to make Jamaica’s national dish: ackee and salt fish. Finally, what Caribbean meal is complete without quintessential rice and peas flavored with unsweetened coconut milk? Originating in West Africa, this Creole dish may feature pigeon peas, black-eyed peas, kidney beans, black beans, and even yellow lentils, and go by the name of rice and peas (Jamaica), peas and rice (the other English-speaking islands), riz au z’yeux noirs (Martinique and Guadeloupe), and arroz con gandules (Puerto Rico).

Spanish Heritage

As the first colonizing country in the Caribbean, Spain left its imprint early on. That lingering influence can be seen in the Silversea destinations of San Juan, Puerto Rico; Cartagena, Colombia; and the Colombian island of San Andrés. Spanish-inspired food is evident throughout these former colonies of Spain.

Consider the rustic stew adored in Puerto Rico and Colombia called sancocho, which derives from the Spanish dish known as cocido. It’s made with chunks of stewed meat or fish, a hearty broth, and local plantains, yucca, and corn. Pork, which was introduced by the Spaniards, shows up as Puerto Rico’s signature lechón asado, or roast suckling pig. Asopao de pollo, a chicken and rice stew, takes its inspiration from Spanish paella. The traditional Puerto Rican dessert, coconut custard tembleque, adds coconut to the classical Spanish flan.

Puerto Ricans can thank the Spaniards for two of their most prized seasonings. Sofrito, the essential base of many local dishes, features ingredients originally brought from Spain — black pepper, onion, garlic, cilantro, and olive oil — married with local peppers and tomatoes. And an ancient Spanish vinegar-based meat seasoning became adobo, the garlic-, oregano- and onion-infused wet or dry rub used generously on the island. [. . .]

Continue reading for more on Caribbean cuisine’s French, British, Dutch, and East Indian heritage at

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