Most travelers know of Jamaica as home to jerk and jackfruit and Barbados as home to cou cou, and yet there is so much more to the cuisine of the region. As you make your plans to visit any of the Caribbean islands, it is a good idea to become familiar with some of the iconic and must-try dishes, as well as any unusual items that are well worth the effort of scouting out.
As one expert said, with “unique flavors, colors, textures and smells, Caribbean cuisine is delicious and plentiful. The fusions of spices, herbs and seasonings, in addition to the range of ingredients that are grown on the islands, make for mouth-watering and filling eats.”
The Regional Favorites
If you are like a lot of fellow travelers, you might make a point of finding the most common dishes whenever you are in a specific region, and try them in several spots. For instance, go to a restaurant frequented by locals, find a four-star or gourmet spot that does a variation of the dish, and then even take time to scout out a street food vendor offering the dish.
In the Caribbean, this approach to sampling regional fare is ideal and easily done because even some Michelin star restaurants put their spin on the island classics. With that in mind, keep an eye open for your opportunities to sample:
Ackee and Saltfish
This is a yellow and slightly sweet fruit that combines perfectly with the saltiness of codfish. It is often mixed with onions and peppers and is a classic breakfast or brunch dish.
Quite plainly, you will find it everywhere. It can be made into fritters but is also served in soups, stews, and even salads. It is a staple of the Cayman Islands, and if you get a chance to sample just one thing during a visit to the Caribbean, some conch fritters (along with a signature island cocktail) is the perfect choice.
This is a side dish that you will probably crave long after returning home. It has its origins in West Africa, where slaves brought the spinach-like vegetable to the region. The leaves are cooked down into a thick stew and then ingredients, as varied as meat or seafood along with peppers, okra, and coconut milk, are added. A puree like texture makes it a wonderful accompaniment to almost any main course.
This is a dish made of flying fish and is considered the national dish of Barbados. It involves steaming or stewing the fish with a variety of herbs and vegetables. The cou cou is also served with a polenta-like grain, and you will encounter scores of different versions.
These are fish cakes that are dense with flavor and remarkably popular in every part of the Caribbean. What you will find is that most are crispy and deep-fried, but each varies with the flavor and texture of the end result. Some add lots of herbs and spice while others keep things rather tame and lean on the batter and buttery texture of the fish.
A lot of travelers feel less than enthusiastic about this dish, but it compares a great deal to lamb when it is stewed and slow-cooked. The meat is cooked in a blend of unusual herbs and spices, leaving a very unique flavor and a lot of room for chefs to experiment. You will find it served over rice and peas or with potatoes as a side dish. While you see it incredibly often in Jamaica, it appears on all of the islands and is actually inspired by dishes brought by Asian migrants to the region.
While you can get almost any meat served with jerk seasoning, chicken is the classic. It will range from the ultra-fiery thanks to the use of Scotch Bonnet peppers, to the tamer flavor that relies on spices like nutmeg to give it a bit of kick. The spice blends and the fiery peppers tenderize the meat, and it will then be barbecued or roasted to make the flavors brighter and more intense and the texture more succulent. There is a diversity of flavors used, and you may find one establishment offering a different approach to jerk seasoning based on the meat being prepared or served. However, most travelers should try the jerk chicken as often as they find it available.
Every island has a diversity of recipes in which a flaky pastry dough is filled with any number of ingredients and then baked or fried to perfection. You will find them stuffed with beef or with saltfish, as well as pork or even vegetables. They are consumed as snacks or appetizers and are a fantastic treat when you find them available from a street food vendor.
There is also an almost endless number of variations on this thick and delicious stew. It can feature eggplant and squash, potatoes and peppers, but it will frequently use whatever is in season. There is also a meat added to the mixture, and it is typically beef that gives a bit of bulk. The dish is usually served or even topped with cornmeal dumplings known as fungi, which gives it a heartiness you may not expect from Caribbean cooking.
This may be less widespread as some of the other dishes, but is still a popular food you will find in lots of areas. Because there has been an influx of Indian migrants to the region, their roti or flatbreads, are a common side dish. There are four kinds and all feature ground up split peas added to a bread-like dough for a tasty and dense bread ideal for topping with many meats and stews.
There are also a lot of other iconic dishes that are more specialized in the islands. Green figs and saltfish, for example, are a popular dish on St Lucia. If you book a luxury villa in any of the Caribbean islands, ask about the most popular dishes and where you can sample them. Chances are you’ll get a lot of suggestions and some memorable meals.