Caribbean Culinary Styles

Photo credit: © Nina Ricci Fedotova |

When it comes to cooking styles, each island of the Caribbean has its own unique variation on the Caribbean norm.

An island's colonial heritage can certainly have an effect on its style of cuisine; in the French West Indies, for example, you're likely to encounter both classic and modern French cuisine as well as fine wines from Bordeaux and Burgundy. But you can also find regional favorites with a local twist: a rum specialty or a tropical fruit dessert, for instance, may be featured alongside traditional "old world" items. Chefs in the Caribbean will often infuse old world cuisine with local specialties and Creole flair.  

One of the common cooking methods that exists throughout the majority of the islands in the region is the use of the Coal Pot (also known as Coal Stove and Dutch Pot).  For locals, this tool serves as the primary means of food preparation for generations.  What is it?  A Coal Pot has the appearance of a dutch oven with grill irons atop it.  Inside the pot is where the coals are placed and lit, providing a low heat to cook whatever food is placed on top of the irons.  This style of food preparation means slow cooking, but there is a smoky flavor and tenderness to the food when it is completed cooking.  

On Land and in the Sea

Seafood is a huge source of sustenance in the Caribbean. Specialties include flying fish in Barbados, conch in the Bahamas, shark in Aruba, and saltfish in Jamaica. Red snapper, mahi mahi, and grouper are also common catches throughout the region, as are various shellfish. Each country seems to have its own popular marinade for fried and baked fish, but recipes for seafood found throughout the Caribbean include soups and stews, stuffed shellfish, and fritters.

Other sources of protein in the Caribbean include chicken, pork, beef, goat, and lamb. Poultry is the most economical choice of meat, so it is widely found in dishes throughout the region. Pork and beef can be found most especially in Spanish islands, and goat and lamb is the least common, usually eaten curried in Jamaica or Trinidad and Tobago.

From the Earth

Though the topography of some Caribbean islands, such as Turks and Caicos, does not promote the healthy growth of produce, the majority of countries are quite fruitful in the production of fruits and vegetables. Most people know about coconuts, mangoes, papayas, bananas, oranges, apples, figs, and pomegranate, but there are also a number of fruits grown in the Caribbean that are too delicate to export, and thus often unknown around the world. Sopadilla, soursop, loquat, monstera, cherimoya, and mamey sapote are a few such fruits. Islanders use fruits as snacks, in blended beverages, in juices, and in desserts (coconut especially). As far as vegetables are concerned, starchy root vegetables and gourds such as sweet potatoes, yams, pumpkins, calabaza, and chayote are easily harvested, as are okra, tomatoes, pepper, cucumbers, onions, and a variety of beans.

A Dash of Flavor

Spices, seasonings, and marinades are really the key to separating Caribbean dishes from those that vacationers are used to back home. Jamaican jerk spice is a spicy rub used mainly on chicken and pork; Mojo isleño is a sauce of olive oil, olives, pimientos, onions, capers, garlic, bay leaves, and tomato sauce used for marinating seafood in Puerto Rico, while Con coco is a coconut, garlic, and tomato sauce is used on fish in the Dominican Republic. Of all the Caribbean nations, the Bahamas are most proud of their signature seasoning, which island chefs spent years perfecting. Bajan Seasoning is a mixture of fresh herbs and spices including thyme, marjoram, parsley, basil, clove, black pepper, paprika, salt, and onions, garlic, and spring onions. All though chilies are a popular way to season a dish in the Caribbean, and many people associate island foods with spicy seasonings, this is not always the case. When you do come across a dish that is too spicy for your tastes, sipping on a glass of milk, or eating a slice of bread and butter will help to squelch the burning sensation in your mouth.

Sip on This

...juices or smoothies made from the area's locally harvested fruits.

Drinks in the Caribbean are exactly what one might expect: fruity and ice cold. If the typical ice water, iced tea, or soda just isn't doing it for you on your island stay, sample juices or smoothies made from the area's locally harvested fruits. A slightly different non-alcoholic beverage in the Dominican Republic is Malta Moreno, a sweet, molasses-based beverage that is brewed in a similar fashion to beer, but has the sweet taste of a soda. Coconut water or milk is another choice, but for something a little stronger you can't go wrong with rum; at least that is what most islanders would tell you. Rum may as well be the official regional drink of the Caribbean, because every country not only serves it, but has their own set of mixed drinks that feature it. Beers, tequila, gin, and vodka can also be found in abundance.

On top of these local specialties, visitors can easily find meals that they are more accustomed to. Because the islands are such big tourist destinations, international cuisine is just as prevalent (if not more so) as local fare in most places. Whatever your tastes, and no matter how adventurous you want to be when it comes to experimenting local fare, your taste buds will not be disappointed with the foods presented to them in the Caribbean.


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