Caribbean cuisine is a diverse subject. The food is an incredible blending of tropical flavors and multicultural influences that have been refined over centuries. It is a celebration of aromatic, sweet, tart, piquant, and mild citrus flavors. To understand and appreciate it, you must first understand the history behind the food.
In 1492, Christopher Columbus discovered the islands of the Caribbean, an area spanning from 10˚ north of the equator to the Tropic of Cancer, and encompassing more than 7,000 islands. For the better part of four and a half centuries, all the islands fell under European domination and slavery. However, today, many islands are self-governing countries.
The Definitive Fusion Cuisine
Whatever their colonial past, a cuisine common to all of the islands of the Caribbean has developed because of the influx of ingredients and cooking styles of the European, Asian, African, and Indian slave cultures and the seasonings shared by all of the islands. European colonists introduced many foods now synonymous with Caribbean cuisine such as breadfruit, oranges, limes, mangoes, rice, coffee, and sugar cane. Although the Netherlands, Denmark, and the United States have owned Caribbean islands; Spain, France, and England have been the major colonial powers, and therefore the strongest influence on the cuisine of the Caribbean.
St. Martin, Martinique, and Guadeloupe are a few of the islands that use French cooking methods and styles. One very popular cooking style associated with the French is Creole—a term first used to describe the people or foods of mixed French, African, and Eastern origin. Creole cooking is characterized by the use of local ingredients, including herbs, meats, poultry, fish, and shellfish that are cooked with various tropical fruits as well as vegetables, rice, tomatoes, sweet peppers, and onions.
Shortly after the settlement of the Caribbean islands, the English successfully imported and grew a great variety of vegetables, herbs, and fruit trees including limes, tamarind, pomegranates, lemons, rosemary, thyme, marjoram, parsley, tarragon, sage, and garlic. The English are responsible for introducing potatoes, bacon and eggs, roast beef, pancakes, sponge cakes, rice pudding, kidney pie, Irish stew, Yorkshire pudding, smoked herring, and hot cross buns to Caribbean cuisine. Along with their culinary traditions, the Englishmen brought their servants and indentured workers. Extra labor was frequently sought, which resulted in the sharing of ideas on planting, recipes, and remedies. During the 1640s, many English plantations planted cane sugar in place of tobacco, marking a period of unprecedented prosperity of both wealth and culinary pleasures.
The Caribbean’s Spanish heritage is evident in the variety of characteristically Spanish food preparations used in Costa Rica, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic and throughout the Caribbean today. Paella and Zarzuela, both traditional Spanish dishes, are commonly prepared in the Caribbean. Many dishes on the Spanish-speaking islands include rice and shellfish. Many pungent variations of barbecued pork, chicken, and fish are roasted over open fires called barbacoa. Jerk, a popular method of barbecuing well-seasoned pork, chicken and fish, is now a thriving fast-food industry in Jamaica.
Europeans brought an entire culture of slavery to the Caribbean. Using okra, callaloo (a green leafy vegetable), taro, akee (Jamaica’s national dish), and pungent seasoning and spicing essential to make poor foods palatable, the African slave developed a style of cooking that is basic to Caribbean food. Soups and other one-pot hearty meals were the mainstay of the plantation slaves who relied on only one dish for their daily nutrition. Vital to Caribbean cuisine, soups are a reminder of the Caribbean’s humble origins.
Asian and Oriental Influences
After the emancipation of the slaves, many indentured servants were imported from the Asia and India. Like the African slaves, these servants broadened the culinary scope of the Caribbean to include Indonesian foods, curries, and other spices not yet introduced to the islands. Other culinary influences of the servants were the use of Chinese vegetables and the popularity of the roti (a flat Indian bread). Many dishes of Caribbean cuisine are served with cooked vegetables and white rice—introduced to the islands by Asian immigrants in the nineteenth century. Today rice is often combined with a variety of legumes, which are staples of the island’s cuisine.