The Caribbean is known as a 'melting pot' of flavors for a reason. With a blend of influences from European, Cajun, African, Indian, and Asian cultures, it's no wonder that the result is a West Indies cuisine that delights the senses and soothes the soul.
Traveling through the Caribbean makes travelers privy to some of the very best flavors in the world. A tropical vacation is more than just beaches in this region - it's an experience that's bound to thrill all five of one's senses. For the sake of this food guide, we're starting with food: here's everything future travelers should know about Caribbean cuisine, no matter which island they're lucky enough to visit.
What Does 'Caribbean' Food Mean, Exactly?
By nature, food in the Caribbean speaks to a variety of cultures. On any given day, the fresh catch could be something that hails from Jamaican origins or features a spice blend unique to India - whatever it might be, it's something that can be found uniquely in this set of islands. While the Caribbean is home to many hotels and resorts that do have a Caribbean-inspired menu, one often needs to jump off the beaten path (or make a reservation outside of the resort) in order to find authentic Caribbean flavors.
To be specific, these flavors include these influences:
- Latin American
- South Asian
- Middle Eastern
Imagining all of these fused together seems as though it would be overwhelming, but that's the beauty of the Caribbean - each flavor is highlighted through a dish that's locally sourced, creating a balanced blending of cuisines.
Some of those ingredients one will find used in many dishes in the Caribbean include:
- Bell peppers
- Sweet potatoes
More often than not, most dishes will feature one or more of these ingredients. They're essentially the earmarks of authentic Caribbean cuisine!
What Are The Best Caribbean Dishes?
While it's fun to learn the history of a specific cuisine, it's even more fun to experience the flavors of its most popular dishes. Depending on which Caribbean island one visits, they'll find dishes that are beloved in that region; for example, flying fish and cou cou is the national dish of Barbados. Jerk, the seasoning made popular by Jamaica, is also the backbone of much of its most popular dishes. A common misconception is that food across the Caribbean is the same, and it's not. While Jerk chicken is common in Jamaica, visitors will also find stews, soups, vegetables and rice, and local desserts once they venture outside of their resort or hotel.
Along with Jerk seasoning, travelers will find commonly-used ingredients such as Scotch Bonnet peppers, curry, sazón, mojo, djon djon, and Colombo. Coconut milk is another thing that's employed daily in Caribbean kitchens, seen most commonly in curries.
Dutch Caribbean Foods
In the Dutch Caribbean, which includes the Antilles, Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao, and St. Maarten, the flavors are reminiscent of European, Spanish, Dutch, African, and Amerindian flavors - French, Chinese, English, and Indian influences came much later, according to Uncommon Caribbean.
The most popular dishes that came from this fusion are Funchi, cornmeal mush as a side, pan bati or 'beaten bread,' Saltfish, goat meat (usually in stew form), and Keshi Yena, a popular Dutch-style cheese casserole.
Spanish Caribbean Food
This is the cuisine that most people are probably familiar with thanks to its heavy Taino Indian influences combined with Latin flavors and ingredients. The countries that sport this style of food include the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and Cuba, most notably.
The base of many of these foods is citrus, spices, and peppers. Some of the most popular foods visitors should keep an eye out for include barbacoa (Caribbean-style BBQ), lechón which is a pork roast, empanadas, Arroz con Grandules, chicarrón, and, of course, a myriad of plantain-based dishes.
French Caribbean Food
The West Indies is home to a creative cuisine that's found in St. Martin, St. Barts, Martinique, and the Guadalupe Islands. This cuisine is inspired by the culinary masterpieces that have made traditional - and modern - French cuisine what it is today, giving these islands a culinary edge when it comes to nuanced flavors.
Those visiting these islands can expect to see some of the same things that one might find in France, with an island twist, including foie gras, Beof Bourguignon, Flamiche, pain au chocolat, baguettes, and other French delicacies such as wine, champagne, and French Creole cuisine. The latter includes fresh seafood such as lobster, Mahi, crayfish, sea urchin, tuna, and the like.
Haitian Caribbean cuisine is also found near French Caribbean territories but has its own unique style, influences, and history altogether. Popular dishes such as Haitian Lambi Creole and Soup Joumou are widely celebrated throughout Haiti, with heavy African influences.
English Caribbean Food
The most well-known Caribbean cuisine is that of Jamaica, but this cuisine is also found on islands such as St. Croix and Trinidad. With Jamaica's Jerk spice, Jamaican patties, and Pickapeppa Sauce, there are plenty of flavors to be had throughout the island. Trinidad lays claim to dishes such as Trini Roti, Curry Chicken, and Solo soda, while St. Croix is known for Pates, Fish and Fungi, and Johnny Cakes.
While the cuisine of the Caribbean is far more encompassing than this, it opens up a world of flavor to those who choose to explore it. Each island has its own authentic twist on the influences that have shaped it, and each one is worthy of experiencing.