Caribbean cuisine is a rich and complex tapestry of flavors, ingredients and influences. As a strategically important part of the globe during the age of exploration, the Caribbean was an ever-changing crossroads of trade among a variety of mercenary European nations and North America. As a rich agricultural location, it demanded labor, which was first provided by enslaved Africans, and subsequently by Indians, Chinese and Arabs attracted by jobs and commerce.
It's no exaggeration to describe the area as one of the world's most varied and densely woven melting pots, colonized and developed by European nations including Spain, France, Portugal, Britain, the Netherlands and Denmark. The western hemisphere had its imprint as well: Latin countries bordering the Caribbean sea, from Mexico in the north to Venezuela in the south, exchanged language, people and culinary customs with the region, as did the young United States, especially in a mutual exchange of Creole and Cajun influence. The native Carib, Taíno and Arawak influence also lingers, despite the populations being nearly wiped out by Europeans. Famously, barbecue derives from barbacoa, a Taíno and/or Arawak word describing the raised frame of sticks they used for roasting meat.
With over 30 nations and territories scattered in a million square miles of ocean, the Caribbean offers a delectable and varied blend of cuisines in which many ingredients, techniques and dishes recur in various iterations on multiple islands. Because most islands traded hands over the course of centuries, each one has its own peculiar history informing the menu.
For example, St. Croix in the US Virgin Islands has been under the flag of seven nations--Spain, England, The Netherlands, France, the Knights of Malta, Denmark and the United States--so an overlapping catalog of cuisines is inevitable. While all islands trace heritage to multiple sources, some are a bit incongruous, such as Saint Martin/Sint Maarten which is divided between France and the Netherlands, and St. Lucia, where the daily language is English but the language in the home is French Creole.
Marla Jadoonanan, from Trinidad and Tobago, has been serving her native fare at Marla's Caribbean Cuisine, the Minneapolis restaurant she founded in 2005. "On my island we have a lot of the Creole traditions," she says. "Indians came as indentured workers, we have those traditions, along with some Latin flavors, some French flavors, also Syrian, Portuguese, and of course African influence. And we can't forget the Chinese. Most of them came down to work the shops and sell goods. They created some of the best Chinese food in the world."
LANGUAGE SUGGESTS CULTURAL HERITAGE
The language heritage of each island illuminates the food traditions. Spanish, English and French are the dominant languages today, with Dutch surviving on a handful of smaller islands such as Curaçao and Aruba.
Spanish-speaking communities such as Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic reveal a dominant Mediterranean Spanish influence, notable in the use of rice, the technique of frying, and the technique of sofrito, a sautéed flavor base incorporating bell peppers, tomatoes, onions and garlic. Guadeloupe and Martinique, both overseas departments of France, embrace such dishes as gratins, boudin (sausage), and traditional baguettes and pastries.
Although Jamaica was initially colonized by Spain, it was seized by the English in 1655, which retained control until Jamaica's independence in 1962. Robert Bryant, a Portland, Oregon-based chef and caterer specializing in Caribbean and Jamaican dining, says, "in Britain, the miners would go down in the mines with Cornish pasties--meat wrapped in dough. They could carry it in their pocket and not come back up for lunch." Today, patties are a universal snack in Jamaica, and they're also beloved in the Virgin Islands and other English-speaking islands, where they're filled with beef, chicken, lobster, conch or salt fish. Their close cousins, empanadas, are popular street snacks in Cuba and Puerto Rico. "Cooking is like a history of the world," marvels Bryant.
Consider curry, a signature dish of the Caribbean. When slavery was abolished in the 1800s, vast numbers of indentured Indians arrived to work on sugar plantations, bringing their food culture with them, and today curry dishes are ubiquitous throughout the region--nowhere more than on Trinidad and Tobago, where people of Indian descent comprise the country's largest ethnic group.
Jadoonanan points out that spice mix and technique vary regionally in curry. "In Guyana their curry is closer to traditional Indian. Trinidad and Tobago have a really different mix, it's really flavorful more than being hot. Everything marries together, so you don't just taste one ingredient. And it's a different technique of cooking as well. In Jamaica for example, they just marinate their food with the curry, then put it in the pot. In Trinidad you have to make a curry paste that you cook in a little bit of oil for a nice roasted flavor before you add your proteins to it."
Curry in Guadeloupe and Martinique, both overseas departments of France, has a distinctly French accent. Called Colombo, probably after the capital of Sri Lanka from which many immigrants originated, the blend of spices has its own distinct Creole character, mild and aromatic.
INGREDIENTS REFLECT CULTURES
Ingredients in Caribbean cuisine are a happy hodgepodge of old world and new, punctuated by highly regional ingredients and dishes exclusive to certain places. Native spices such as allspice complement introduced spices like ginger, cinnamon and nutmeg. New-world corn is a starchy staple, ground and cooked into porridge (memorialized by Bob Marley in No Woman No Cry) or thickened into dumplings or a sturdy side dish with roots in African fufu. Pumpkin is another New World staple widely used in the Caribbean.
"African elements came from the enslaved people who came to work the sugar plantations," says Bryant. "They brought lots of their indigenous foods, like callaloo, which is like the collard greens of the Caribbean," along with okra, pigeon peas, plantains, breadfruit, ackee and taro root.
Spaniards introduced other foods, notably coconut, eggplant, chick-peas, cilantro, onions, and garlic. Salt cod has deep roots in the Mediterranean: Spanish, Basque and Portuguese have been harvesting and preserving cod from the North Atlantic for at least five hundred years, and it's been a staple in the Caribbean for several centuries.
Cheese also migrated from Europe onto the Caribbean table. Both Aruba and Curaçao serve keshi yena, a main dish in which a whole Edam cheese is hollowed and stuffed with a savory mixture of shrimp, chicken or beef, then baked. A popular snack in Jamaica is tender brown spiced buns topped with a cheddar-style cheese.
Other commonly used ingredients include plantains, beans, rice, cassava, culantro, bell peppers, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, and locally available meat such as beef, poultry, pork or seafood. Peppers, thyme, onions, scallions, and shallots provide essential flavor foundations.
Sugar was cheap and plentiful--besides supplying the region and the world with rum, it also enabled European dessert traditions to flourish, such as flan, crème brullee, and English puddings. Sweet creamy drinks derive from the colonial traditions of milk punch. Eggnog is popular year-round in St. Croix, where they also concoct a similar seaweed-based drink called seamoss; Puerto Rico embraces a rich, creamy spiced coconut milk-rum liquor called coquito around the holidays, whose tasty cousin is called punch coco in the French Caribbean.
CULINARY FUSION CONTINUES
Today, the culinary fusion continues. "Jamaica is the home of jerk, which was not popular in other islands back in the day, but now it's very popular: everyone is copying each other," says Jadoonanan. "There's just always been a great fusion of different cultures that come together in any one dish."