The Caribbean islands possess all manner of rich stories to tell about their history. From battling European empires, pirates and lawlessness to the spice trade and the slave trade, these islands have seen it all.
But aside from being a paradisiacal holiday destination where soft white beaches stretch as far as the eye can see and the azure waters lap gently onto the shore, there is also a thriving gastronomy scene there which differs from island to island. This culinary culture gives subtle clues to the cultural history of each place as well as the European empires that squabbled over them for so long.
Great Britain, France, Portugal, Spain, and the Netherlands have all contested the Caribbean islands over the centuries and today, some parts are still officially part of the European Union via historical ties as territories and dependencies.
As a result, with the plethora of exotic ingredients available, an indigenous culture with its own gastronomical tradition as well as the huge European and African influence, it’s no wonder that in the 21st century it’s such an amazing experience to dine out in the Caribbean.
Modern nations with something ancient in common
As old as human civilisation itself is our shared love of cooking and eating. It has always been more than just sustaining our bodies in order to stay alive. Spices, seasonings and salts date back thousands of years BCE to add variations to the flavour of the food ancient peoples ate. In fact, it was the search for new spices that helped to lead to the New World being discovered.
Here though, the Arawak, Carib, and Taino indigenous peoples were the first dwellers in the Caribbean Islands. It is thought that their daily diet would have consisted largely of vegetables and tropical fruits such as papaya, yams, guavas, and cassava.
The Taino people began the process of preparing meat and fish in large clay pots and the Carib Indians introduced spices and lemon juice to their meat and fish recipes.
The key (but also largely sinister) moment in the evolution of Caribbean cuisine was the Europeans bringing African slaves to the islands so that in effect, the Caribbean became the crossroads to the rest of the world.
The slaves’ diet was mostly food that the slave owners did not want to eat, so the slaves had to be inventive with what was available to them. They blended their traditional African foods with staple foods found on the islands, introducing okra, callaloo, fish cakes, saltfish, ackee, pudding, and mangos. Today, most Caribbean Island natives eat a diet that comes from these main ingredients found in original African dishes.
"Caribbean cuisine is an experience through taste and flavours that features the history, people and each culture represented in the region that leaves you wanting more." – Chef Andre Fowles
Were you to think of "typical Caribbean food" you may immediately conjure up images of rice and peas plus all manner of tropical fruits, rice, plantains, beans, chickpeas, sweet potatoes, coconuts, and fish – all things found across the islands. But though you would be right to a certain degree, it is more nuanced than that. So, tuck your napkin in, loosen your belt and sit comfortably, because this brief history of Caribbean gastronomy may just leave you licking your fingers.
Yam Yam, Jamaica’s more than just Jerk Chicken!
For our first stop, let us visit the island of Jamaica. Many people visit Jamaica for its rich history, stunning beaches, wonderful climate, relaxed atmosphere, and diverse culture in cities like Kingston or Spanish Town.
It is here that you can find a restaurant or a café and sit down to enjoy some "ackee" and codfish.
Ackee and salt codfish is Jamaica’s national dish, and an interesting and delicious dish at that. Ackee was brought to Jamaica in the 18th century and grows all over the island, hanging in pod clusters from the tree.
To be eaten it requires some timing because the fruit is poisonous if eaten too soon before it is ripe. The fruit in the pod resembles a small walnut and bursts open when it is ripe revealing a black seed inside. Once open, the fruit surrounding the black seed is extracted and prepared, slightly resembling scrambled eggs when it has done.
If you enjoyed your ackee, make sure you also try "bammy". It is a thick and starchy vegetable that is often sliced, fried, and eaten for breakfast in bread-like cakes, but can be had at any time of day. Passed down by Jamaica’s original inhabitants the Arawaks, this dietary staple is made from grated cassava root that is dipped in coconut milk then fried until golden. Try it with honey or jam for extra pleasure!
If you have been to the West Country in England, it is likely you will have eaten pasties. Well, although Jamaica can seem like a million miles away from Truro or Penzance, there is a direct culinary link!
The famous Jamaican patty is a direct descendant of the Cornish pasty brought to the island by Cornish sailors. It is essentially the same thing – a pastry turnover filled with spice meat and vegetables. Sound familiar?
Last but certainly not least, perhaps the most famous dish in Jamaica is "Jerk Chicken". This traditional Jamaican dish is aromatic, smoky, and is usually served hot and spicy.
The chicken is first marinated or dry-rubbed with the cook’s concoction of jerk spices that can include ginger, garlic, cloves, cinnamon, and hot peppers. Then it is slow cooked on an open grill over hot coals made from native wood. You will find it on the menu at restaurants all over the island, but for extra authenticity, it is a gastronomical speciality when cooked up as street food!
Where to stay in Jamaica?
If it is great food you are looking for as well as genuine luxury and relaxation, we recommend staying at the all-inclusive Jamaica Inn in the town of Ocho Rios.
With a 5-star rating on TripAdvisor, this hotel takes your stay on the island extremely seriously, right up to the cuisine you try. The restaurant at Jamaica Inn offers a wide range of creative, sophisticated dishes, made from locally sourced ingredients.
Celebrated chef Maurice Henry‘s culinary creations are a daily highlight as they vary each evening, providing guests with six expertly prepared courses. What is more, every Saturday evening, lobster is served within season.
A small island that packs a big (rum) punch
Although a small island, the cuisine in St Lucia is rich in flavour and history. It is a combination of Creole with French and West Indian influences. There is also a strong British influence in the local cooking with widespread use of cinnamon garlic, nutmeg, cloves, and parsley.
When in St Lucia, although there are many delicious dishes to try in the many well-renowned restaurants all over the island, like langouste, Callaloo (a spinach-like soup), banana cake, breadfruit and traditional Caribbean stews, these are things found on other islands too.
For some gastronomy specific to St Lucia, think "Lambi". Lambi is one of those dishes that you will find most often at street parties on a Friday night and the weekends in St Lucia.
The main ingredient is a large shellfish, called conch. Locals love it and have adopted it as their national dish. Tourists who sample this dish are often pleasantly surprised by the delicious taste of the St Lucian way of preparing the conch shellfish.
The dish is made primarily by cooking small pieces of the conch shellfish in very spicy and well-seasoned sauces.
Secondly, if you are lucky enough to find yourself on this wonderful island, do not go home without trying the St Lucian Bouillon. It is a delicious soup that has lots of ingredients, including dumplings and meat that is all mixed together in a large pot.
Other ingredients in St Lucian bouillon are potatoes, pumpkin, and yam. Generally, pork is used, but many variations of the recipe use lamb, goat meat, beef, or even chicken as an alternative. Lentils or red beans are also included to add thickness to the soup.
A variety of seasonings are also added along with hot pepper, so be warned before digging in! When prepared correctly, St Lucian bouillon makes for a very filling, rustic dinner.
Lastly, each Caribbean island tends to have a particular style of rum that can be guessed by the language spoken there. The English-speaking islands and countries – including St Lucia – are known for darker rums with a fuller taste.
For a variation on the traditional rum flavour, try a glass of St Lucian rum punch. Made with orange juice, lime juice, angostura bitters, cinnamon, nutmeg, and rum, this is a cocktail that is seriously easy to drink.
Where to stay in St Lucia?
Tempted to try some of this delicious St Lucian food and drink? There is no doubt that you will be in paradise whilst staying at Sugar Beach, A Viceroy Resort.
The resort itself spans across 100 acres of rainforest in one of the most remarkable sites in the world, the Valley of the Pitons.
There is something for everyone here, providing a perfect place for both families and honeymooners who want to try the finest local cuisine.
The resort’s beautifully presented personalised tasting menus are available nightly and reflect the cultural influences of an expert culinary team.
The Bayside Restaurant at Sugar Beach is set on the white powder sands of one of the island’s most beautiful beaches, and offers relaxed a la carte dining for lunch and dinner, providing guests with the best, most inventive dishes available on the island.
Antigua and Barbuda
Fitting in with Fungi
The Caribbean island of Antigua was built on food. It runs throughout its whole history. It was originally settled as the site of many sugar plantations and rum distilleries, and in recent years has become a genuine "foodie" destination because of the wealth of seafood in its oceans, the quality rums in its glasses, and the joy its people bring to Antiguan gastronomy.
Firstly, if you want to fit in, Saltfish and "fungi" (pronounced foon-ji) is the Antiguan national dish. Fungi is an Antiguan version of boiled cornmeal, made by forming okra paste into balls. A staple in the Antiguan diet, fungi is frequently served with stews and meats. Saltfish, a salt-cured and flaked white fish, is normally always served with fungi making it a bit of a favourite.
Do black angel-hair fritters sound interesting? Thought so! These flavoursome Antiguan fritters are made with blue crab meat, minced conch, minced vegetables, eggs, baking powder, seasonings, and black angel-hair pasta. The combination of these ingredients is then deep-fried in oil, and the fritters are typically garnished with diced tomatoes and parsley. It is a dish so Antiguan they will think you are a local.
Still got room for dessert? Try the Ducana. Ducana is an Antiguan sweet potato recipe, made by wrapping grated sweet potatoes and coconut in a banana leaf and then steaming the dumpling. Similar in texture to a tamale, Ducana is slightly sweet and spicy, a perfect complement to saltfish or conch. Wash it all down with a local Mauby Fizz and we guarantee you will not be feeling peckish till morning!
Where to stay in Antigua?
The best place to stay in Antigua if you are considering trying the local Antiguan food is Hammock Cove, Antigua. Another hotel with a 5-star rating on TripAdvisor, Hammock Cove offers guests gourmet dining including international cuisine and local favourite dishes alike.
In addition, the wonderful Lighthouse Restaurant is best described as a gastronomic journey led by Executive Chef Marco Festini. His culinary interpretation preserves ancient methods of cooking accented with a forward-thinking culmination of flavours including indulgent classics like Wagyu beef burgers and Caribbean lobster, punctuated by inventive dishes gleaned from his career working alongside Michelin-starred masters.
Sustainably sourced, the evening menu offers gastronomes a wealth of choice, while a daily changing menu is also featured based on what is locally available.
The Caribbean island with very British Christmases
Barbadian cuisine, also called "Bajan" cuisine, is a mixture of African, Portuguese, Indian, Creole, and British influences. A typical Bajan meal consists of a main dish of meat or fish, normally marinated with a mixture of herbs and spices, hot side dishes, and one or more salads.
However, if you are visiting Barbados and you wish to try something that you simply will not find elsewhere, the national dish of Barbados is "cou-cou" served with flying-fish.
Cou-cou is made with cornmeal grain and fresh okra (very similar to polenta), accompanied by savoury stewed flying fish (which are found in surprising abundance in the waters around Barbados), prepared with fresh onion, garlic, thyme, tomatoes, and pepper.
Maybe you would prefer to try some Conkies if Cou-cou is not quite your thing? Conkies are a traditional Barbadian dessert that can normally be sampled around the island’s annual independence celebrations in November. Served wrapped in banana leaves, the primary ingredients are pumpkin, cornmeal, sweet potatoes, and coconut along with local spices.
Next, "pudding and souse" is a Saturday lunch staple in Barbados. The "souse" is essentially pickled pork while the "pudding" is steamed sweet potato mixed with onions, salt, and pepper.
Interestingly, if you are going to be visiting the island around Christmas and find yourself suddenly nostalgic for hearth and home in England, worry not!
Bajan Black Cake is a distant cousin to traditional Figgy pudding that the British brought over! Instead of using brandy, the locals use Bajan rum to give it that extra kick and will also often add fruits such as dried cherries, prunes, and raisins.
And it does not end there. For tourists who hail from north of the border, Jug Jug is actually said to have been derived from haggis and is made up of crushed pigeon peas, mixed up with pork, beef, peppers, corn, onions, thyme and sometimes okra.
"And we won’t go until we’ve got some!"
Where to stay in Barbados?
As you can see, for such a small island, Barbados is home to some amazing culinary delights, and the best way to experience the culinary capital of the Caribbean, as Barbados is sometimes labelled, is to stay at Yellow Bird Hotel.
The restaurant here specialises in deliciously prepared and beautifully presented local Barbadian dishes cooked with ingredients from the local area and the hotel’s own herb garden.
For typical food here, the "All Day Menu" includes Bajan favourites like Fish Cakes and Bakes, Macaroni Pie & Fried Flying Fish, Blackened Mahi Mahi, Festival Jerk Pork, Fried Plantain, as well as Chicken, Ham and Fish Cutters.
Sweet options include mouth-watering Bread Pudding served with a potent Rum Sauce, Cheesecake topped with a seasonal Fresh Fruit Compote and a decadent, rich Chocolate Cake served with warm Ganache.
Where stew is a social art-form
Located at the southern tip of the Windward Islands, just north of Trinidad and Tobago, Grenada is known as the “Island of Spice”, also world-famous for its simply stunning beaches, lush landscape, and turquoise blue waters.
However, just to attribute aesthetic beauty to Grenada is unfair. Its gastronomic scene is thriving too, and a large part of Grenadian national identity is found in its food.
Grenada’s culinary roots are a fascinating mix of African, indigenous Arawak, Indian and British influences. Its rich volcanic soil is also fertile ground for plants such as mauby and "chadon beni", a pungent leafy herb somewhat similar to cilantro.
All do their part to contribute to the unique flavours on this great little island, one of the smallest nations in the world. This little country produces foods with literally thousands of different flavours.
Let us start with the Grenadian national dish; "Oildown". If you spend any time in Grenada and you will soon notice locals walking to beaches whilst carrying gigantic steel pots. It may just pique your interest in what they are up to.
Well, they are cooking a stew packed full of plantain, breadfruit, salted meat, chicken or fish, spices and coconut milk and it is as delicious as it is simple to make.
The unusual name comes from the layer of coconut oil and meat juices that collects in the base of the pot. Making an oildown involves friends and family alike, and this makes it a genuinely social occasion which adds to the fun.
From the person who selects the perfectly ripe breadfruit and knocks it off the tree with a long stick, to the people making the dense, cylindrical dumplings right down to the people packing the massive stew pot, everyone’s involved.
Unlike most stews where the ingredients are stirred and mixed during the cooking process, an oildown is packed in layers and left to simmer undisturbed. How to "pack the pot" is a matter of taste and tradition and everybody has their own opinion and method. Generally speaking, though, the breadfruit and meat go in first, followed by most of the vegetables, then the callaloo leaves and dumplings on top, with the coconut milk going in last.
What do you eat for breakfast? A full English? Cereal? Toast and jam? Maybe you are healthy and eat granola with fruit smoothies. Whatever it is that wakes you up in the morning, we are sure you have never tried "Saltfish Souse".
The popularity of salt cod in Grenada hails back to when fish was preserved in salt to make it survive the long ocean voyages across the Atlantic during the colonial era.
In order to prepare Grenadian saltfish, the dried fish is rehydrated in fresh water and then flaked and mixed with chopped tomato, onion, pepper and parsley. It is usually served warm alongside or tucked inside a bake, a pouch-shaped bun similar to a pita.
However, if you are looking for something to replenish your energy after a busy day sightseeing, try "Pelau".
Pelau is a hearty chicken and rice dish that is perfect if you have been "on the go" trekking across the island or swimming in the crystal waters. This savoury, one-pot meal typically includes cooked beans, carrots, celery, red sweet peppers, brown sugar, and coconut milk.
Where to stay in Grenada?
So, if all this sounds enticing and we have convinced you that there is more to Grenada than sun, sea, and sand, make your trip perfect by staying at Calabash Luxury Boutique Hotel & Spa.
It is quite simply the best hotel in Grenada and is proud to be home to two of the finest restaurants on the island which consistently receive Certificates of Excellence through TripAdvisor.
Calabash’s specific aim is to make every effort to ensure that dining is a special event through unique, savoury dishes complemented by excellent service, giving you something to look forward to throughout the day.
A hodgepodge of heritage and history
Just by looking at the names of the islands in the Caribbean, you can tell that many different influences have come to these sunny shores. On some islands, English place names are situated next to French-sounding names and the name of the island comes from the Spanish language.
It is unfair to label the Caribbean as a "beach destination" as there is so much more to each island. It is worth exploring every dusty street and market, trekking through the lush vegetation and mountain trails, right up to marvelling at each piece of colonial architecture and wondering the secrets each one must tell. There are museums here, palaces, and fortresses that once guarded the many treasures of the region.
Aside from the ghosts of history though, is something that is still very much alive. The food that is eaten here opens a creaky door into the past and lets visitors know about the heritage and unique cultures of the islands. The very cuisine and how it continuously evolves holds the past’s hand whilst marching ever on into the future.
"I think food, culture, people, and landscape are all absolutely inseparable." – Chef Anthony Bourdain
Take the stock indigenous ingredients that have always grown here, throw in a splash of something Spanish, a sprinkle of French culinary nous, a few drops of British expansion, a spoonful of African invention and let it simmer in an Asian sauce and there you have it: how the Caribbean foods were born and what makes each island special in its own individualities.
Yes, they share common factors – but when visiting this part of the world, you will be amazed at the unique gastronomical identity of each place you visit.