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Caribbean Food . . . The Island Flavor

The essence of Caribbean cooking is found in the use of fresh foods which are enhanced by island spices and herbs. The particular regions of each island serve as an incubator for various products. For instance in the mountainous region of Jamaica are found the most flavorful coffee beans. On the costal areas of the Caribbean islands coconut trees are abundant, and the lowlands of the Caribbean produce sweet pineapples. Vast sugar cane fields are found within the interior of Caribbean islands such as Barbados. No matter the island, Caribbean cooking style always starts with staple local ingredients: fresh fish, vegetables, tropical fruits, and chicken.

The distinct flavor of the Caribbean comes alive when the addition of spices, coconut, mangoes, passion fruit, limes, papayas (shown), guava, cassava, apples, breadfruit, yams and peppers are added to these stable ingredients. The traditional spices of the Caribbean are allspice, nutmeg, thyme, curry, mint, sweet basil, mace, annatto, lemongrass, cloves, ground mustard, cinnamon, black and white pepper, ginger and all kinds of chilies from medium to hot. Habanero and Scotch Bonnet are the hotest peppers, with Habanero being one of the hottest in the world. Caribbean natives use limes much in the same way we use lemons in the States.

Lime is a favorite marinade for fish, and most locals will tell you the lime starts cooking the fish. Ceviche is know as seafood cooked by citrus juices, and seasoned with onions and fresh herbs.

Actually the flavor of the Caribbean started very simply in the kitchens of local women who were creative in using what they had on hand. Most of these women did not have an abundance of food, and fixing meals on a daily basis meant lots of flexibility in the preparation and ingredients. How does one define Caribbean cooking? That is nearly impossible for there is no one type of food that is unique to the region. You just can't come up with one definition that would encompass every islands style, culture and cooking techniques. Conch recipes are a favorite of the Bahamas; the island of Cuba is known for its tasty black beans and rice; Jamaica is the land of jerk cooking and seasoning; Barbados favorite dish is flying fish and cou cou. Puerto Rican cooks are famous for their flavorful chicken and rice dishes; the French Caribbean serves up the finest food from France, and Trinidad is home to hundreds of curry recipes. Often when dining on local Caribbean cuisine you catch the flavor of a known spice, but can't quite put your finger on which one. That's often because Caribbean cooks use spices in unique ways. Nutmeg is used to flavor deserts in America, but this spice is often combined with other native island spices to produce an altogether different, yet somewhat recognizable flavor. The distinctive flavor of Jamaican Jerk comes from allspice, another spice we would not associate with a meat marinade. The Cayman islanders have a favorite chocolate cake recipe to which they add spicy peppers. Tamarind is another spice used in Caribbean kitchens. If you can't imagine the taste of the tart tamarind, then just think of the flavor of our popular Worcestershire sauce, of which tamarind is a main ingredient. Many of the best tasting Caribbean sauces are made up of sweet fruits such as orange, papaya and mango, along with spicy, hot peppers. Mango, Melon and Chili Peppers make an excellent sweet and hot sauce for dipping. Coconut milk serves as a base for many popular stews, soups, and sauces. Even oregano and garlic are used with citrus marinades. And of course Rum is a favorite ingredient throughout the Caribbean, and is applied liberally in marinades, soups, deserts, and sauces.

Many of the tropical fruits flavor depend upon its ripeness. A plantain (shown) when it's not quite ripe has very little flavor, but when spiced up makes an excellent stew additive. As the plantain starts to ripen, it turns black and becomes sugary sweet.

The Caribbean yam (shown) is not sweet and is often baked, fried and boiled in stews.

Unripe papaya (shown) is chopped and used for relishes and chutney, but once the fruit ripens it is used in all kinds of deserts or a wonderful sweet salsa. Beans and rice are Caribbean staples, and both absorb the flavors of any dish. Island natives are as fond of their beans and rice as we Americans are of our pasta dishes. The different variety of beans are unique to the different island regions. If you are in the Bahamas, you will be served pigeon peas, Puerto Ricans have a love of red beans, while Cubans prefer their beans black. With Curry, Cilantro, Ginger and Soy Sauce, rice renders a different flavor with each of the distinctive spices. Another popular spice combination for rice is coconut and ginger, which is especially good when served with pork dishes. In the meat category, Caribbean locals prefer chicken, goat, pork and fresh seafood is always available. Beef is not a popular local meat in the Caribbean. Many smaller islands do not have the space for grazing, and I suspect even if they did, many locals would still hang on to chicken, goat and seafood. One of the more interesting beef stories comes from Barbados. McDonalds decided to introduced the local Bajans to the world's largest franchise, and gave away free hamburgers on opening day. It seems the locals did not appreciate the taste, and this island is the only place in the world in which McDonalds had to pack up and leave.

Throughout the Caribbean you will also find many one pot meals, which originated in the working class island kitchens. Soups and stews are often served on the weekend when there is time to make a fresh stock, and consist of root vegetables, beans or peas, meat or fish, and plenty of herbs and spices. Pepperpot is served on the island of Barbados, and consists of a spicy, deep purple stew with everything but the kitchen sink included. Conch Chowder is a favorite among the islands of the Bahamas. Seafood stews are popular in Creole cooking, and numerous recipes are found on the islands of Martinique, Guadeloupe and Haiti. Popular one pot meals usually start with rice and beans as the base. Chicken, fish, goat and island spices are added, and the pot is allowed to slowly simmer to infuse all the flavors together. Most of the meat used in stews or one pot meals are not the best cuts. Caribbean cooks know how to marinade and simmer even the toughest meat into a tender, flavorful meal.

Arroz con Pollo (shown) is a simple one pot recipe that differs throughout the Caribbean, and Latin America. The basic ingredients are chicken, rice, sausage, cumin, paprika, garlic, bell peppers and tomatoes. Curried Goat Stew is another popular one pot meal served throughout the Caribbean, especially in Jamaica and Trinidad, and Lamb can also be substituted. The basic ingredients for goat stew include onions, scotch bonnet peppers, scallions, garlic, black pepper, carrots, ginger and tomatoes. The meat is marinated overnight with the dry ingredients and then combined in a pot to simmer until tender. So now you have a brief introduction into the many styles of Caribbean cooking. I hope you're able to experience some of the local food on your next Caribbean vacation. Most local restaurants and food vendors offer far cheaper, and sometimes better quality food than found at hotels and resorts.

Of course it's all up to your particular taste, and the atmosphere you desire in a dining experience. We suggest trying a least one meal from the local island fare and get a first hand experience of Caribbean food flavor.

Happy Dining, Linda Thompkins, Owner/Travel Consultant - Travel 2 the Caribbean Agency http://www.travel2thecaribbean.com

Our motto: A Happy Traveler is an Informed Traveler

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Copyright Travel 2 the Caribbean 2005

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