While most people travel to the Caribbean for its immaculate beaches, tropical climate and lively culture, the region is also home to some wonderful cuisines. The Caribbean islands have several native dishes, as well as those they have inherited, that you simply need to taste. Read on for our pick of the best Caribbean foods you should try on your visit.
A classic Caribbean dish, and undoubtedly one you will have heard of before, jerk chicken is native to Jamaica. You might even have tried it, but not with the authentic quality you get in its home country. For truly authentic jerk dishes, the meat is marinated, either in a dry rub or a wet marinade.
This is where the “jerk spices” come in. There have been several different spices used alongside the jerk method of cooking. Over time they have been altered by different cultural influences and eventually have become conventionalised to the “jerk spices” we have today, with ingredients like the scotch bonnet pepper, pimento, cinnamon, garlic and brown sugar.
Technically, the spice can be rubbed onto any meat, fish or even vegetables. But traditionally, it is added to chicken and pork. A smoky flavour is added by cooking the meat over charcoal in a steel drum to replicate the pit fires and modified oil barrels that were used over a century ago. Finally, it’s served with another Caribbean classic – rice and peas.
Now here’s one you’re probably less familiar with. The national dish of Guyana, Pepperpot is a meat stew with a unique combination of flavours. One of the key ingredients is cassareep, made by grating cassava – the starchy roots of a South American shrub. Grating extracts the starch from cassava, allowing it to be used as a natural preservative.
This was exactly the thought process of the American Indians, who created cassareep to preserve their meat. They are widely believed to have created Pepperpot, or at least the foundations of the dish. So what else goes into it?
Key ingredients – on top of cassareep – include cinnamon and hot peppers, which are added to traditional meats like beef, pork and mutton. Because of the long cooking time, Pepperpot is not an everyday dish for the Guyanese. In fact, it has become conventional to eat the dish on Christmas Day. Some natives even consider it unusual to eat Pepperpot at any time other than Christmas – much like turkey in the UK. Don’t worry, if you fancy tasting Pepperpot for yourself, you’ll find plenty of Guyanese establishments serving it all year round, along with bread and a side of rice.
Cuba is one of the northernmost Caribbean islands. It’s relatively close to Florida, and around a century ago, people would move freely between Cuba and Florida’s main coastal cities, Tampa and Miami. All three – Cuba, Miami and Tampa – have laid claim to the famous Cuban sandwich. The Tampa Cuban features salami alongside the other traditional ingredients, which is a further point of debate for locals.
While the history and contents of the Cuban sandwich are frequently debated, one thing that’s universally accepted is that it’s one of the best sandwiches in the world. Made with meats, cheese, pickles and mustard, the sandwich is pressed and toasted by a ‘plancha’ – basically a flat panini press. Cuban bread – up to a foot in length – is topped with mustard and layered with glazed ham, roasted pork, Swiss cheese and sliced dill pickles. Salami or no salami, the ingredients work together perfectly. Of course, it’s even better if it’s enjoyed overlooking a flawless Cuban beach.
Originating in South Asia, curried goat has become a popular dish across several English-speaking Caribbean countries. This is especially the case in Jamaica, where the dish is a feature of social events. At parties, or dances, it’s common for hosts to bring in a specialist chef to prepare and cook the dish. So, what makes it so great?
Like most curries, it starts with onion, garlic, and plenty of spices. In Jamaica, the main heat of the dish comes from the scotch bonnet pepper – native to the Caribbean. While the meat of the dish seems self-explanatory, goat can actually be replaced with mutton.
Given its notoriety as a part of Caribbean cuisine, curried goat is sold at food festivals across the world. But for the authentic Jamaican flavour, you have to try it with some fried plantain – which is similar to a banana, but with less sweetness. Besides, everything tastes better on holiday, right?
Unlike the other dishes on this list, patties actually have a strong link to the UK. Cornish pasties, from Cornwall, made their way over to the Caribbean as a result of colonialism. They were modified with spices like cumin, turmeric and cayenne pepper. The Jamaican influence? Well, of course, their trademark scotch bonnet pepper was added to produce a blend of four indigenous flavours.
In recent years, the patty has actually made its way back over to Britain and continues to be enjoyed across the country. Parts of North America have also seen the patty become more popular.
Like a pasty, it’s traditionally filled with ground or minced beef, but other variations include different meats, seafood, vegetables and the popular Jamaican fruit ackee. Specific variations like this are almost entirely confined to parts of the Caribbean, which is why it’s such a good food to try while you’re there.
Conch, pronounced “konk”, are a delicacy in the Caribbean. They’re large sea snails that can be cooked in a number of ways, with different countries putting their own spin on the seafood speciality, that – if anything – are most similar to calamari. Steamed, fried, or even raw, conch are a key ingredient in a variety of Caribbean dishes. Pounded, pressure-cooked and served with dumplings, conch make up the national dish of St Maarten, one of the smallest Caribbean countries.
It’s also one of the many foods that are deep-fried and served as fritters across the islands. Another must-try on your trip, fritters have become a staple food in Caribbean cuisine. Conch, saltfish and callaloo – a leafy green vegetable – are some of the most popular. In fact, saltfish fritters, known as ‘Stamp and Go’, were one of the original fast foods in Jamaica. The name is thought to originate from colonial officers’ commands to “stamp and go” when they were ordering people around. They’re even better with a sweet chutney or dip.
So we’ve given you hearty meals, patties and fritters to eat on the go, what about something fresh and fruity? Papaya is a juicy, sweet, tropical fruit that’s perfect in the hot, summer weather. Though native to South America, papaya has become naturalised in the Caribbean and, as well as being a treat on its own, it’s used in salads, stews and, of course, cocktails.
It can be added to conventional cocktails to give them a Caribbean twist – papaya daiquiri, papaya margarita and even a papaya martini – but some bars will have their own delicious concoctions for you to try.
What’s more, papaya is one of the many up and coming ‘superfoods’. They’re high in vitamins A and C, folate, fibre, magnesium and potassium. But they also contain papain, an enzyme that aids digestion.
And for dessert…
On top of all of the delicious dishes we’ve mentioned so far, the Caribbean islands are scattered with delicious desserts. From cakes to compotes, here are some of the best:
- Gizzada – A sweet, spiced coconut filling is encased in a beautifully crisp pastry shell. It’s Portuguese in origin, but the Jamaican’s have definitely made it their own.
- Bizcocho Dominicano – Translated as Dominican cake, this light fluffy sponge has tropical fillings like pineapple, guava or papaya, resulting in a delightful summery treat.
- Arroz con leche – A Caribbean twist on rice pudding. It’s thick, it’s creamy, and it’s sweetened with the trademark flavour of cinnamon.
- Flans galore – Caribbean islands are renowned for a variety of delectable dessert flans. Flan de café con leche is always a good call, flavoured with cream and coffee. Simply delicious.
The proof is in the pudding
We’ve given you our favourites, now it’s time to get over there and try them for yourself. Cruise1st offers superb cruise packages to some of the best destinations around the world. Stopping at a number of great Caribbean islands, our Caribbean cruises are the perfect way to sample the local delicacies. Feast on juicy jerk chicken in Jamaica, sample the conch in St Maarten, and try an authentic Cuban sandwich in Cuba. With Cruise1st, you can do it in style and for the best price. Call our UK cruise experts on 0808 2746 777 and let us create your perfect cruise adventure. We look forward to hearing from you.