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Caribbean Food: Much Variation from Island to Island?

I'm no expert on Caribbean cuisine, but from what I've seen, there isn't a great deal of variation from island to island. The food in Guadeloupe is apt to be pretty similar to what you'll find in St. Vincent. You'll eat similarly in Barbados as you will in the Caymans.

Again, I'm not an expert and am happy to be proved wrong in my view.

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  1. Been a long time but I spent many years cooking on sailboats in the grenadines. I think the french islands had the better markets and restaurants and the english islands were pretty similar based on the fish and local vegetables. I remember when provisioning for the boat there were certain things that were specific to an island or a market but it's been way to long to remember those items. I do remember very crispy peanuts sold in green beer bottles and passionfruit syrup sold in old rum bottles in grenada - both bring back good food memories:).

    1. Way over generalization and flat out wrong. Islands were settled by english, french, spanish, dutch, etc. Then they often traded hands. Results in very different food. Food on St Barts is not remotely like what you get in the BVI which is way different than Puerto Rico. There are some things that cross over with local variations. Like codfish fritters, but the same can be said of many cuisines. I'm kind of stunned by your statement. Do you think all european food is pretty much the same? You expect to find the same food in Madrid, Paris and London? I suppose you could probably eat the same in all 3 places if you wanted to, but that would take a conscious decision to do that. Hang out in the basic tourist places and they all have burgers and pizza. But that is not the local food.

      8 Replies
      1. re: Bkeats

        Take a deep breath and do some limin' keats.

        1. re: Perilagu Khan

          I'm easy mon. How many islands have you been to? I've been to PR many many times for business. An old girlfriend's family had a house in the Bahamas (not technically in the Caribbean but I think most people include it) so went fairly regularly. I've been to several of the French islands numerous times. Sailed a lot out of the USVi, BVI, St Martin, Anguilla, St Kitts, Nevis, etc. Basically have gone at least once a year since I was in college. Food varies a lot. Some common themes since they are islands and were dependent on the sea, but there are significant differences. For example, there are lolos all over St Martin. They serve grilled ribs, chicken with sides that would easily be compared to American soul food. 10 miles to the southeast is St Bart's where you won't find a lolo anywhere and grilled ribs in that style are rare. It's French creole style cooking. You do find some of that in SXM because the island is half French, but my point is that islands separated by small distances went their own way with food. If you're familiar with the old Time Life cookbooks of the world series, you should check the book on Caribbean food. It highlights the differences between many of e islands. I hate over generalizations based on a little experience. But as I said first, I'm easy mon.

          1. re: Bkeats

            Well that's a little more like it. At least you provided some information.

            Now that said, I never generalized at all. I asked a question and hazarded a very guarded and conditional opinion. What's more, even if I had asserted that Caribbean food is all the same, that's not really a criticism. Hence, it's hardly the same as saying the food is bad.

            As to my actual Caribbean experience, I've only been to St. Kitts and Nevis. And while in SKN I had quite possibly the best fish I've ever eaten--grilled snapper at the Fisherman's Wharf on the outskirts of Basseterre. I was basing my supposition on fairly extensive Internet research. Based on that research, it seems to me that there are far more culinary commonalities from island to island than differences. But again, I'm willing to learn and have that supposition disproved.

            1. re: Perilagu Khan

              I suggest you look at callaloo. It is a soup that is common to many islands. Even though its called the same thing and its a soup, the contrast between islands is huge. Like chowder. Compare Manhattan to New England to Rhode Island chowders. They're all clam chowders but the results are very different.

              1. re: Bkeats

                Interesting, Bkeats! We are frequent travelers to Jamaica (which no no way makes us experts on their traditional cuisine, though we DO love to eat there), and whenever we are served callaloo, it is a sauteed or braised leafy green. Wonderful as a side or in omelets etc. Now I'll have to search out the soup!

                1. re: iowagirl

                  It can range from something thats almost gravy like and eaten as a side to something more like a traditional soup. The name is applied to both the plants and the dish, though its can be different plants too.

                  1. re: iowagirl

                    Callaloo like Jerk and salt fish cakes has now appeared on Caribbean menus from Miami to Belize.
                    Crab and Callaloo is Trinidad's national dish and has always been my favorite, as Bkeats indicated is can take many forms and be a main or side dish.
                    In TT we make it from Bhaji or Dasheen leaves which is from the Taro plant but the best ones we could pick wild along river sides which is supposedly bigger and sweeter. Cleaned ,deribbed and boiled with coconut milk,okra,thyme,scotch bonnet peppers and sometimes salted pig tail or hocks. It's then broken down with a "Swizzle stick, which looks like the old Spanish utensil used to thicken hot chocolate and then quartered Creole or Mangrove crab is added along with the ever present Green seasoning, another whole Scotch bonnet pepper is left to float, covered and eventually served as a thick,savory and very spicy soup or even over rice.

          2. The differences probably seem minor, at least form the outside, but from the INSIDE I bet you will hear a lot of differences in opinion about what is "good" and "right". My husband is from Jamaica, and my mom from Nevis, and our differences about "peas and rice" vs "rice and peas" are heated debates Similar idea around say, bajan hot sauce, or how much codfish in a "fritter" vs "cake". Puerto Rico has some unique things as well. If you look at who ruled them when, and where the Islands fall, it is reasonable to expect different influences.

            1. Oh and don't get me started on the rums. Buy a bunch of rums from the different islands. Makes sure to get rhum agricoles from the French islands. Taste them side by side and see how pronounced different islands make their rums from the same sugar cane.

              1. Sorry, but I can't stop. Even apart from the colonial and african influences, add in the some asian to the mix, and things get really interesting. There's the chinese community in Cuba that resulted in Cuban Chinese restaurants being the rage in NYC in the early '90s. There's the east Indian influences in Trinidad and Tobago which makes food from there very different than most other former english colonies. The wife and I have visiting every caribbean island as a goal. Want to see the different geography, beaches and sample the food. Remember the islands range from places like tiny Bequia to Cuba. Bequia is so small that you can't grow much there. Cuba is as large as many states. Cattle is raised in Jamaica so there's more beef used there. Smaller islands will use more goat and pork. Get out there and explore more island food. I know you will be pleasantly surprised.

                1. PK, I am willing to be outvoted, and usually I am, but I would divide the distinctive Caribbean food styles this way: Puerto Rican, Cuban, Jamaican, Bahamian, Garifuna, Cozumeleno, Trinidad, the "Belongers" in T&C, Belizean. I left out most of the white folks because they didn't bring much to the party.

                  1. Granted, I've only stayed on three of the many Caribbean Islands (St. Maarten, St. Lucia and Aruba), but the local food we experienced or hearda bout on those three was very different.

                    I found Alton Brown's series Feasting on Waves an interesting lesson on the variations in cuisine between islands.

                    1. PK....You're either trying to inspire or bait us.
                      I have lived,worked and played through out the West Indies{not Caribbean but West Indies...a hold over from my colonial education} and while some dishes seem to appear on most menus that the average tourist sees throughout the WI,every island maintains a very unique culinary history.
                      I, like you don't claim to be an expert but West Indian cuisine seem to only parallel according to the predominant settlers both old and now largely new. of that particular Island or region{Guyana, while on the south American continent, is a member of CARICOM and considered by most to be West Indian}.
                      Other than the Chinese influence, which for the most part is Cantonese and have pretty standard offerings throughout the Islands,Pepperpot, Crab and Calloo, Jerk,Dhal Puri roti,Garlic pork,Flying fish and cou cou,Pelau,Escabeche,Run down,Girot,Oil down,Bujol,Doubles.... just to name a few is very unique to their islands and their predominant cuisines, whether it be Spanish, French,Portuguese,English or Dutch, all mixed with Indian and African nuances and preparations.
                      In retrospect the one thing we truly have in common is Rum and a "Time soon come" attitude.

                      Hope this helps and I called off the Lajabless.

                      19 Replies
                        1. re: Shrinkrap

                          Interesting to see how little most people know of the mainland Caribbean-to be expected I suppose.

                          1. re: Sam Salmon

                            Can't really blame most simply because the islands are so varied in cultures,cuisine and history and the most in debth many get is where ever the hotel,resort or cruise line recommends and obviously they want to play it safe.
                            Some of the best meals I've ever had in the Island were not in foreign visitor friendly venues.

                            1. re: Duppie

                              What places in the Caribbean, whether island or "mainland", would you consider "not in foreign visitor friendly venues"?
                              Still waiting... I'm running out of edit time. Where in the Caribbean is it dangerous? I know all 9 "mainland" countries of the Caribbean basin, and easily 30 of the islands, and never had a bad day as a white visitor.

                              1. re: Veggo

                                Kingston 3 prefecture,Jamaica. Saint Lucy ,Barbados,Just about the whole of Georgetown and Buxton Guyana, Trinidad where I grew up and famous for it's Carnival recently came out of several months of Curfew to stem gang and drug violence and only because it was hurting the tourist industry.
                                Grenada, St Lucia, St Vincent,Tobago, all soliciting help to stem increasing violence against Tourist and Ex Pats.
                                I may not live in the Islands any longer but still have family and friends who do and I keep up with the news.
                                I love the Islands and didn't want this to turn into a tread on where not to visit but you asked.......I answered.

                                1. re: Duppie

                                  Georgetown is Garifuna but not Caribbean. Buy a map in Venezuela- Guyana is "disputed territory". White guys drinking Heinekins. Can't drive there. Enjoy your dinner. I made the effort. You seem to loathe me for being white but loving your homeland. I fear nothing you posted - I avoid ugly areas.

                                  1. re: Veggo

                                    Guyana may be consider disputed territory to Venezuelans but it's people consider themselves Caribbean, just like Belizeans do even though it's in Central America (according to my many friends and family from there)

                                    1. re: epicura

                                      Belizeans and Guatemalans have the same dispute to this day, the disputes revolve around ownership and maintenance of shipping channels to the shallow Caribbean basin for container ship access from the Panama Canal.

                                      1. re: Veggo

                                        That is true but it has nothing to do with the culture & foods the people identify themselves with. Guyanese have heavy Indian (as in the country) influences, like the use of Indian style bread & chutneys (as well as Trinidad, which if you fall out of bed you land in Venezuela) that Venezuelans do not eat on the day to day. Guyana (and Trinidad) celebrates holidays such as Dwaili & one of the days of Holi where they throw colored chalk at each other (the name escapes me) due to the large Hindu population. English is the official language, the only country in South America to do so. Belize in in the same boat where British and African influences are stronger than Spanaid or native meso-American influences.
                                        All I'm saying is there is a difference between culture and geography that makes places that are not islands in the Caribbean sea that identify more with the Caribbean culture. But this is taking away from the main topic somewhat except to prove that Caribbean foods & culture can vary quite a bit depending on who settled where.

                                        1. re: epicura

                                          I completely agree, and the spectrum of regional food varieties in close proximity is what makes the Caribbean basin so magical.
                                          Mainland settlers migrated also - Garifuna from Brazil to Honduras, for example.

                                    2. re: Veggo

                                      Veggo.... please "Loathe you because you're white"?. I'm Norwegian,Portuguese and Chinese and practically transparent. We have lilly white Trinis, Jamaicans,Bajans, Haitians....... We're so mixed up that we wouldn't know who to hate first.
                                      By the way my mother is Guyanese.. and I still have family there... There is no dispute.

                                      1. re: Duppie

                                        Buen provecho! I'm Danish and English, but south of the border I'm proudly the Mexican Jew
                                        P.S. If there were a CH mutt contest for mixed background, I would pay your entry fee!

                                  2. re: Veggo

                                    When we visited SKN (July '09), Basseterre was the murder capital of Planet Earth. Of course, we didn't learn this fact until after returning to the US. Still, the city had a feel about it that made us do the research.

                                    PS--Robert Palmer got out of the Bahamas because of the gangs and violence.

                                    1. re: Perilagu Khan

                                      Many factors can and do influence safety warnings available to the public. For lack of better than the morning newspaper, the US Dept. of State daily report is the best available resource.

                                      1. re: Veggo

                                        Yeah, you can't rely on Fodor and Frommer to give you deterring scuttlebutt.

                                        Lesson learned.

                                        But we did have a very interesting time in SKN all the same. Don't regret going at all.

                                      2. re: Perilagu Khan

                                        A good friend in the Bahamas (Freeport) is well to do from his soft drink bottling businesss, and is sadly a prisoner in his guarded compound. When his brother, who conveniently flies his own plane, and I go to visit, it's day trips only. Bro won't spend a night there for his evaluation of danger.

                                        1. re: Veggo

                                          Dam'.

                                          Speaking of soft drinks, I wish I could get aholt of some Ting. Came to love the drink they call Ting with a sting (Ting, Cane Spirit Rothschild, Angostura bitters) while down in SKN. We still occasionally make this drink with substitute ingredients, but the absence of Ting is really telling.

                                          1. re: Perilagu Khan

                                            Try the cheap chinese counterfeit - "Sum Ting Wong".

                                            1. re: Perilagu Khan

                                              We can get Ting all over the place here on Long Island, even the local supermarket chain. Not cheap but I buy a couple of bottles once in awhile just for fun. Not sure where you are, but maybe ask around? The beverage stores in certain areas sell it by the case.

                              2. Yes and no. Certain staples are found in abundance (rice, legumes, root vegetables) but are seasoned very different from island to island. A dish such as chicken and rice will exist as pelau in Trinidad and differ very much from arroz con pollo in Puerto Rico. Certain islands spice food with pepper, in Cuba they tend not to like food hot with pepper.
                                Also certain things you just don't find on other islands (Trinidad's doubles, macraroni pie or shark & bake wouldn't be found in Jamaica; Jamaican style saltfish made with ackee or jerk meat cooked over pimento wood wouldn't be something you find in Trinidad).
                                It's similar to saying there are noodles all over Asia, aren't they all the same? Nope, everyone has their own special way of seasoning and preparing the same basic widely found items.

                                1. Khan Saheb, I am surprised that you would ask this question. How can it be that a region with such diversity (in every way) would also not have regionality in cuisine?

                                  Our home state of Texas is also very regionally diverse in every way, including culinarily. Wouldn't the Caribbean be even more so based on history of settlement and demographics?

                                  Is there any land that doesn't have culinary regionality and variation? It doesn't seem possible.

                                  2 Replies
                                  1. re: luckyfatima

                                    Considering PK's wry sense of humor, I rather suspect he's sitting back and laughing his ass off about now.

                                    1. re: Duppie

                                      Heh. Heh. And smilin' like a donkey eatin' cactus, as Sam and I used to say.

                                  2. I will say this as someone who has never been to the Caribbean, but who has very good friends from Trinidad (my best friends really), Puerto Rico, and Cuba. So, in my personal experience, the main difference between the foods served in those homes, and presented as typical of their nations, is that the Trini food was a lot more spiced--really delicious, tending to the hot side. The Puerto Rican food and Cuban food was tasty but more toward the stodgy side (not meant as an insult)--let's say hearty, but certainly not spicy. It could be the Spanish influence that makes those cuisines more spice-averse, as this is also true for large parts of Latin America.

                                    9 Replies
                                    1. re: Wawsanham

                                      I wonder if Trinidadians incorporate the Trinidad Scorpion pepper into their cuisine?

                                      1. re: Perilagu Khan

                                        Most of my family (the Trini side) use using scotch bonnets because they have flavor as well as heat

                                        1. re: Perilagu Khan

                                          But of course. Every household has to have at least one pepper bush,usually more.
                                          When building a new house,neighbors would gift you a pepper bush and a lime plant.

                                          1. re: Duppie

                                            Might have to make my way down to Trinidad. I bet I'd prefer it to Baghdad.

                                            1. re: Perilagu Khan

                                              I prefer hot peppers to heat-seeking missiles. It may result in a tough tomorrow, but I always like a tomorrow.

                                              1. re: Veggo

                                                Exocet would make an excellent name for a hot sauce, don't you think? Especially if it was made of pimente d'espellette.

                                              2. re: Perilagu Khan

                                                You just might.. google Gasparee Island and Maracas bay......My old stomping grounds.

                                                1. re: Duppie

                                                  Looks pretty dang nice. But is it true that Tobago is more of a vacation spot than Trinidad? Hell, if you can't trust Fodor/Frommer (the brothers eff), who can you trust?

                                                  1. re: Perilagu Khan

                                                    Tobago is actually very beautiful and has better diving because of the Buccoo reef system but is now inundated with resorts catering to European and British tourist....Need I say more?
                                                    Trinidad while not geared as much to tourist is still the epicenter for food,nightlife,culture and finance.
                                                    Maracas beach is only 40 minute drive from POS on a good day and an excellent liming spot.