Caribbean Food A Little History

The Arawak, Carib, and Taino Indians were the first inhabitants of the Caribbean islands. These first inhabitants occupied the present day islands of British Virgin Islands, Cuba, Dominica, Grenada, Haiti, Trinidad, and Jamaica. Their daily diet consisted of vegetables and fruits such as papaw, yams, guavas, and cassava. The Taino started the process of cooking meat and fish in large clay pots.

The Arawaks are the first people known to make a grate of thin green wood strips on which they slowly cooked meat, allowing it to be enhanced by the flavor of the wood. This grate was called a barbacoa, and the word we know today as barbeque is taken from this early Indian cooking method.

The Carib Indians added more spice to their food with hot pepper sauces, and also added lemon and lime juice to their meat and fish recipes. The Caribs are said to have made the first pepper pot stew. No recipes exist since every time the Indians made the dish, they would always add new ingredients. The Carib had a big impact on early Caribbean history, and the Caribbean sea was named after this tribe.

Then the Caribbean became a crossroads for the world . . .

Once the Europeans brought Africans slaves into the region, the slaves diet consisted mostly of food the slave owners did not want to eat. So the slaves had to be inventive, and they blended their traditional African foods with staples found on the islands. The Africans introduced okra, callaloo, fish cakes, saltfish, ackee, pudding and souse, mangos, and the list goes on.

Most present day Caribbean island locals eat a present diet that is reflective of the main ingredients of original early African dishes, and includes cassava, sweet potatoes, yams, plantains, bananas and corn meal.

African men were hunters in their homeland, and often away from home for long periods of time. They would cook spicy pork over hot coals, and this tradition was refined by the early slaves in Jamaica. The technique is known today as “jerk” cooking , and the secret involves a slow meat cooking process. Jamaica is famous for jerk chicken and pork, and you’ll find jerk all over the island.

After slavery was abolished, the Europeans went to India and China for labor, and more cooking styles were introduced. Much of the Indian cooking culture remains alive and well in the Caribbean of today with the introduction of curried meats and curry powder. Indians call it kari podi, and we have come to know this pungent flavor as curry.

The Chinese introduced rice, which is always a staple in home cooked island meals. The Chinese also introduced mustard, and the early Portuguese sailors introduced the popular codfish.

Most visitors to the Caribbean have no idea that the fruit trees and fruits so familiar to the islands were introduced by the early Spanish explorers. The fruit trees and fruits brought from Spain include orange, lime, ginger, plantains, figs, date palms, sugar cane, grapes, tamarinds and coconuts.

Even the Polynesian islands play an important role in Caribbean cooking. Most of us remember the movie “Mutiny on the Bounty”, but do not know that particular ship carried breadfruit, which was loaded on board from the islands of Tahiti and Timor. In the movie the crew took over the ship, forced the captain into a small boat to fend on his own, and they threw the breadfruit, which they considered “strange fruit” overboard. Another ship was more successful in bringing breadfruit from Polynesia to Jamaica and the St Vincent and the Grenadines. Breadfruit is a staple diet in the current day Caribbean

America is responsible for introducing beans, corn, squash, potatoes, tomatoes, and chili pepper to the Caribbean. In fact these particular foods had never been seen in Asia, Europe or Africa, so America actually introduced these foods the rest of the world via the Caribbean.

So it’s no wonder Caribbean cooking is so rich and creative with the flavors of Africa, India, and China, along with Spanish, Danish, Portuguese, French and British influences. Food served in the Caribbean islands have been influenced by the cultures of the world, but each island adds its own special flavor and cooking technique.

Delicious Caribbean Food Recipes

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Caribbean food recipes are very interesting to me because they are usually a blend of European, African and Asian ingredients. Caribbean food history is intricately linked to the slave trade, and as a result, many foods were transplanted to the Caribbean Islands for the African slaves. With time, slavery was abolished, and instead, indentured servants from India and China were transported to the Caribbeans for additional labor. The end result is that many traditional Caribbean foods have influences from countries all over the world.

A typical West Indian dish may include steamed fish with rice and beans. The side dishes may include callaloo, fritters, or breadfruit. Of course the fish comes from the warm waters of the Caribbean sea. However, the rice is originally from China, the red kidney beans are from South America, the callaloo is originally from west Africa, fritters are made with flour from the Middle East, and breadfruit is originally from the Pacific Islands.

“All about food…!”

Steamed fish
The main thing I like about traditional Cayman food is its freshness. When I have steamed fish at a local Kitchen, it has literally been caught that morning, lightly seasoned, and prepared to perfection. My husband and I were regulars at the Heritage Kitchen when we lived in West Bay. The food is delicious, but always in short supply. If you didn’t arrive just when the restaurant opened, you would likely not be able to order their fresh catch of the day. To prepare steamed fish, wash the fish in lime and then season it with salt and pepper to your taste. Heat coconut oil in a pan. Add the fish and cook it on both sides until it is golden brown. Add a sliced onion, a little water, and seasoning pepper. Cook on low heat for a few minutes until done.

Rice and Beans
Probably the first traditional Grand Cayman food I had was Rice and Beans. This is a dish that I originally tasted at one of the many local Grand Cayman restaurants and kitchens. Usually, Caribbean cooks like to play around with this dish until they make it their own creation. I’ve had it many different ways, but I think the best recipe is Rice and Beans – Cayman Style. To start, soak the beans overnight. Cook the beans until they are tender (about an hour). Drain the beans and save the bean water, it should be about 3 cups. You may need to add more water to get to 3 cups. In another pot, boil previously saved bean water, salt, black pepper, thyme, onion, and seasoning pepper. Add previously boiled beans and coconut milk and let everything come to a boil. Add the rice. Make sure there is about 1/2 inch of water over the rice and beans. When the pot starts to boil again, lower the heat and let it simmer for about 20 minutes or until all of the water is absorbed.

Breadfruit
This is a dish that I’ve only had in my home. My adventurous husband became curious about breadfruit and asked one of his Jamaican clients how to prepare it. It turned out to be very simple. First place the whole breadfruit in the oven for about an hour. This step is necessary so that you can easily cut the fruit. At this point you can eat the fruit by itself, soak it in butter, or eat it as a side dish to a meal. Another option, is to fry it up for just a couple of minutes on top of the stove. This is what we did the the result was scrumptious. After frying, it tastes a bit like potato, but with an interesting texture.

These traditional Caribbean food recipes are delicious and easy to make. If you use all fresh ingredients, then you are assured of a tasty Caribbean meal that you can easily make in your own home. If you are here visiting the Cayman Islands, I highly recommend one of the many local restaurants and Kitchens. Each one has its own specialty that will have you going back for more.