Caribbean cuisine has something else to offer: an almost infinite variety of cultural influences. The region’s history has been one of constant immigration - voluntary and otherwise. Arawak and other native populations survived after the Spanish colonized, and the Spanish were soon followed by other colonial powers: the British, Dutch, Danish, Swedish and French all claimed islands, and in turn brought slaves from Africa. When slavery was abolished, workers were brought from India and elsewhere in Asia.
The most recent addition has been highly trained chefs brought in by resorts to run their kitchens and offer luxury guests the level of sophistication they are used to. Each of these groups brought its own unique flavors and styles that mingled with the local food traditions. The result is a panoply of unique cuisines that often surprise tourists with their diversity and flavors.
Each island has its own twist, so there is no one Caribbean cuisine. But the threads that runs through most of the region’s food traditions are seafood and tropical fruits. And in most places a fondness for flavorful spices. Pork is a staple, usually sparked by piquant peppers; in Puerto Rico roast suckling pig is a favorite at roadside stands.
In Trinidad the influences are even more varied by their large Indian population. Along with its fiery curries enhanced by local peppers, Trinidad is known for its jerk meats. Jamaica is, of course, the place most associated with this slow-cooked and highly spiced meat prepared over an open fire, a legacy of runaway slaves. While it’s available everywhere in Jamaica, the favorite source is roadside jerk stands.
Traditional cuisine of the Cayman Islands combines British and Jamaican influences with those of Central America (advise clients bound there to look for fried land crab). Influences are more diverse on Curaçao, where people of more than 50 ethnicities combine with a lively tourism scene to bring a tremendous variety of restaurants serving everything from creole dishes like coconut patties to specialties from Brazil, France or Indonesia.
In Grenada clients can expect to find the best known products of the “Spice Island” in dishes like ginger pork and curried lamb. Martinique may have the most surprising cuisine, a blend of French, Creole and Indian. A large group of workers came here from Pondicherry, bringing a taste for curry that has become an integral part of island cuisine. Add tropical fruits to classic French dishes, and mix in the island’s excellent beef for a varied cuisine that is unique to the island. Steak frits may be served with a side of curried pineapple and conch served au gratin topped by mountain cheese from the French Alps. The local rum is among the best.
St. Martin’s dual cuisines tend to be served up separately: the Dutch on one side of the island and the French on the other. British Anguilla is a hotbed of upscale dining, spawned by the island’s high-end tourism, so you’re as likely to find first-class sushi as spicy barbecued meats. The same is true of upscale St. Bart’s, where the dining scene is as cosmopolitan as any high-end mainland tourist haven.
Where to dine
You can book entire customized tours or cooking vacations for dedicated foodies with Caribbean Culinary Tours and Vacations (www.caribbeanculinarytours.net) that include three or six nights with meals, cooking lessons and visits to local produce and fish markets and rum distilleries.
Several islands have day or half-day food tours. Virgin Islands Food Tours (www.vifoodtours.com) include tastings at several restaurants in historic Christiansted on St. Croix, and Flavors of St Thomas (www.flavorsofstthomas.com) is a progressive lunch served at four locally owned restaurants in Charlotte Amalie, plus a lesson in mixing rum cocktails. The same group operates in San Juan, Puerto Rico (www.sanjuanfoodtours.com) and in St Martins (www.stmartinfoodtours.com), where they also offer a 4 1/2-hour bus tour that visits five restaurants on the Dutch and French sides of the island.
Food experiences are popular activities at Caribbean resorts, too. The chef at Turtle Beach (www.eleganthotels.com/turtle-beach) in Barbados leads a morning culinary tour that includes the market, where they learn to choose fish and perfect pineapples before returning for a cooking demonstration using
The new Grand Hyatt Baha Mar (www.bahamar.grand.hyatt.com), opened in April, offers a conch salad lesson, where guests learn the secrets of preparing this traditional Bahamian dish. At the Sheraton Puerto Rico Hotel & Casino (www.sheratonpuertoricohotelcasino.com) guests can learn the secrets of a perfect mojito at a cocktail class, or book a Chef’s table dinner where each dish is prepared in front of them. At Oil Nut Bay’s Beach Club Restaurant (www.oilnutbay.com), rum tastings are paired with ceviche of locally caught wahoo fish, and fritters of local lobster.
The boutique True Blue Bay Resort
(www.truebluebay.com) in Grenada offers cooking classes in preparing the signature dish, callaloo-stuffed chicken with nutmeg sauce, or the local favorite, curry-chicken roti. The chef at Four Seasons Resort Nevis (www.fourseasons.com/nevis) takes teaching guests how to make his charcoal-grilled lobster with mango salsa one step beyond the kitchen, beginning with a lobster-catching dive. While in the water, guests also bring back lionfish, which they grill and use to make ceviche.
The decision of where to go and when may also be influenced by local food festivals on each island. Some of these are purely local celebrations, while others are major culinary events featuring international guest chefs. Be sure your clients know about these in early 2018: Cayman Cookout, Cayman Islands, January 11 - 14, 2018. Features international chef super-stars in a weekend of tastings, demonstrations, tours and dinners www.caymancookout.com
St. Croix Food & Wine Experience, St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, April 5-9, 2018. Celebrity chefs, cooking classes for kids and A Taste of St. Croix, spotlighting dishes from 50 local restaurants. www.stxfoodandwine.com
Saborea Puerto Rico, San Juan, Puerto Rico, April 5-8, 2018. A Culinary Extravaganza of international celebs, cooking demonstrations and tastings by local restaurants.