Although often grouped, the Caribbean is a diverse collection of countries, each with its own unique customs. But a few things are consistent. Stretches of white sand, crystal clear waters, and plentiful palm trees grace the sultry shores from Barbados to Bermuda. And deeply ingrained in the culture is a shared love for food rich in colorful ingredients and exotic spice combinations.
Food is at the heart of Caribbean family life and tradition. It’s not uncommon for people to spend days preparing food for holidays and special events. The first dwellers in the Caribbean, the Arawak and Carib “Indians,” introduced the fruits and vegetables that have come to be key players in Caribbean food today. Yam, papaya, guava, and cassava are still staples in Caribbean diets, along with the herbs and spices that Carib Indians used to marinate their meat and fish that we now refer to as Jerk seasoning.
Africa, France, Britain, and Asia bought other influences like curry, tomatoes, and sugar cane. But each Caribbean island brings individual taste and culinary techniques to its cuisine. From cod and conch to turtle stew, every region has its specialty. This article looks at nine local dishes that define Caribbean food culture, and that you have to try if you’re visiting one of the islands.
Fungee and Pepperpot: Antigua & Barbuda
Host to hilly landscapes and hugged by pristine coastline, Antigua and Barbuda lies at the southern end of the Leeward Islands in the Lesser Antilles island chain. Inhabited by a diverse population due to a prosperous tourist industry, this two-island nation is also home to Fungee and Pepperpot, the fragrant national dish.
Fungee and Pepperpot is a local name for the popular entrée made from cornmeal and okra, boiled into a paste and rolled into balls. These are stewed with a melange of meats such as salted beef, pickled pork, pigtail, and chicken and finished with eggplant, onions, spinach, and, of course, fungi.
The mixture is ready to serve when it does not stick to the pan. This dish is eaten as a typical Caribbean dinner alongside vegetable mash and saltfish.
CouCou and Flying Fish: Barbados
Given that Barbados is referred to as “The Land of the Flying Fish,” it is only fitting that this popular local seafood is a must-try when visiting the lush West Indian Island. With white sands and warm waters dominating the resort-lined west coast, and a wild surfer’s paradise to the East, Barbados is as diverse as Caribbean food culture. But CouCou and Flying fish is popular across the country.
The fish is steamed with onions, lime juice, spices, and vegetables and served over CouCou. Somewhat resembling polenta or grits, CouCou is another cornmeal and okra product but it is meddled together in this dish to form an oatmeal-like consistency. The mellow and aromatic fish stew defines this national delicacy.
Crab and Callaloo: Trinidad & Tobago
Located just 11 km from Venezuela, Trinidad and Tobago are known for their vibrant carnival cultures. Trinidad’s capital, the Port of Spain, is host to the “Mother of Caribbean Carnival” and the best of West Indian and Central American culture. Expect masquerade traditions to the sounds of calypso and soca music, accompanied by rich Creole cuisine.
Among the vibrant dishes served up across the dual-islands is Crab and Callaloo, the national dish of Tobago but a favorite among Caribbean dwellers. This meal is made by simmering shelled crab meat in Callaloo, a mixture of taro leaves, green onions, okra pods, butter, coconut milk, and scotch bonnet peppers.
Spicy and creamy, this soulful crab stew has its origins in West Africa but has become a popular carnival treat in Trinidad and Tobago. Sometimes topped with red meat, variations of the dish are enjoyed across the Caribbean, but you will find the most authentic Crab and Callaloo on either of these colorful islands.
Green Fig and Saltfish: St Lucia
The lush and prosperous island nation of St Lucia makes the perfect romantic hideaway with its rolling hills and captivating coastline. Home to Jade Mountain, St Lucia is every bit evocative as it is mysterious. If you’re lucky enough to vacation on this historic and luxurious island, you can’t miss out on the national dish of Green Fig and Saltfish.
Green figs, perhaps better recognized as green bananas, are boiled and served with salted cod, cabbage, onion, and pickled peppers. The dish is served during the festival of Jounen Kweyol on the last weekend in October to celebrate the multicultural and Creole heritage of the island. But Green Fig and Saltfish are also often prepared as a breakfast dish. What a way to start the day.
Jerk Chicken: Jamaica
Like the iconic island of Jamaica, jerk chicken needs no introduction. As renowned as reggae music, jerk chicken is one of the country’s most beloved exports. This cooking style is native to the island and unique to Jamaica’s Carib Indian roots, but it’s been adopted worldwide by diverse communities of soulful cooks.
Jerk cooking consists of both dry rubbing and marinating meat, traditionally chicken, with the perfect combination of hot, spicy, and sweet herbs and spices. Scotch bonnet chilies and allspice mark the traditional jerk marinade, and you can apply it to any meat and even vegetables.
Jerk chicken is best served with rice, peas, and plantain and is done everywhere in Jamaica, from beach barbeques to five-star resorts. Jamaican jerk food is a huge component of American and British Afro-Caribbean culture, but it’s popularity is ubiquitous across the Caribbean.
Stewed Salt Fish with Dumplings, Spicy Plaintain, and Breadfruit: Saint Kitts & Nevis
Another dual island nation, Saint Kitts and Nevis, is located between the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. These islands benefit from exotic climates with lush coastlines, crater lakes, and even a cloud-shrouded volcano that, although dormant, dominates Saint Kitts.
One reason to visit either island is to try the national dish of stewed saltfish with dumplings that is served alongside spicy plantain and breadfruit. This hearty dish, boiled in chicken stock and coconut milk, is filling and unique. A rainbow of colors characterizes the plate and the flavor combinations.
And if you’re not a fan of seafood, well, you’re in the wrong place. But this dish is also served with goat and papaya in a tomato-based stock as a locally-loved alternative to the national dish.
La Bandera: Dominican Republic
Although occupying two-thirds of Hispaniola, the Dominican Republic is a thriving Caribbean country, rich in history and with a diverse landscape of rainforests, savannah, and highlands. The culture is influenced by Spanish, African, and Taíno elements, and the local cuisine is no different.
La Bandera, translated from Spanish as “the flag,” is the country’s national dish. This colorful and soul-warming plate was traditionally a working-class lunch and consisted of beans, chicken, salad, and rice. The basics are still the same today. Once fuel for laborers, this dish will give you the power you need for exploring all the island has to offer, from the snorkeling reefs to the vibrant nightlife.
Make sure you order tostones to accompany your meal. The small, fried green plantains are another national dish of the Dominican Republic and not to be missed.
Oil Down: Grenada
Grenada is the southernmost island of the Antilles archipelago and is affectionately dubbed “Spice Isle” due to the abundance of nutmeg plantations hosted on the island. Take a tour around this island with its rustic and fragrant food, and you’ll see that spice is at the heart of Grenadian culture.
The national dish, Oil down, is a hotpot of Grenadian history. It is made with salted meat, chicken stock, breadfruit, and local vegetables and often prepared cookout-style for special occasions and family gatherings. Each attendee will bring something to add to the much-loved one-pot stew.
Oil Down is often simmered in coconut milk and a mix of local herbs and spices for more flavor. Considered serious comfort food, Grenadians are very protective of their national dish. Tampering with Oil down is seen to be synonymous with tampering with Grenada’s rich ancestral history. So make sure you leave the cook-outs to the professionals.
Turtle Stew: Cayman Islands
Though an overseas territory of the United Kingdom, the Cayman Islands are an island group in the Caribbean Sea consisting of Grand Cayman, Cayman Brac, and Little Cayman. Recognized as the birthplace of recreational diving in the Caribbean, don’t be fooled by the British ownership. The Cayman’s and their cuisine are as exotic as it gets.
The curious national dish of the Cayman Islands is turtle stew, a broth consisting of cassava, potatoes, onions, peppers, and, of course, turtle meat. Although we may feel sentimental about tucking into our favorite character from Finding Nemo, turtle meat has a taste likened to that of veal and contains no cholesterol content.
Consuming turtle meat is illegal in the United States because the species is federally protected under the Endangered Species Act. So if you’re visiting any of the Cayman Islands, immerse yourself in the culture and give this stew a try. You might not get the chance again.
What is traditional Caribbean food?
Traditional Caribbean food is famous for being hearty, spicy, and rich in vegetables, meat, and seafood. Caribbean food is defined by its stews that are often served with rice, plantains, beans, and cornmeal pastes, similar to grits. Other typical ingredients in Caribbean food include cassava, peppers, chickpeas, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, and coconut. Caribbean food culture is traditionally flavorful and steeped in history and culinary traditions are at the heart of every Caribbean family. Although each island has a national dish, every Caribbean family will champion a unique recipe.
What makes Caribbean food unique?
Caribbean food is unique for its diverse cultural influences, historical traditions, and vibrant flavors as colorful as the bountiful islands themselves. Scotch bonnet peppers mark the spices used in Caribbean food, and the root vegetables and fruits of the islands define the exotic stews that are characteristic of the cuisine. Although sharing similar histories, no two Caribbean islands are the same, which is reflected in the varied cuisines.
What is the most popular dish in the Caribbean?
The most popular dish in the Caribbean is jerk chicken. Often served with rice and peas, jerk is a food marination practice unique to Jamaica but one that has been adopted by many Caribbean nations and countries worldwide. This culinary art involves dry-rubbing and marinating chicken in jerk spice, a mixture that perfectly combines hot, sweet, and spicy flavors.
What are Caribbean snacks?
Despite hearty stews being quintessential of Caribbean food culture, the islands are by no means short of sweet and savory snacks that both locals and tourists enjoy. Some snacks you need to try include, the Trinidadian Saheena and Pholourie. Saheena is a steamed dumpling served with chutney, while the latter is a deep-fried split pea appetizer presented at gatherings and parties.
Jamaica has the sweet snacks locked down for the Caribbean. Toto cake is a deliciously dense cake made from flour, sugar, grated coconut, and eggs and flavored with allspice, nutmeg, ginger, and salt. The cake can also contain rum and raisins, and it is served in squares as a party snack. Other Jamaican snacks include peanut drops, bulla cake, and banana chips.
Some other Caribbean snacks you can’t miss include, Bake and Shark, a street food snack served in Trinidad and Tobago, Haiti’s signature Haitian savory pastry, and Jamaican meat patties that are a staple in British-Jamaican culture.