Palates of the Caribbean

Islanders love jerk meats, fresh fruits and vegetables and tasty Caribbean staples. Here’s how restaurateurs and food processors are bringing a calypso cornucopia to mainland tables.

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By Mike Pehanich, Contributing Editor

Freshness, spice, flavor and imagination. It’s tough to miss with those four ingredients. Throw in the hybrid vigor of cooking styles of France, Spain, India and the Netherlands, and you will understand why the cuisine of the Caribbean attracts the attention of some of the culinary world’s most creative chefs.

Bold, light and exotic--and healthful to boot--Caribbean cuisine is an amalgam of the region, a paradise of fresh island foods intermixed with fresh fruits, tangy sauces, adventurous spices, blazing hot peppers, an array of international influences, and a hint of voodoo mystery.

A calling card of Caribbean--especially Jamaican--cuisine is jerked meat. Chicken, pork, and even fish are smeared with a paste consisting of peppers, scallions, thyme, nutmeg and pimento seed--the source of allspice. Image courtesy of McCormick.
The Caribbean may be the ultimate culinary melting pot with dishes ranging from paella-like Spanish recipes in Puerto Rico to Martinique’s Creole cooking and Aruba’s Dutch dishes. But the region’s homegrown ingredients, uniquely spiced and prepared meats, and seafood delights provide its greatest distinction.

Fresh fruits and vegetables appear at almost every meal. Passion fruit, limes, guava, coconut, pineapple, and mangoes are just a few of the fruits close at hand in the Caribbean. They are luscious eaten fresh, but imagination makes them versatile and different--sample baked papaya, for example, or a mango mousse.

“Three things make Caribbean cuisine tasty and different,” says Veda Nugent, Jamaican-born chef, restaurateur, and co-author of Sugar and Spice and Everything Irie, a book on Jamaican cooking. “Most important are the spices and how we mix them. Second is the time we spend preparing and cooking. Third, we use all fresh ingredients.”

Foods are similar across the Caribbean, Nugent notes, though preparation may differ and foods may carry different names from island to island.

What differentiates Caribbean cuisine and island variants is spice usage. “We use a lot of thyme, scallions, hot peppers, especially scotch bonnet peppers, and jerk sauce with allspice the key ingredient,” says Nugent.

Garlic is also a favored ingredient, often in combination with oregano and peppers.

Caribbean cuisine reflects the history of the region. It is rich with adventure, native abundance, and hunts for priceless treasure. Arawaks and Caribs were the island natives who faced early invasion from native Mexican and South American tribes before Cristobal Colon (a.k.a. Christopher Columbus) made his historic stop. Then followed hundreds of years of Spanish, English, French, and Dutch expansionism and merchant trade. The Spanish and French left permanent impressions on the region’s cuisine and its culture. Globe trotting and culinary adventure brought curry and Indian cuisine into the mix.

Much of Caribbean history was driven and fueled by trade of sugar, tobacco, molasses and African slaves, spiced by hair-raising wars on the high seas and assaults on island fortresses. The infamous pirates of the Caribbean--a mix of outlaws and brigands from every land touched by the seven seas--provided the hottest spice of that vibrant history.

Caribbean cuisine features bright platters and fresh fruits juxtaposed with hot pepper-based sauces and flavorings. This mix of hot and soothing is a repeated theme. Think of papayas, tomatoes, peaches, citrus fruits and mangos mixed with Adobo and other peppery seasonings.

Rum is, of course, a Caribbean favorite, but other native island beverages are worth a taste, too. Islanders created sorrel by boiling the tropical flower and adding cloves, ginger, sugar, orange and spices. Mawby is another spicy beverage made from tree bark.

Jerked in Jamaica

A barbecue hut in Montego Bay may be the best place to sample jerked meat, the calling card of Jamaican cuisine and a favorite through much of the Caribbean. Chicken, pork, and even fish marinate in a mouth-scorching sauce comprised of fiery scotch bonnet peppers, scallions, thyme, nutmeg, pimento seed (the source of allspice) and other mystery ingredients. The meat often cooks over a pit of pimento wood.

Thank the native peoples for this method of food preparation. A blend of the culinary styles of cannibal Caribs and peaceful Arawaks generated jerk. The Caribs used Chili peppers for flavor, while the native Arawak people devised the pit-cooking method, employing aromatic leaves to impart flavor.
Rice and "peas": Coupled with rice, the “peas”--red beans--form a complete protein. Black beans and rice may be substituted. Image courtesy of Goya Foods.

That was only the first of a line of fusion efforts.

“You see the French influence in the sauces,” says Nugent. “We don’t use many of the sauces anymore due to weight concerns. Still, we do use a lot of cream and butter.”

Curry goat is a popular dish. Rice and “peas” (red beans) with the meat of choice is a typical Sunday meal on the island. Ceviche is a means of preparing seafood in citrus juices, with herbs and onions added. Escovitch (a.k.a. escabeche) – pan fried or poached fish with salt and pepper – is another Jamaican specialty.

“You prepare a sauce with onions, allspice, vinegar and oil and pour it over the fish,” says Nugent. “The fish will last for days even without refrigeration.”

A mid-week Jamaican specialty is pepperpot soup made with spinach-like callaloo and various greens along with yam, dumplings, cocoa, and sometimes shrimp or meat.

Akee is Jamaica’s national dish. “Some call it a fruit; some call it a vegetable,” explains Nugent. “You can boil the akee in water, adding salt, and cook it with onions, tomatoes and oil. You add a desalted, de-boned codfish, let it simmer and put in black pepper. It is a very tasty dish.”

The chefs pioneering New Jamaican cuisine employ traditional Jamaican ingredients in different ways. The executive chef at the Grand Lido Negril, Martin Maginley, rubs coffee on pork tenderloin, serving it with molasses and ginger mashed potatoes, for example.

The typical Saturday meal is beef soup--beef bones and beef, cho-cho, pumpkin, carrots, turnips and name, a yellow yam, with dumplings mixed in. “It’s a one-pot dish--that is, a complete meal,” says Nugent.

Island hopping

Cuisine is similar from island to island, but local twists and specialties add variety and flavor. And, of course, each island has its specialties.

  • Barbados: Flying fish with cous-cous, made with cornmeal and okra, is a traditional dish.
  • Curacao: pineapples and oranges, papayas and mangoes, aromatic spices, tasty dorado fillets, and colorful hues add spice to island life.
  • Dominica: Callaloo, a full-bodied soup made from the spinach-like dasheen, a wild native plant.
  • Dominican Republic: The cuisine has Spanish roots but island ingredients give the food its distinction. Locrio is an island version of paella featuring annatto in place of saffron. The national dish, sancocho, is a thick stew comprised of meat and root vegetables. Foods like catibias--fritters made from yuca flour and stuffed with meat--date back to the island's indigenous tribes.
  • Guadeloupe: Blaff is the local restaurant favorite – a light broth with fish in garlic, lime and wine. Curry chicken dishes are also popular.
  • Haiti: The Creole spoken gives a hint as to the cuisine, spicy and French-influenced. Tassot is a local jerked beef dish.
  • Martinique: The island of flowers also credits the French for its culinary roots. Both classic French cuisine and Creole cooking shine.
  • Trinidad: Roti is a staple of this island. Made from wheat flour and spiced with curry, the thin pita-like bread is a permanent sign of Indian influence on Caribbean cuisine. It is even sold by street vendors.
The same pattern of travel and adventure that created Caribbean cuisine has been responsible for its spread. Chef Norman Van Aken, a founder (some say the founder) of New World Cuisine, has taken Caribbean concepts into his culinary “Future World,” tossed in an assortment of back-home and “favorite places” influences and made the world his oyster in the process. His fusion cooking approach mixes elements of Caribbean, South American, Asian and American cuisines. Norman’s, his namesake restaurant, reaps culinary awards by the bushel load and has hooked Miami/Coral Gables diners with so many popular dishes that some regard him as a national treasure.

“Long-time customers would become homicidal if his classic citrus/saffron-spiked creamy conch chowder disappeared from the menu,” summed a Reader’s Choice Award recap of this perennial Coral Gables winner.

Peel away the petals of his culinary artichoke and you find simple elements of the islands at the heart of New World Cuisine, as wildly colorful and blended as the history of the Caribbean region.

Processors find hidden treasures

The freshness, variety and color that characterize Caribbean cuisine offer as much challenge to processors as they do creative opportunity to chefs and restaurateurs.

Processors venturing into Caribbean culinary waters have stuck primarily with Caribbean components--canned beans, marinades and sauces, mixes and other dried products. Goya Foods (www.goya.com), Secaucus, N.J., long ago staked its claim as the predominant American-based maker and marketer of Caribbean food products, particularly Puerto Rican and Cuban foods. Its products offer shortcuts to authentic Caribbean meal preparation as easy-to-fix, easy-to-add components and ingredients.

“Sales of Caribbean products show continued growth,” says Conrad Colon, vice president of marketing for Goya. “There is more immigration from the region, especially from the Dominican Republic, to sustain that growth. But growth in product sales is not just coming from people from the Caribbean region. Mainstream consumers are demanding more flavorful and healthy foods. They want more zip and trim in their foods. They are also learning more about authentic Hispanic foods. They travel to the Caribbean, and they come back looking for the foods they enjoyed there. We are also giving them interesting new products."

Goya’s Adobo line of meat flavorings typifies the company’s approach to the market. Five flavors of blended garlic, oregano and seasonings are used to flavor meats, chicken and seafood. For meats, too, is Mojo Criollo, a marinade made from orange and lemon juices and accented with garlic and spices. Recaito is a base made from cilantro, green pepper, onion, garlic and olive oil. Sofrito is a Spanish-style cooking sauce of sauteed tomato sauce, peppers, onions, and garlic.

Other products in the Goya Caribbean line-up include canned coconut milk, garbanzos (chick peas), pigeon peas, fruit pulps, coffees, bouillon, fruit nectars, mango juice, rice mixes, and cooking oils. Its yellow rice mix is the top-selling rice SKU in the New York market, which holds a large population of Caribbean peoples.

Some Goya products are designed specifically for people who want to try Caribbean foods but are not sure how to cook them. The company’s line of frozen appetizers and entrees – which includes fried plantains, Asopao, Roja Vieja, and rice with chicken/beef, numbers more than 100 items.

“We have launched about 50 new products,” says Goya’s Colon, identifying a canned yuca and a wafer line with tropical fillings that include guava, dulce leche, and chocolate. Jalapeno jelly is an addition to a line of jellies that includes mango, pineapple, guava, passion fruit and papaya.
Rich Products’ Bahama Blast line of real fruit concentrates and drink mixes include StaBlend, a formulation technology designed to keep frozen drinks blended longer, with slower separation and melt down. Image courtesy of Rich Products.

That health consciousness has penetrated the island population as well as mainstream America is evident in the Adobo line, which recently introduced a 50% less sodium product. “The line is great with meats, fish, and seafood. You use it a lot in barbecue.”

Rich Products Corp. of Buffalo, N.Y., is cruising Caribbean tastes with its award winning line of frozen cocktail mixes and smoothie concentrates called Bahama Blast. The products received the 2004 American Culinary Institute Best of Class Award in the foodservice frozen beverage category.

Baltimore-based McCormick Co. has also seen Caribbean food interest reflected in consumer spice sales.

“People are buying cinnamon, thyme, allspice, red pepper and chilis and adding these flavors to their foods,” says Laurie Harrsen of McCormick’s consumer products division. The company has sold these spices in its standard red cap line for years. But four years ago, it added jerk seasoning to its gourmet line of spices.

“We also offer Caribbean flavors in our Grill Mates line of sauces, marinades and seasoning blends,” says Harrsen. “Our spicy Caribbean marinade mix is a flavor we supply to meet the trend...

“And because consumers like it.”

The Language of Caribbean Cuisine

All that trade, curiosity, treasure hunting and island hopping made a habit of mix and imagination that filtered right down to the eating patterns and recipes of Caribbean inhabitants. Virtually every ingredient, staple and recipe of Caribbean cuisine has a story to tell.

  • Akee – Also spelled “ackee” and sometimes called “vegetable brains,” this staple is taken from the core of a red-yellow fruit that grows on evergreen trees. Brought to the islands from the Ivory Coast and Gold Coast of Africa, its taste and color have been compared to scrambled eggs. “The flesh grows in a pod that is filled with insulin,” says author Veda Nugent. “People used to think that the flesh was poison. Only recently have we discovered that its insulin concentration was so great that it dropped blood sugar levels so low that it threatened lives. It can actually stabilize the blood sugar levels of diabetics.”
  • Beans – Lima beans and black-eyed peas are native to the Caribbean. Black-eyed peas, red beans and black beans are paired with rice that not only comprises a common complete-protein staple, but also provide a base for creative dishes featuring seafood, vegetables, fruits and tasty sauces. Beans are used in many recipes in both whole and ground form.
  • Boniato – Root vegetables of many names and varieties--yams, sweet potatoes, manioc, and more--are used extensively across the islands. A frequent accompaniment to island dishes, the boniato is a white potato, slightly sweet. “It’s served in Cuba ‘au gratin,’ twice-baked and served with pork dishes,” notes Chris Bupp of Chicago’s Mambo Grill.
  • Breadfruit – A plant probably brought to the West Indies from Micronesia by the French in the 18th century to feed the region’s slaves, it is a pulpy, seedless vegetable. It can be served ripe like a fruit, or, before it ripens, cooked like a vegetable. Try it steamed, baked or fried. It is used with coconut milk to create a pudding.
  • Cassava – Ancient Arawaks solved the problem of separating the toxic juice from the nutritious flesh of manioc, also called cassava or yuca, a starchy tuber, which James Michener called “one of the world’s most remarkable good-evil foods.” It is prepared boiled, baked and fried, or, when ground first into a meal, also called “cassava,” is used to make flat bread.
  • Coconut – An island icon, the coconut is also a versatile food that plays a vital role in Caribbean cuisine. From featured ingredient in arepas con coco (patties) and Pina coladas to a supporting role in sauces and bean dishes, islanders would go nuts without the coconut.
  • Jerk – One of the Caribbean’s gifts to global culture is barbecue (called “barbacoas” way back when). Michener traces the practice back to Carib cannibals who used the method to roast their captives. Centuries later, the Jamaican maroons, fugitive black slaves chased by the British, devised the jerk cooking method for wild boar. They marinated the meat in tangy blends of herbs and spices, wrapped it in aromatic leaves to trap in flavor, and slow-cooked it in pits.
  • Okra – This versatile vegetable came to the islands with African slaves. It is used to thicken stews as well as for its vegetable contribution.
  • Peppers – They like their peppers hot in the Caribbean. The Scotch Bonnet pepper changes color as it ripens, going from green to yellow and finally a hot orange-red. Habaneros are another hot chile variety. Chipotle and jalapenos also enter the hot mix.
  • Plantains – These “cooking bananas” are found across the islands. Plantains are often battered and deep-fried. Ripe plantains, called maduros, make a sweet fried dish. Tostones are fried and refried green plantains in a crisp chip form and served like french fries. In the Puerto Rican dish mofongo, plantains are fried and mashed with pork and garlic. They are also boiled and presented as a meat side dish.
  • Rice and “peas” – Coupled with rice, the “peas”--red beans--form a complete protein. Black beans and rice are sometimes substituted.
  • Rum – For hundreds of years, much of island strife, settlement and commerce centered around sugar cane and the sugar trade. The favorite sugar by-product for centuries has been rum, the potent ingredient in fruity island beverages that inspire Jimmy Buffet. Nations fought battles over sugar, rum and molasses in the past, and swash-buckling buccaneers raided ships made rich by its trade. Today it’s “Yo-ho-ho and an umbrella glass of juice and rum.” Each island produces its own style of rum. Enjoy the selection process.
  • Seafood – Caribbean islanders have limitless varieties of fish and seafood and many ways to prepare it. Conch dishes are often house specialties. From its elegant pink shell to its clam-live meat, you’ll find it in chowders and fritters. Its flesh is tough so it is pounded first to tenderize it. Saltfish –primarily cod, sometimes mackerel or haddock -- served with ackee is called bacalao in the Spanish-speaking islands but “morue” where they speak French.
  • Spices – The spectrum of flavors is even broader than the colors at a Caribbean table. Allspice, thyme, ground mustard, annatto and cinnamon spice many dishes. Also saffron, nutmeg, curry and cumin. Herbs like lemongrass, bay leaf, and cilantro join garlic in many of the marinades and sauces.

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