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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“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.

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