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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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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