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.

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