A tropical paradise with sweet aromatic plants and trees, and known for their unforgettable and unique blends of herbs, spices and cuisine. This 2,600-mile chain of islands, stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to the ports of Venezuela, has developed tremendously due the presence of a plethora of ethnic groups. Beginning with the primitive Indians to the indentured oriental servants, the Island’s food has grown for the best and the mix of tastes has flourished inevitably.
Even though the “blends of the earth” settled well, the government of these islands have change many times. Mostly, the islands have been singled-owned. Jamaica, for instance, was owned firstly by Spanish powers, then by English authorities, next by France, followed by Holland, Denmark, and the United States. Despite the flip-flop of regime, the Island’s uniqueness has yet to be disrupted. Their special techniques and equipment have developed into modern-aged necessities in most household kitchens, such as the egg beater originated in the 18th century. As the “meeting rooms of the seas”, the islands represent the place of infusion and holds a legacy unlike no other.
Within this long chain of islet lies a special island dear to all natives of this area nicknamed the “Spice Island”, Also known as the Grenada Island. The “Spice Island”, Grenada is an independent, three-island nation. Grenada has more spices per square mile than any other place in the world: cloves, cinnamon, cocoa, mace, Tonka beans, ginger, and a third of the world’s supply of nutmeg. “Drop a few seeds anywhere,” the locals will tell you, “and you have an instant garden.” The central area is like a jungle of palms, oleander, bougainvillea, purple and red hibiscus, crimson anthurium, bananas, breadfruit, birdsong, ferns, and palms. The main ingredient used by most Caribbean Islanders is the hot pepper, otherwise known as the chili pepper (Wolfe 46). Good island cooks recognize, however, that even their favorite peppers must be handled with discretion if they are to enhance, not annihilate, other flavors.
On the island of Jamaica, the scotch bonnet and the country pepper are used more often but still used with respect to the other flavors of the dish. Its innumerable varieties range from the familiar bell and sweet red peppers to the little fiery habaneros and others so hot that their oil is literally lethal (Wolfe 46). The best dishes, most islanders concur to, are the dishes consumed with spicy mixtures of island flavor. The dishes are blended with tomatoes, and of course the hot peppers. Some of the indigenous dishes to the many islands include vegetable fritters, blood pudding, and stuffed land-crab backs. The vegetable fritters produced in the Caribbean Islands are made up of mashed black-eyed peas or beans perked up with hot peppers. And so finely ground and thoroughly beaten before it is deep-fried, the fritters, that it seems to be doubled in bulk like yeast cake (Wolfe 21).
And finally, the inter-island specialty, the stuffed land crab backs; which is superior in flavor to the local sea crab. This tantalizing crab is boiled, minced, and sautéed with hot peppers and herbs, spices and bread crumbs then stuffed invitingly back into their shells (Wolfe 23). In Trinidad, where the Indian influence is strong, Dry or wet massala, which is curry powder or paste, and ghee, which is butter oil, is found most frequently in most delights.
A strong French influence can be seen in the use of seasoning, especially on island which change hands between Britain and France innumerable times, persisting even when island ended up English (Ortiz 1). Along with the unique dishes come the unique techniques of the Caribbean. The Jamaicans use coconut oil in the sautéing process of many dishes, while like many, the Haitians use butter and olive oil.
Also, unlike many starters, many Caribbean chefs serve hot soups. But tourist prefer something cool to start their meals, so to suit them a rainbow of new cold soups has been devised from local ingredients (Wolfe 24). Some of the most popular soups are the chilled orange soup and the chilled avocado soup. Going back to their culture, many chefs of the islands naturally cook how they know, but in the sake of exploring new-comers, they seemingly hold back on a few of their local cuisine.
Certain techniques used in Caribbean cooking are what give their characteristic flavors to many of their dishes. In the Spanish-speaking Island, Sofrito, a highly-seasoned tomato-sweet pepper sauce, adapted from the original Spanish version, is widely used. (Ortiz 1). During the Caribbean’s early years, all cooking preparations were done by hand, or by man-made products, but overall kept simple. In the 19th century, worker of the local plantation would squeeze juice from the sugar cane in a wind-powered mill. Since sugar was a major export, the discovery and design of the mill played an important role in economic advancement.
Slaves that worked on these plantations were 250, the minimum amount. A century earlier, the wooden egg beater was invented. The egg beater, then, was no more than a bowl with a horizontal rod that would be pushed and pulled through pegs, allowing the metal beater tip to revolve rapidly. Another piece of equipment would be the herb mill. Fresh or dried herbs would be placed at the bottom of the elongated canoe-like base, and then the wooden toothed disk would crush and pulverize the herbs place at the bottom. These simple items helped the tedious work of cooking and creating that much easier and allowed for quicker prep time for spices and such.
Mainly, the islanders of the Caribbean keep their equipment very simple, but efficient. In Puerto Rico, the Caldero, basically a cauldron, is a heavy cast-aluminum or iron casserole, round or oval with a tight fitting lid. This dish is used for many of their delightful meals. A couple of dished prepared in great success in the Caldero is Fillet of Beef and Arroz con Pollo.
Traditional island cuisine results from a mélange of cultural influences. The islands have been fought over and owned by various European powers – mainly the British, French, and Spanish. All of these cultures, as well as their respective culinary traditions, have played a role in forming the multi-national cuisine of the Caribbean (Beatty 3). Minute and casual influences have been made by Holland and Denmark, but not worth giving kudos to in conjunction with the impressively made cuisine. Originally, two Native American tribes occupied the islands – the Arawaks and Caribs. Food historians claim that the Caribs began the institution of spicing food with chili peppers, a culinary feature maintained today. The Caribs were also cannibals, a gastronomic trend that fortunately did not carry through to present (Beatty 3).
The one tribe, the Arawaks, were said to be the ones who started the cooking technique known today as barbequing. This was established by fabricating grills with native green sticks called barbacoa. The influences of the islands are a mix of many, because the islands are multicultural there are distinct regional differences in the authentic cuisines of the Caribbean. Islands like Puerto Rico and Cuba have distinct Spanish-influenced food. Guadeloupe and Martinique are French-owned Islands. Their native cuisine has obvious ties to France. Jamaica, which was once a major slave-trading center, is rich in African culture even though it was a British owned (Beatty).
The Caribbean islands are the “Garden of Eden” here on earth. This place is blended nicely with many textures, styles, flavors, and cultures; this goes not only for the food, but for the people. The truth of the matter is, all cultures mix at one time or another, but to say that these group of islands had the same effect as everywhere else would be an insult to the isles. This blessed place is the cornucopia of the seas.
Beatty, Theresa M. Food and Recipes of the Caribbean.
Ortiz, Elisabeth Lambert. The complete Book of Caribbean Cooking. New York: Ballantine books, 1973.
Wolfe, Linda. The Cooking of the Caribbean Islands. New York: Time-Life Books, 1970.