Five must-try Caribbean dishes

With its mouthwatering mix of exotic local flavours and historic influence, Caribbean cuisine is a melting pot of culinary cultures, reports Peter Swain

Conch chowder, fried jackfish, tania fritters, soursop ice cream and, of course, rum punch: exotic flavours abound in the Caribbean, and few parts of the world can match it. English, French, Dutch and Spanish gastronomic influences stirred with a dash of Creole, a sprinkling of west African, a hint of Indian curry and a side order of diner-style American make eating in local restaurants an exciting prospect.

Having lived on Nevis, St Kitts’s smaller neighbour, for many years, I’m still discovering new dishes every day. The ocean is our farm, so our dish of the day is often fresh, locally caught fish – if you see mahi mahi, wahoo, red snapper or spiny lobster on a menu, you’re in for a treat. Here are five more regional specialities to look out for.

St Vincent: Roasted breadfruit and fried jackfish

The national dish of St Vincent (Vincy to the locals) is history on a plate. Native to the South Pacific, breadfruit was Captain Bligh’s precious cargo during the Mutiny on the Bounty in 1789. Despite Fletcher Christian’s best efforts, the large green fruits – which taste something like sweet potato – eventually found their way to the British West Indies, where they became a staple for workers on the sugar plantations.

Grown on big trees, the fleshy breadfruit is perfect for roasting on an open fire, and there’s even a Breadfruit Festival on the island in August. Jacks, sometimes called crevalle or trevally, are best filleted, dusted in a crunchy coating, fried and served with a spicy tomato sauce, making this dish a Caribbean twist on fish and chips.

Get a flavour of the island’s local treats – including breadfruit – on the A Taste of St Vincent shore experience.

St Kitts: Conch chowder

Found all along North America’s Atlantic seaboard, chowder is somewhere between a soup and a stew, featuring – in the case of St Kitts – conch, coconut milk, bacon, corn, bell peppers, sweet potato, ginger and maybe rum.

Some may associate conch with Lord of the Flies, in which the blowing of its large, elaborate shell symbolises unity and authority. Here it represents the ultimate comfort food. Found on the sea floor, the conch are brought up by free-diving fishermen before being marinated and slowly cooked in a large pot or chaudron (French for cauldron). Any number of beachside restaurants on both islands make it, although its hard to beat the offering at Golden Rock Inn on Nevis.

Barbados: Cou-cou and fried flying fish with spicy gravy

Bajans, as Barbados residents are called, love their cricket, rum, music and food. Cou-cou is basically a zesty fish stew with polenta or cornmeal and okra, though the name actually comes from the long wooden spoon needed to stir the pot. The dish has traditional African links, with something similar still eaten in Ghana today.

Flying fish, often spotted by cruise ship guests, are first marinated in lime juice before being boned, butterflied, rolled and steamed on top of a spicy sauce of scotch bonnet chilli peppers, ginger and tomatoes – all locally grown. The fiery result is perfectly complemented by the Bajan cornmeal and okra mix. Wash it all down with a Mount Gay Rum, first produced on the island in 1703; you can visit the distillery on the Barbados Finest Blends shore experience.

Antigua: Jerk chicken with rice and peas

This spicy street food, often associated with Jamaica, is widely eaten throughout the Caribbean and particularly in Antigua, where the island version is slightly milder than some. It’s all about the marinade: allspice is essential, together with soy sauce, sugar, garlic, ginger and scotch bonnets. Chicken thighs are coated with the mix and typically marinated overnight before being cooked on the barbecue the next day and served alongside rice and peas, a filling staple cooked using coconut milk and kidney beans.

Most fine restaurants and beach bars will have their own version, but, as it’s essentially Caribbean picnic food, jerk chicken tastes even better if enjoyed while lazing on the beach with a cold beer to hand – that’s the way Antiguans do it, and so should you.

Grenada: Oil down

Grenada is called the ‘Island of Spice’ because nutmeg, cinnamon, cocoa, vanilla, and ginger are all grown here – the scents as you drive around the island can be amazing. Several of these exotic tastes find their way into the national dish.

Before refrigeration, preserving meat and fish involved salt, so this dish is based on salt cod or salt beef, to which is added breadfruit, turmeric, nutmeg, bell peppers, coconut milk and the leaves of a plant variously called dasheen, callaloo or taro, a kind of local spinach. It’s called ‘oil down’ because when all the coconut milk has been absorbed, only coconut oil remains at the bottom of the dish – yep, this historic dish is actually good for you!

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