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The Top Flavors Of The Caribbean

Updated on December 31, 2009

The Caribbean Sea is dotted with more than 7,000 islands, the largest of which were once inhabited by native tribes, crabs and coconut trees. But beginning with Columbus, these islands became awash in waves of colonizers who would forever alter the islands' way of eating, among other things. Most of the dishes that are considered authentically Caribbean are blends of island and colonial tastes.

English brought the concepts of plum pudding and jellies to Grenada, and re-created them to great effect using the local fruits. Another former British territory, Jamaica, boasts a dish made of salt cod and ackee (a tropical fruit), that winds up, many say, tasting remarkably like scrambled eggs. In French-owned territories, delicate culinary sensibilities merged with New-World ingredients, creating such dishes as crabes farcies: fresh crab meat chopped and blended with chiles, lime juice, herbs and coconut milk, and then stuffed back into the shell. The Dutch brought their love of cheese to Curacao, and the result was keshy yena, the scooped-out rind of a wheel of Edam cheese filled with pork or shrimp. African slaves brought to work the sugar plantations transported with them the seeds for new crops, including okra, pigeon peas, plantains and taro root.

Rice came to the islands later, with the introduction of indentured workers from India and China in the mid-1800s. It is now a key ingredient in soups and bean and rice combinations from Jamaican rice and peas (red beans cooked with beef and coconut milk) to Haiti's rice djon djon, which includes lima beans and Haitian black mushrooms.   

These new items fit easily into the islanders' menu, which is still characterized by the use of inexpensive ingredients prepared many different ways. Corn, beans, yam and sweet potatoes are indigenous to the islands, and appear in porridges, breads and tamale-like leaf-wrapped packages called conkies. Little cakes or dumplings float in soups or stews such as the Trinidadian pepper pot, a stew of meat and onions, "seasoned high" with chiles, cinnamon and cassareep, a bittersweet syrup from the cassava root (also called yuca). For flavoring, islanders rely heavily on chiles and tomatoes, which were migrated from South America thousands of years ago.

Meat plays a small but significant part in island cookery; after all, barbecue is supposed to have originated here. The most popular meats come from animals that may be easily raised in the wild or on small plots: chickens, goats or pigs. A few big meat specialties survive, such as jerk pork, which also reflects the regional preferences for very spicy food. But the real "meat" on the islands is fish, in an abundance that mainland dwellers might envy.

It wouldn't be tropical eating without tropical fruit. Fruits like breadfruit, star apples and ackee (the scrambled egg-tasting fruit) remain strangers to people in the United States, but mango, pineapple, papaya, coconut, guava and many others are easily found in Latin or Asian markets and many supermarkets, ready to be used in salads, desserts and condiments. Pulped and blended with ice and coconut or cow's milk, these tropical fruits also make wonderful smoothies.

Another favorite island drink is fresh coconut milk: not the white stuff you might know from cans, which is actually blended and squeezed from the grated coconut meat and water, but the clear liquid in the center of the nut. If you have only experienced rum as an ingredient in cheesy cocktails with umbrellas, you might be pleasantly surprised by the flavor of some of the darker rums from this region, which are still points of pride on their islands of production.

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