Cooking with global flavors is always exciting and some of the most flavorful dishes come from the Caribbean. I particularly love Jamaican food but I’ll gladly sit down to any Caribbean dish. With its bold flavors and hot spices, Caribbean food is a must-try. If Caribbean food is new to you or if you’re not sure how to make it yourself at home, I’m here to help. It may seem intimidating but it’s easier than you think. Let’s take a trip to the Caribbean and explore this amazing cuisine. You’ll feel like you’re on a tropical vacation in no time.
What exactly is Caribbean cuisine? After all, it’s not like the Caribbean is one country. There are actually 25 countries in the Caribbean and approximately 7,000 islands. The countries include Anguilla, Antigua, Aruba, Bahamas, Barbados, Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Cuba, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Grenada, Guadeloupe, Haiti, Jamaica, Martinique, Montserrat, Netherlands Antilles, Puerto Rico, Saint Kitts, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent, and more.
The history of the Caribbean has influences from many countries that colonized there because of trade and export, especially Spain, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands. The cuisine is a fusion of all these influences, plus African, East Indian, Arab, and Chinese cuisine.
Aromatics, Herbs, and Spices
Caribbean food is rich in flavor with aromatics, herbs, and spices such as cayenne, paprika, garlic, onion, scallions, black pepper, oregano, turmeric, ginger, nutmeg, and allspice. Allspice or pimento is made up of the dried berries of the pimento plant, which is native to Jamaica. The pimento berry has the flavor and aroma of a combination of cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, and pepper which is how it got the name “allspice.” Thyme is a common herb used for it’s grassy, lemony flavor.
You can use herbs and spices to make delicious marinades. One common marinade is filled with green herbs, garlic, onions, scotch bonnet peppers, celery, and green onions. It’s often used for meats, curries, and stews. The most common spice blend is Jerk seasoning which can be a dry rub or a wet paste. Jerk seasoning is made up of allspice, cinnamon, marjoram, rosemary, tarragon, brown sugar, red pepper flakes, cumin, cloves, black pepper, thyme, and Scotch bonnet peppers. Learn to make your own Homemade Jerk Seasoning so you can go on to make this Caribbean Jerk Sweet Potato Falafel, these Caribbean Jerk Millet Burgers with Pineapple Guacamole, and this Grilled Jerk Tofu with Pineapple Salsa.
Scotch bonnet peppers are often used in Caribbean cooking. Scotch bonnet peppers are extremely spicy. To get the flavor with less of the heat, the seeds can be removed from the pepper or the pepper can be added whole during cooking and removed before eating. Try using these hot peppers in this Caribbean Paella.
Despite the diversity that exists in Caribbean cuisine, there are ingredients that are common to most of the dishes. These include rice, plantains, beans, pigeon peas, molasses, rum, cassava, cilantro, bell peppers, chickpeas, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, and coconut. Of course, there are also various meats in Caribbean cuisine but these can be easily substituted for in traditional dishes. Let’s look at some of these ingredients in detail and of course, in recipes.
Rice is a staple in the Caribbean with each island having unique rice dishes. Often the rice is served with coconut. One of my favorite Jamaican dishes is rice and peas. The dish is made of rice that is cooked in coconut milk with either beans or peas in it. It’s creamy and delicious. Get my recipe here. In Cuba, a popular dish is congri rice, a mixture of black beans and rice seasoned with garlic, onion, salt, and other spices. In addition to the Caribbean Paella mentioned above, try this Caribbean Red Rice Salad with Chili-Apricot Dressing and this Colombian Coconut Rice.
Beans and Legumes
Beans are also a popular food throughout the Caribbean and they are cooked in a variety of ways depending on the region. Beans such as kidney, lima beans, black-eyed peas, lentils, and chickpeas are used in soups, stews, rice dishes, and fritters. In Cuba, black beans are a popular ingredient. Try these Cuban Black Beans, these Frijoles Negros: Cuban Black Beans, and this Caribbean Black Bean Chili.
Pigeon peas are beans that are very common throughout the Caribbean. They are delicious in this Jamaican Pigeon Pea Soup, Pigeon Pea Soup With Opo Squash, Pigeon Pea Salad, and Caribbean Pigeon Pea Coconut Curry. If you can’t find pigeon peas, use black-eyed peas instead.
Yucca root, also known as manioc or cassava, is a long, thin tuber with white, starchy flesh. This tropical veggie can be boiled, steamed, fried, baked, or processed into tapioca flour. Yucca root is often ground into a meal (like flour) and used to make bread. Bammy is a traditional Jamaican flatbread sold in stores and by street vendors. If you’ve never cooked with yucca before, try this Pistachio Yucca Crostini, Yuca con Mojo Cassava: Cuban Yuca in Garlic Sauce, Easy Baked Cassava Chips, and for dessert, make this Ongol Ongol Singkong: Indonesian Steamed Cassava Cake.
Callaloo and Other Veggies
One of my favorite vegetables used in Caribbean food is callaloo. Callaloo has its roots in West Africa. It was brought to the Caribbean by slaves and is a large part of diets in Jamaica, Dominica, and Trinidad and Tobago. Callaloo is a leafy green somewhat similar to spinach but spicier. Steamed callaloo is eaten at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. You can prepare callaloo any way you would spinach. Try swapping out spinach for callaloo in dishes like this Jamaican Tofu Scramble which also uses ackee, a traditional Caribbean fruit, or make callaloo the star, as in this Caribbean Callaloo Soup.
As you would expect, there is plenty of local produce in the Caribbean. Potatoes, eggplants, sweet potatoes (also known as boniato), jicama, and corn are commonly used in recipes. These Trinidadian Aloo Hand Pies have spiced mashed potatoes folded into a dough and fried. Baigan Choka, or roasted mashed eggplant, is to Trinidad and Togabo what baba ghanoush is to the Middle East. It is traditionally made by roasting eggplant over a grill until it’s charred and infused with smoky flavor, then scooping out the inside and mashing it with roasted peppers, tomatoes, onion, garlic, and butter. Cou Cou is a very popular Caribbean dish consisting of fluffy cornmeal (or polenta) with vegetables, creamy coconut milk, and seasoning. While cou cou is often served with fish, in this particular recipe, it is served with onion, okra, and red peppers. The result is a colorful, comforting, and satisfying dish. This Pumpkin Pone: Caribbean Corn Bread makes for a great seasonal side.
Plantains look like bananas, but they are very different. They need to be cooked before eating. When they are unripe, plantains have the starchy consistency of potatoes. Plantains can be made into chips, baked, mashed, puréed, or sautéed. They can be used for snacks, side dishes, desserts, or put into soups and stews. Recipes to try include this Vegetable Curry With Plantains, Mangu: Dominican Mashed Plantains, Plantain Dumpling Soup, and these Caramelized Plantains With Coconut Cream. Thinly sliced and fried plantains are a crunchy treat similar to potato chips. Try these Chili-Coated Plantain Crisps With Lime Ketchup.
Even though there can be a lot of meat in Caribbean cooking, some people do make veggie versions. Tofu, soy chunks, vegan meats, and non-dairy milk are used in vegetarian dishes and are usually made from scratch. Traditional Caribbean dishes can be made meat-free with such substitutes. For instance, if you love Jamaican beef patties, you must make my Jamaican ‘Beef’ Patties with Cheese. They use textured vegetable protein (TVP), but you could also use tofu, seitan, or lentils.
Curry dishes are popular in Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, since immigrants from India migrated to these countries during the 1800’s. Curries are usually seasoned with cayenne peppers, turmeric, cumin, coriander, and allspice. My Jamaican Curried Tofu with Chickpeas is a hearty and flavorful dish that can be made with any meat substitute you like or just with veggies. Get my recipe for Jamaican curried jackfruit here and try this Trini Channa and Aloo: Trinidadian Chickpea and Sweet Potato Curry. Ropa vieja is usually made with shredded beef, but you can make it meat-free like my Mushroom Ropa Vieja and Jackfruit Ropa Vieja.
The beautiful tropical climate of the Caribbean means there is an abundance of fruits such as mangoes, avocados, papaya, bananas, pineapple, guava, coconuts, and ackee. This Spicy Raw Mango Salad is delicious as is this Spicy Papaya Salad With Roasted Peanuts. Ackee is the national fruit of Jamaica. It is a bright red tropical fruit that has soft, creamy yellow flesh. Get my recipe for sautéed ackee here or try it in the Jamaican Tofu Scramble mentioned above.
Coconut is a basic ingredient in Caribbean cooking. Coconut milk is the base for many dishes especially stews like this Coconut Mango Stew. Learn how to make your own coconut milk and all the health benefits of using coconut oil in your cooking and even outside the kitchen. Thick coconut milk is used to make this yummy Jamaican Peanut Porridge. That’s a delicious way to start the day.
All of the tropical fruit available means that beverages will be tasty and sweet. Who wouldn’t love this Caribbean Chocolate Smoothie with coconut, rum, and cacao? Yes, please! Sorrel is a flower that can be found throughout the Caribbean. Sorrel petals are often placed in a pan with ginger, orange zest, and cloves and boiled to create sauces, jams, and drinks. During Christmas, many people in the British Caribbean enjoy this sweet and tart Caribbean Holiday Drink. You will most certainly find Sexy Juice on the menu at Caribbean events. It even looks sexy. Make ours a double!
Caribbean food is fresh and filled with flavor. Just the aroma alone will transport you the beautiful islands of the Caribbean, even if you’re still in your kitchen.
Lead image source: Trini Channa and Aloo: Trinidadian Chickpea and Sweet Potato Curry