The Caribbean archipelago encompasses more than 7,000 individual islands in an approximately 1 million-square-mile area. There are 13 sovereign island nations and 12 dependent territories, with close political ties throughout the region to Europe and the United States. Another 10 Latin American countries include Caribbean coastlines and the predominant languages are English, Spanish, French, Dutch and Antillean Creole. The entire region is often referred to as the West Indies (it was originally mistaken for western India during early expeditions).
The political history of this region may be colonial, but the culture of the Caribbean Islands is a colorful amalgam of traditions from the many ethnicities found there, both native and from away. The art, music, literature and culinary achievements reflect the legacy of African slaves forcibly brought there to work on sugar plantations along with the Amerindians who were living on islands before the arrival of Christopher Columbus and the Europeans colonizers.
The Caribbean Flavor Profile
Caribbean cuisine is a blend of culinary influences around the globe. All of the culinary influences below merged together, creating what we call today Caribbean cuisine.
Pre-Columbian (Arawaks and Caribs) – The Arawaks are credited with creating the precursor to modern-day barbecuing. The Caribs introduced chili and other spices to island cooking.
Europeans – The Dutch, English, French, and Spanish conquerors and colonists introduced some of their cooking methods and ingredients, including garlic, onion, orange, chicken, coconut, pork, and rice.
Africans – From the early 17th century to the mid 18th century, over a million Africans came as slaves, mainly to work in the sugar cane fields. With them came their cooking traditions and ingredients, including okra, pigeon peas, plantains, and taro root.
Chinese and Indians – When slavery was abolished and the need for workers continued to grow, indentured Chinese and Indians arrived in large numbers. Their culinary styles and foods (such as wok cooking and curry) migrated with them.
Other influences – Because of their close proximity, the cooking techniques and foods from Mexico, Central America, and northern South America easily crossed the sea to the islands.
Early colonization by Spain had a major influence on Cuban cuisine. Other important ingredients and techniques contributing to Cuban cuisine were from slaves brought from Africa to work at the sugar cane plantations, and French colonists from Haiti. The majority of dishes in traditional Cuban cooking are sautéed or slow-cooked over low flame. Most Cuban dishes include a few repeat spices, including cumin, garlic, oregano, and bay leaf. Many dishes use a sofrito (chopped onion, green pepper, garlic, oregano, and black pepper fried in olive oil) as their base, which provides a distinct flavor. Most meats and poultry are first marinated in citrus juices like oranges and lime juice before being slowly roasted.
Notable Cuban Dishes – Papas Rellanos (Stuffed potato balls), Maduros (sweet plantains), Pollo Fricassee (chicken with garlic, olives & tomatoes), Medianoche & Cubano/Mixto (pork, ham, cheese, pickle and mustard pressed sandwiches), Masitas (crispy fried pork cubes), Lechon Asado (roast pork in mojo marinade), Mojo (garlic-citrus marinade & sauce), Picadillo (beef, potatoes, olives & string beans), Ropa Vieja (“old clothes” shredded beef and peppers cooked in tomato), Yuka (potato-like starch), Bunuelos (little yuca donuts).
MHT Cuban Recipes:
“Out of many, one people”. Like many of the island countries of the Caribbean, Jamaican cuisine has been formed through the assimilation of indigenous peoples with cultures, foods and techniques from around the world. The most influential influences are from the Spanish and English settlers in the 17th and 18th centuries, along with the slaves they brought with them from Africa.
Jamaica’s original inhabitants, the Arawaks, would cook and cure meats and fish on a “barbacoa,” a wooden grate atop four forked sticks over a slow fire. In addition, they would cook stock pots of beans, callaloo greens, potatoes, fish, and iguanas to make soup. They also ate tropical fruits like papaya, pineapple, and guava.
Next into the pot- the Spanish. Starting in 1492 and for the next 150 years, they introduced cattle, pigs, goats, horses and lard. They also contributed new fruit trees like Seville and Valencia oranges, lime, lemon, tamarind, ginger, pomegranate, plantain, coconuts, sugar, and bananas from Europe, India and Mexico. And last, but not least, they introduced the diseases to the native Arawaks that wiped-out 90% of the native population. In order find healthy workers to work the sugar plantations, the African slave trade began.
Then came the British, who colonized the island in 1655 and kept it under their rule until the Jamaicans gained independence 300 years later in 1962. During that long period, English and Indian cooking techniques and foods like apples, mangoes, turmeric, black pepper and coffee made their way into Jamaican cuisine. Marmalade, Christmas pudding, pies, and jams showed up as well.
Through it all, slaves from Africa served as the soul of Jamaican food and culture. Dishes like rundown (mackerel & bananas), callaloo (tough greens), crushed cassava root (fufu), and the national dish ackee & saltfish all have their pedigree in West Africa.
From beginning to-end there’s a been one constant, the ever-present imprint on food, dance, and music of the Arawak natives and African slaves. Out of many, one unique cuisine!
Notable Jamaican Dishes – Jerk Chicken or pork (Spicy marinated grilled chicken or pork), Curry Goat (goat meat in Indian curry), Ackee and Saltfish (national dish of African fruit with salted fish), Callaloo (spinach-like greens), Run Down (mackerel cooked in coconut milk), Escovitch Fish (fried red snapper), Bammy (cassava flatbread), Patties (Jamaican empanadas).
MHT Jamaican Recipes:
Like most of the other Caribbean islands, Puerto Rican cuisine is the result of Spanish and African foods layered on traditional native foods (Taino) and later merged with foods from mainland America to create the unique cuisine called “la comida criolla” (creole cuisine). Often high in fat and sugar, this cuisine is as big on calories as it is flavor. Puerto Rican cuisine is distinguished by an abundance of flavorful salty, meaty, and crunchy dishes as well as the basic herbs and spices found throughout the Caribbean. Many dishes start with a base of sofrito, a thick, peppery and herbed vegetables. Besides rice and beans, most meals include sweet or savory plantains. In fact, local production can’t meet the demand so much of the supply of plantains must be imported from nearby islands.
Notable Puerto Rican Dishes – Bacalaitos (crunch codfish fritters), Empanadillas (meat, conch, seafood filled mini-turnovers), Asopao (similar to gumbo, soup of rice, shellfish, and chorizo), Arroz con Pollo (sofrito-based chicken and rice), Pinon (picadillo filled plantain lasagna), Tostones (crushed, double fried plantains), Arroz con Gandules (rice with peas), Mofongo (savory side of mashed plantains with pork cracklings), and Tembleque (coconut pudding).
MHT Puerto Rican Recipes:
Haiti is a country on the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean Sea. Hispaniola has two countries. Haiti makes up roughly the western 1/3 of the island, with the Dominican Republic occupying the eastern 2/3 of the island.
Before Columbus landed on the island (Dec. 6, 1492), his second landfall in the “New World”, there were about a half million native Taino/Arawak people living on the island. They lived simple lives, farming and fishing. Within 50 years of Columbus’ arrival, they were pretty much wiped out by disease and brutal labor practices and all but disappeared by the middle of the 17th century.
Under French colonization, Haiti became an economic powerhouse by producing 40% of all the sugar imported by England and France, as well as 60% of the world’s coffee. At the same time, Haiti also accounted for one-third of the Atlantic slave trade, over 800,000 people, and turned over this population every 20 years. Haiti, having once been one of the richest countries on earth, is now one of the poorest.
The powerful merger of African and French cuisines with many of the ingredients introduced by the early Spanish colonists and ever-present poverty helped create a distinct cuisine very different than the rest of the Caribbean.
Notable Haitian Dishes – Mamba (spicy peanut butter), Accra (Malanga Fritters), Joumou (Yellow Pumpkin Soup), Griot (Crispy fried pork cubes), Pikliz (pickled vegetables), Lambi Boukannen (grilled conch), Pate (meat or seafood-filled puff pastry), Tablèt Nwa (cashew ginger brittle).
MHT Haitian Recipes:
Other Island Countries of the the Caribbean
The Caribbean contains 13 independent countries and several territories/dependencies that are part of other countries. Almost 44 million people live in the region, known for its crystal blue waters, sandy beaches, and warm, tropical climate, all of which attract throngs of tourists each year. Beyond the culinary diversity of Cuba, Jamaica, and Haiti (Puerto Rico is an American “protectorate”), countries like Trinidad and Tobago (ex-Indian colony), the Dominican Republic (ex-Spanish colony), the Bahamas (700 islands, including where Columbus first landed), Bermuda (ex-English colony) and Aruba (ex-Dutch). Each of their cuisines have been influenced by the merging of native inhabitants unique to that island, the West African slave trade, workers brought from countries like India (i.e. Trinidad and Tobago) and their colonists. Many of the dishes originating in these countries have been adopted by the rest of the Caribbean.
Notable Dominican Dishes – Sancocho (7-meat stew), Mangu (mashed plantains), Pollo Guisado (braised chicken), Chicken Pelau (Sweet chicken in Rice), Arroz con Almendras y Pasas (rice with raisins and almonds), Conch Fritters, Quipes (kibbeh-like deep fried bulgur rolls), Chimichurris (hamburger topped with mayonnaise, ketchup, tomato and cabbage), Habichuelas con Dulce (sweet cream of beans), Bizcocho Dominicano (pineapple cake), Morir Sonando (milk and orange drink).