A Little Mannish Water: Caribbean Cuisine

Forget about the hamburgers and the steak-and-fries: the Caribbean has a fine cuisine of its own. Garry Steckles cooks up some of the region's favourite dishes

Illustration by Wendell Mc ShineIllustration by Wendell Mc Shine

The Caribbean has a reputation — a well-deserved one, come to think of it — as a part of the world where people don’t take too much too seriously. It’s easy-going. Laid back. Relaxed. Fun-loving. They’re all descriptions favoured by writers trying to capture the vibrations of the islands and their people.

One thing, though, people throughout the region do take seriously. Very, very seriously.

Food.

When it comes to eating, as regularly and as well as possible, West Indians “don’t make no sport”. This is something that plays a large role in day-to-day living from the Caymans to Barbados, from Guyana to Jamaica, from Anguilla to Tobago. And while it’s only now starting to gain the international reputation it deserves, there’s no doubt that Caribbean food, at its best, can stand alongside any of the world’s fine cuisines.

Ironically, hundreds of thousands of visitors to the region miss out every year on the chance to sample authentic West Indian cuisine where it tastes best: in the Caribbean.

The reasons are too numerous and too complex to go into in detail. The most basic of them is that many visitors to the islands stick to their hotels or tourist restaurants when it comes to dining, and many hotels and tourist restaurants serve the kind of food they think their customers will be happiest with — either the sort of thing they’d eat at home or watered-down versions of Caribbean staples.

Which is a pity. Not only are they missing out on some fabulous taste experiences, they’re also missing a chance to learn a little about the turbulent history of this exotic region, because what we eat in the islands today reflects a great deal of what has happened here in the past.

Many island dishes are the result of major immigration movements centuries ago. Others owe their origins to the sad days of slavery. Still others are the modem legacy of trading in a bygone era.

So here is a very basic guide to Caribbean food — specifically, the food of the English-speaking islands. It’s not meant to be definitive, and I know I’m going to be taken to task for the dishes I fail to mention. Apologies here and now to anyone whose favourite isn’t mentioned.

First, a warning. Peppers grow in profusion in the Caribbean, and most cooks make regular use of them. Consequently, a lot of Caribbean food tends to have a bit of a bite. Not necessarily the sort of bite that would appeal to the macho types who march into an Indian restaurant and demand “your hottest vindaloo”, but definitely on the piquant side.

So much for the warning sign. Having erected it, I suggest you treat it pretty much as most drivers in the islands treat a speed- limit sign: ignore it. Launch yourself into the wonderful world of roti, pudding and souse, jerk pork, escoviched fish, goat water, saltfish and ackee, fried plantain and, perhaps the one dish you’ll find in every English- ‘speaking island, peas and rice in all its forms. The speciality of one island, but can be found, excellently prepared, in many others. Some are very much local specialities. In other words, what you eat in the Caribbean depends largely, but not exclusively, on which country you happen to be visiting.

Perhaps the best-known dish throughout the islands is roti, a delectable concoction consisting of a curried filling – meat, fish or vegetable –wrapped in a flat, thin Indian bread. The only place I haven’t found roti is in Jamaica, where wonderful meat and vegetable patties are its culinary equivalent. Elsewhere in the English Caribbean, roti can be found virtually anywhere. It has long since spread from Trinidad and Guyana, where it originated in the kitchens of the tens of thousands of indentured labourers brought from India to take the place of slaves in the years following the abolition of slavery.

The Indian workers, like the Africans before them, hung on to many culinary traditions from their homeland (a gastronomic aside: in India itself, roti means bread in all its shapes and terms; in the Caribbean, it always means a flat bread with a curried filling). The best roti, any West Indian will tell you, is to be found in Guyana or Trinidad, where the bread is somehow lighter and flakier and the filling more spicy and enticing.

Time for another warning. The quality of roti — even in Trinidad and Guyana — can range from superb to truly dreadful, and the truly dreadful is a culinary experience to avoid at all costs. So ask around. Check with a couple of locals about who makes the best roti, and, with any luck, you’ll be steered in the direction of an interesting epicurean experience.

Roti may be the most pervasive food throughout the islands, but Jamaican “jerked” food has become the Caribbean’s most famous culinary export. Not so long ago, jerked pork and chicken were hard to find away from Jamaica’s north coast. Then jerk stands started sprouting up all over Jamaica, and it wasn’t long before they made their appearance in North American and European cities with large Jamaican communities.

Today, jerk chicken and jerk pork have become a world-wide phenomenon, and jerked food — varying considerably in authenticity and quality — can be found in many Caribbean islands.

“Jerking” is a method of seasoning and preserving food that dates back to the days of the Amerindians in Jamaica, and it consists, basically, of marinading meat — usually pork or chicken — in an incendiary mix of spices in which Scotch Bonnet peppers and pungent allspice play major roles, alongside scallions and garlic. The meat is then cooked over a slow burning wood-fire, which adds a distinctive smoky flavour.

Many of the dishes that remain popular favourites throughout the islands today date back to the days of slavery, when plantation owners would take the choice cuts from the animals and give their field workers the remains to make the most of. Make the most of them they did. Dishes that were concocted out of necessity under harsh and primitive conditions are today regarded as delicacies. Souse is a classic example. “Soused” meat – usually pig, but sometimes conch or whelk, depending on the island — is popular in many English-speaking Caribbean countries. “Sousing” consists of pickling the meat, after it has been cooked, in a briny mix of lime juice, salt, onion, hot peppers, cucumber and, often, parsley. The most popular souse meats are the feet and the head of a pig, although a piece of tail (if you’ll pardon the expression) sometimes finds its way into the mix.

Souse is often accompanied by a spicy, homemade sausage known as pudding. In Barbados, pudding-and-souse ranks equal first with flying fish as the national dish, and there the pudding is made with finely ground and highly seasoned sweet potatoes. On other islands, where pudding is sometimes (but not always) an accompaniment to souse, it’s usually made with a filling of rice and blood.

Goat is another favourite meat throughout the islands. Curried goat can be found virtually everywhere, though it’s most famous in Jamaica. Goat water is a favourite in St. Kitts and Nevis, and its culinary cousin, Mannish water, is one of Jamai ca’s most popular dishes.

Both are soups of a medium consistency. They’re not dissimilar in the cooking process, but the Kittitian version gets considerable pungency from the use of cloves, along with onions, garlic, peppers and whatever else takes the cook’s fancy, while the Jamaican dish is a lighter colour and uses more of the intestines and extremities of the goat. It may sound a little off-putting, but the results, I can assure you, are absolutely delicious. Mannish water also has a reputation as being something of an aphrodisiac, but I’m not in a position to comment on that claim.

Fish, naturally, is a favourite throughout the islands, and while many countries have their own national specialties, fried fish and steamed fish are the two most common methods of preparation.

Time for another warning. Most West Indians won’t thank you for a nicely filleted piece offish, sans bone. They like their fish on the bone, thank you very much, and, depending on the size, usually fry their fish whole or in slices (another culinary aside: a notable exception is Barbados, where boneless dolphin, king fish and flying fish are favoured).

The fish, often freshly-caught snapper or grouper, is lightly seasoned, sometimes dusted with a little flour, then crisply fried in shallow fat. In Jamaica, fried fish are often served with a delicious flat cassava flour bread known as “bammy”, and are frequently prepared “escovich” style — with onions and hot peppers sautéed in a little oil and vinegar. Steamed fish are usually cooked in a little butter and water in a covered saucepan with onions, garlic, pepper and tomatoes adding a distinct flavour to the gravy.

While fresh fish is eaten everywhere in the Caribbean, dried, salted cod — usually known simply as “saltfish” (a name that lent itself to a particularly ribald song by that great calypsonian the Mighty Sparrow) — is also popular everywhere. Why on earth, you might ask, would people eat fish that has been dried and salted when they’re living on islands surrounded by water teeming with the fresh version?

More history — this time with a Canadian connection.

The Caribbean’s main saltfish link is with Newfoundland, and dates back to the days when West Indian rum used to be shipped up to that province. The vessels would return to the Caribbean carrying dried and salted codfish, which became: hugely popular — along with other salted products such as mackerel, pork, pig tails and beef– in the days before refrigeration. That popularity has continued to this day.

Not so long ago, saltfish was regarded very much as a staple of the masses, but over the past couple of decades prices have skyrocketed as the fish has become more popular in North America. Today, much of the salted cod that finds its way to the islands tends to be of poor quality, with bones still in and a thick scaly skin still attached. But salt cod dishes remain popular in the Caribbean, and nowhere more so than Jamaica, where saltfish with ackee — a fruit that looks very much like scrambled eggs — is one of the classic national dishes.

Saltfish recipes usually call for the fish to be soaked in water and then boiled before cooking in order to remove much of the brine and ensure tenderness. Recipes, naturally, vary enormously, but most call for the fish to be prepared with the ubiquitous onion, garlic, pepper and tomato mix.

Saltfish cakes — highly seasoned balls of fish either deep or shallow fried — are one of the most popular snacks throughout the Caribbean and, properly prepared, are nothing short of addictive.

So much for meat and fish. What about starches and vegetables?

Rice, usually cooked with some form of peas, tends to come with virtually every main dish in every Caribbean nation. The peas can vary from island to island, cook to cook. Pigeon peas, black-eye peas and lentils are popular throughout the region, while in Jamaica, red peas (kidney beans) are favoured. “Ground provisions” — root vegetables such as sweet potato, yam, cassava, tannia and eddoe — are delicious and filling staples. Fried plantain — a member of the banana family, although it’s never eaten as a fruit — is a favourite throughout the islands, while other popular vegetables include christophene (which tastes not unlike cucumber), okras, eggplant, green beans and callaloo.

Caribbean food is as exotic as the islands themselves, as varied as the potpourri of people who call them home. Don’t stick to steaks and fries.