Background & Influences
Traditional island cuisine results from a melange of cultural influences. The islands have been fought over and owned by various European powers - mainly the British, French, and Spanish. All of these cultures, as well as their respective culinary traditions, have played a role in forming the multi-national cuisine of the Caribbean.
Originally, two Native American tribes occupied the islands - the Arawaks and Caribs. Food historians claim that the Caribs began the institution of spicing food with chili peppers, a culinary feature maintained today. The Caribs were also cannibals, a gastronomic trend that fortunately did not carry through to present.
The Arawaks are credited with beginning barbecue techniques, by fabricating grills with native green sticks called barbacoa. Crops tended by these Native Americans included taro root, corn, yams, cassava, and peanuts. Guavas and pineapple, as well as black-eyed peas and lima beans grew wild on the islands.
When Columbus arrived in 1493, he introduced sugarcane to the natives. It was later discovered that rum could be made from fermented cane juice, a drink that remains the ultimate in tropical Caribbean refreshment. Spaniards introduced other foods, notably coconut, chick-peas, cilantro, eggplant, onions, and garlic. European colonists, including the Portuguese, Dutch, Danish, British, French, and the Swedes, came later to the islands with their culinary trademarks. Some of the foods introduced by these travelers were oranges, limes, mangoes, rice, and coffee.
During the African slave trade that began in the early 1600's, foods from West Africa came to the Caribbean Islands, including okra, pigeon peas, plantains, callaloo, taro, breadfruit and ackee. Following the abolishment of the slave trade in 1838, laborers from India and China came to work in the fields and plantations, adding two very different culinary influxes to the already long list.
Because the islands are multicultural, there are distinct regional differences in the authentic cuisines of the Caribbean. Islands like Puerto Rico and Cuba have distinct Spanish-influenced food. Guadeloupe and Martinique are French-owned; their native cuisine has obvious ties to France. Jamaica, which was once a major slave-trading center, is rich in African culture, even though it was a British colony until 1958.
Certainly geography has played a major part in culinary influences, as well. South America introduced its native potatoes and passion fruit to Caribbean cuisine. And Mexico's donations include papaya, avocado, chayote, and cocoa.
Although it is difficult to generalize about Caribbean cuisine, it remains exquisite. Whether dining on conch in the Caymans or Callaloo in Tobago, or simply eating a passion fruit right off the tree, you will know that Caribbean cuisine is food of the gods.