When we envision the Caribbean, images of white sand beaches, turquoise water, and tropical cocktails float into our minds. However, Caribbean island nations are a food-lover’s paradise, too — blending spices, cooking techniques, and ingredients from across the globe.
Seafood figures heavily on the menu, of course, but many traditional recipes also feature pork, beef, goat, and an array of vegetables and fruits. If you’re yearning for a Caribbean escape but can’t get away, try making one of these authentic Caribbean dishes at home.
You’ll find a couple of different versions of this savory meat stew across the Caribbean, and it’s the national dish of Guyana and the dual island nation of Antigua and Barbuda. The Guyanese version features cassareep, a thick, savory, brown sauce made by boiling the juice from cassava roots, a South American shrub. You can make cassareep from scratch or buy it bottled in specialty Latin American or Caribbean markets — keep in mind that cassava root juice is extremely poisonous if not adequately boiled, so follow directions very, very carefully if making from scratch. Most pepperpot recipes contain meat — usually beef, pork, lamb, or oxtail — and vegetables such as onions, eggplant, okra, and spinach. Jamaicans also make a version that features the green, leafy vegetable known as callaloo.
This popular side dish is part of Barbados and Antigua and Barbuda’s national dish, fungee and pepperpot, and you’ll find variations of it served in other eastern Caribbean islands. Fungee, which is also known as fungi or cou cou, is essentially cornmeal which is boiled then simmered in saltwater with okra, onions, and garlic. The finished result resembles polenta, and this simple dish is typically served with flavorful fish or spicy stews.
Jamaican Jerk Chicken
This smoky, fiery dish hails from Jamaica and can also be made with pork or beef. Cooks make it by coating chicken pieces with a spicy marinade and grilling them. Jerk chicken is relatively simple to make and uses ingredients such as onions, habanero or Scotch bonnet peppers, garlic, Chinese five-spice powder, nutmeg, thyme, and soy sauce. For the best results, let the chicken marinate overnight. If you lack access to a grill, you can roast it in the oven.
Ackee and Saltfish
Jamaica is known for its jerk seasoning, but it’s not part of Jamaica’s national dish — that honor goes to ackee and saltfish. Ackee is a tropical fruit similar to a lychee featuring a creamy texture and slightly nutty flavor. When ripe, ackees split open and expose a few large seeds, which are discarded. Locals refer to this splitting as a yawn or smile. Finding fresh, ripe ackee outside of Jamaica is tricky, but you can buy it canned from Amazon and other retailers.
Saltfish is traditionally made with cod that has been cured with salt and dried. In this dish, you soak and boil the fish to remove the excess salt and rehydrate it. Then flake the fish and sauté it with onions, peppers, garlic, tomatoes, scallions, and thyme. The canned ackee goes in at the end. You can buy salted cod, also known as bacalao, online or in some supermarkets. Due to the curing, it doesn’t require refrigeration.
Cracked Conch or Conch Fritters
Pronounced “konk,” this large sea snail is famous for its beautiful, spired, pink shell that can be turned into a horn or held to the ear to hear the “ocean waves.” When the meat is removed from the shell, pounded, battered, and deep-fried, the result is a crispy, delicious main dish or appetizer called cracked conch. If you’re a fan of fried calamari, you’ll notice similarities in taste and texture. Cracked conch landed on both the Bahamas’ and the Turks and Caicos’ national dish lists, but the Bahamian version includes a side of rice and peas.
Another popular way to enjoy conch is by eating conch fritters — diced conch mixed into a dough made of flour, chopped onions, bell peppers, celery, and garlic, then deep-fried. If you want to try to fry conch at home, specialty seafood markets often sell conch cleaned and frozen, eliminating the messy extraction and prepping process.
Crab and Callaloo
The dual island nation of Trinidad and Tobago lists crab and callaloo as its national dish. Somewhat similar to pepperpot, crab and callaloo contains chopped callaloo leaves (also known as dasheen or taro, a root vegetable), okra, onions, coconut milk, pimientos (cherry peppers), and Scotch bonnet peppers. Sauté the ingredients together and then puree the mix (except the crab) with an immersion blender or similar appliance. The crab claws or whole crabs go in last, and the dish is often served over rice.
Ropa vieja roughly translates to “old clothes,” and this dish gets its name because it resembles a heap of colorful rags. Cuba’s national dish spotlights slow-roasted shredded beef, zesty bell peppers, onions, crushed tomatoes, and a plethora of spices. Many like to garnish this robust stew with olives, capers, pimientos, and roasted red bell peppers and serve it with Cuban yellow rice, black beans, and fried plantains.
Head to Aruba to enjoy its spectacularly gorgeous beaches and its national dish, keshi yena, which means “stuffed cheese shell.” Dutch settlers populated Aruba and brought rounds of edam and gouda cheese to the island, which survived the long overseas journey due to their wax coating. Resourceful cooks used the shell of hollowed-out cheese to create a rich, flavor-loaded casserole. Imagine a mix of tender shredded chicken, spicy peppers, salty olives and capers, sweet raisins, and a tangy sauce featuring Worcestershire sauce, ketchup, mustard, and eggs. The entire conglomeration gets loaded into the cheese shell and then baked.
You might encounter this hearty, meat-and-root vegetable stew in several Caribbean nations, but it reigns as the national dish in the Dominican Republic. Cooks often prepare sancocho for holidays and special occasions since it contains several ingredients and is a bit labor-intensive. Dominicans make a deluxe version, el sancocho de siete carnes (seven meat hearty stew), which includes beef, goat, pork, chicken, ham bones, sausage, and pork ribs. Yams, malanga, cassava, corn, pumpkin, and unripe plantains add to this savory dish's umami component. (If you’re unsure what some of these tubers are, this article helps explain the differences.)
Grilled Snapper With Sauce au Chien
Magnificent beaches, dramatic mountains, tropical gardens, and French-influenced cuisine are just a few reasons to visit the stunning Caribbean island of Martinique. One dish you’re sure to find on menus here is grilled snapper with sauce au chien, which you can easily replicate at home. The standout is the sauce au chien, also known as creole sauce, a lively, spicy sauce made of olive oil, onion, garlic, chives, lime juice, spices, and habanero or Scotch bonnet peppers. This vinaigrette-like sauce goes great on chicken too.
Desserts and sweet treats earn a spot on Caribbean tables, and gizzada is a Jamaican favorite. Also known as “pinch-me-rounds,” gizzadas are open-face, mini coconut tarts. Chefs create the tarts by pinching the pastry dough's edges and then filling the interior with a tasty blend of coconut, brown sugar, and spices. The tarts are baked, and once cooled, they are ready to be enjoyed as a snack or dessert.
Rum was invented in the Caribbean and is still one of the region’s top exports, so unsurprisingly, rum found its way into the local cuisine, including desserts. You’ll find a couple of variations, including Caribbean black cake, which includes dried macerated fruit, and another with a poundcake-like texture. Caribbean black cake frequently shows up on tables during Christmas, weddings, and special occasions. Bakers soak dried fruit such as raisins, cherries, currants, and prunes in rum for several days, then mix it with an enticing blend of spices such as nutmeg, cinnamon, clove, and allspice. The poundcake-like version is a dense, moist cake that’s infused with a buttery rum mixture after baking.