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Few cuisines sound better than Caribbean food.

West Indian ingredients — exotic fruits and vegetables and fresh seafood — sound exciting and the combinations innovative. In practice, however, food on most Caribbean islands rarely tastes as good as it sounds.

This is especially true on the English- and Dutch-speaking islands, which inherited a bland culinary tradition from their colonial masters that even local spices and ingredients can’t overcome.

This isn’t true on the French islands, of course. They’ve inherited the best traditions of French cooking and enhanced it with local ingredients.

I lived for a while on a sailboat on a typical example, the beautiful island of Antigua.

Unfortunately, the local people don’t like to work in the fields or to serve other people, especially white tourists. As a result, the most common food on Antigua is chicken from Arkansas. Finding fresh fish often requires a trip to the dock early in the morning. It’s sometimes difficult to locate fresh fruit, even in season.

Tourists, of course, typically don’t really want to try bull foot soup, conch or flying fish sandwiches anyway, so they get hamburgers, pizza and the occasional overcooked lobster.

Nevertheless, it is possible to find excellent West Indian food. More to the point, thanks to the widening availability of authentic ingredients, you can produce better-than-traditional Caribbean dishes at home.

The following are authentic recipes, lightened in some cases, but typical of the best food available. Each recipe serves six people unless otherwise stated.

More Caribbean recipes can be found at www.traveltastes.com.

Avocado and Papaya Salad

Avocados are popular ingredient in Caribbean dishes, especially salads. A favorite salad combines its richness with unripe papaya and tart lime.

Red Snapper Creole

Creole sauces of tomato, onion, sweet peppers, celery and garlic sautéed in oil are served on seafood, poultry and vegetables from New Orleans to Trinidad. 

Six 6-oz. red snapper fillets

Sauce:

1/4-cup olive oil

2 ribs celery, chopped

1 green bell pepper, seeded andchopped

1 small hot pepper, seeded and finely diced

1 large onion, peeled and sliced

4 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced

1/2 tsp. dried thyme leaves

1 14-oz. can tomatoes 

1/2 cup white wine

Dash hot sauce

Salt and pepper to taste

Limes and hot sauce to garnish

Sauté the celery and peppers in oil for 3 minutes, then add onions and garlic and stir until onions are translucent. Add thyme, tomatoes and wine and simmer for 20 minutes. Add fish and poach for ten minutes. 

Jerk Chicken

Jerk is meat barbecued using a spicy rubbing paste. All jerks contain Jamaica pimento (allspice) and hot peppers as well as other spices and ingredients.

2 frying chicken, cut into eight parts

Vegetable oil

Jerk sauce (below)

Rub jerk sauce on chickens and place over medium low heat on covered grill. Cook for 1 hour, turning every 15 minutes. 

Jerk seasoning

Jerk seasoning is a dry powder rubbed into the meat. You can add oil to make a paste.

1 large onion, finely chopped

2 oz. allspice berries (Jamaican pimento)

3 fresh hot peppers, seeded and chopped

1 tsp. salt

1/2 tsp. black pepper

1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon

A few grinds of nutmeg

A few cloves

Grind ingredients in blender. 

Baked Plantain

Plantains look like bananas on steroids. The green (unripe) versions are cooked like potatoes, the sweeter ripe plantains are usually fried.

3 large green plantains

2 Tbsp. butter

Salt and pepper to taste

Peel plantains, slice in half vertically and lay in small baking dish. Dot with butter, cover and bake for 30 minutes in a 375 F oven.

Stuffed Christophene

(Chayote)

Christophene is the local name for chayote. This delicate squash can be simply steamed and served with butter and lime juice, served au gratin, or stuffed, as here.

3 medium christophenes (chayotes)

1 cup dry bread crumbs

1 small onion, chopped finely

2 cloves garlic, minced

3 Tbsp. butter

1/4 tsp. cinnamon

A few grinds of nutmeg

Salt and pepper

Lime wedges

Sauté the onion and garlic in the butter, then add the spices and crumbs. Slice the christophenes in half lengthwise, discarding the seeds. Arrange the half christophenes cut side up in a shallow baking dish containing 1/2 inch of water. Fill cavities and bake at 375 F until the vegetable is soft and the bread crumbs crisp. Serve with lime.

Lamb Curry Rotis

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The regional fast food in the Caribbean is the roti, a flour pancake traditionally wrapped around a meat and potato curry.

Although East Indian in origin, rotis have been thoroughly localized. Sold everywhere from rustic roadside roti stands, they’re cheap, tasty and filling.

The roti wrapper is similar to a large flour tortilla, which works fine as a substitute.

The most common fillings are curried chicken or goat, or conch with potato, but when I lived on a sailboat in Antigua, I encountered seafood and vegetarian fillings such as potatoes and green peas.  

Lamb Curry Filling

Sheep and goats live all over the islands, often invading gardens to eat flowers and vegetables. This is the islanders’ revenge. 

2 pounds cubed boneless lamb

2 Tbsp. curry powder

1 large chopped onion

1 large clove garlic

2 Tbsp. vegetable oil

2 small boiling potatoes, peeled and cubed

2 medium carrots, scraped and sliced

Salt and pepper to taste

Dash hot sauce 

Chutney to taste

Brown lamb in oil, then add onion, garlic, curry powder, potatoes and carrots and cook until onions are translucent. Add water to cover, bring to a boil, then turn down heat and simmer about 20 minutes, or until lamb is tender and some potatoes are starting to fall apart.  To eat, place a spoonful or two of the curry in the center of a warmed roti bread or flour tortilla, add chutney and hot sauce, then roll up.

Hot sauce

Each island in the Caribbean has its own commercial and homemade hot sauce, all incendiary. The strongest are simply peppers (Scotch bonnet is the hottest) with vinegar and salt. Some temper the fire with papaya, tomatoes, bell peppers, onion or garlic.

Caribbean drinks

Rum is the drink of the Caribbean. Almost every island makes its own rum or rums. They range from clear to dark and flavorful, and from $2-per-bottle rotgut to libations that rival fine cognacs for after-dinner sipping.

The most popular rum by far is Bacardi, which originated in Cuba but is now made in Puerto Rico and elsewhere. The most popular Bacardi rums are light, and almost always mixed in any case.

The smaller island specialize in darker potions, such as Meyer’s from Jamaica and Mount Gay from Barbados. 

All are made from molasses, a by-product of sugar production. The French islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe make their rums from fresh sugar cane juice. Though most are dark, they have a more delicate aroma and flavor. They’re also hard to find, expensive and deserve respect.

Most rum is mixed with Coke, tonic, ginger ale or fruit juices for the heady punches served to tourists on island excursions.

Beer is the most popular drink with meals. Most islands make their own, and others like Heineken and Red Stripe are brewed on a number of islands. Most are light and served very cold to complement the hot climate.

Rum Punch

The classic rum punch can be made in any quantity using traditional ratios.

1 parts sour (fresh lime juice)

2 parts sweet (sugar syrup or Grenadine pomegranate syrup)

3 parts strong (rum)

4 parts weak (water, soda water or fruit soft drink).

If the “parts” are ounces, it’s 10 ounces total, and is served in a tall glass with ice, garnished with a lime or other fruit slice and grated nutmeg. It traditionally serves one.

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