The Caribbean Plate–where geography meets gastronomy

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The Caribbean is a junction where East meets West and North acquaints with South. A wharf in its own reverence, the Caribbean is known for harboring some of the most important trades in history. It was a crossroads for amalgamation as explorers from around the world brought pieces of their culture to the Caribbean where they then fused with the traditions of the native Arawak creating a unique Caribbean culture. Each brought with them cooking techniques prominent in their area and the cream of their regional fare—the Polynesian breadfruit, American potato, Spanish sugar cane, Portuguese fish, African mango, Chinese rice and of course, the pungent spices of India.

With a melting pot of gastronomic influences such as this, it is difficult to imagine Caribbean cuisine as a wholly unique entity separate from the other flavors of the world. With each Caribbean nation, different olfactory identities define what each individual views as unique Caribbean cooking. Whether it’s a hearty pot of cook-up or rum cake made with blended fruits and spiced, caramel rum—Caribbean cooking is without a doubt a vibrant synthesis of the world’s finest ingredients. But on its own, it holds an iron-fisted vigor as a unique world cuisine.

Indisputable is Caribbean folks’ love of ground provisions, and plentiful they are! A cornucopia of vegetables including yam, eddo, sweet potato, plantain and cassava, ground provisions have delved their roots into Caribbean cuisine often in the form of mettagee, a coconut milk-based soup or boil-and-fry, which is unfailingly served with a side of stewed fish.

Native to South America and produced and exported primarily by Guyana in its sauce form, Cassava remains a mainstay in Caribbean, particularly South American cuisine. Casareep, the thickened and spiced extract of cassava, remains the defining sauce in Guyana’s national dish, pepperpot. During a time where grocery items were scarce—and even after they became available—Cassava provided milk, flour, oil and grated bits for cake, particularly pone. Its dependability has stirred the hearts of many Caribbean’s who cannot envision their cuisine sans the loyal cassava.

There is nothing bland about Caribbean culture—its pulsating music, brightly colored architecture, breathtaking flora and glistening waters surrounding many of its island nations. Thus, it should come to no surprise that Caribbean people enjoy their foods slightly scandalous and there’s no better way to achieve that than through the passionate heat of the Scotch Bonnet Pepper. The addition of the heat-inducing chili into food was first attributed to Arawaks who sought the burning sensation provided by the scotch bonnet which is native to the region. Today, it is a staple in Caribbean cooking which is well-known for scorching many chops.

The heat of the scotch bonnet pepper—or in other cases the wiri wiri pepper—encapsulates the make-up of spicy Caribbean dishes. It remains an essential ingredient in jerk sauce which has since matured from the first instances of jerk cooking. Another Arawak technique, jerk describes the process of smoking meat which was native to the Arawaks prior to the arrival of Europeans in the late 1400s. This retrograde method stayed intact over centuries and has since been made popular by the mouth-watering Jamaican jerk meats, remaining an unblemished symbol of authentic Caribbean cuisine.

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Not to be overlooked is the spicy doubles made popular in Trinidad and Tobago. While its origin is questionable, the influence for this popular Trinibagoian street food is none other than the Punjabi chole bhature—a fried unleavened flatbread stuffed with channa or chickpeas, or in some instances, potato or cottage cheese.

Whether you’re enjoying a doubles or chole bhature in Trinidad or India, it is almost always accompanied by a pickled condiment (better known as achar) made from a variety of ingredients such as mango, karela or bitter melon, chili peppers, or tamarind among the many others. Its street food appeal and explosion of flavor makes doubles an unfaltering part of distinctive Caribbean cuisine.

One of the distinguishing features of Caribbean cuisine is its versatility. “Caribbean cooking is delicious, well seasoned and comforting food” asserts Jehan Powell, chef and food blogger. “It’s reflective of a time when we had to learn how to make a meal ‘stretch’. We would cut up the meat and use fresh vegetables from the gardens.” Ms. Powell is a native Guyanese who operates her own culinary website, jehancancook.com where she features old and new recipes from Caribbean and North America cuisine. Making a meal ‘stretch’ as Ms. Powell puts it, is a long-lived technique—let alone tradition—in Caribbean cooking. Adding sweet fruits to savory dishes and combining carbohydrates to create robust meals has become more of a custom rather than a necessity. The addition of white rice to chow mein, papaya to chicken curry, and sardines to fried potato all exemplify just how far and wide the cuisine in this region can be stretched in accordance with budget and palatable creativity.

The large quantity of Caribbean’s in North America is an indication of this well-traveled cuisine. Just as Christopher Columbus and his fellow explorers travelled the world, initiating an integration of foods, natives of the Caribbean are leaving their motherland and adapting to the palates and markets of North America. “As long as people travel, so will food. With this travel will come adaptations and changes,” affirms Cynthia Nelson, a prominent food blogger and writer for Stabroek News. “What becomes important to migrants is the need to preserve some of the traditions and foods of their birth homes in order to maintain an identity and some connection while adapting to the food-ways of their new homes.”

So how would you define Caribbean cuisine?

“Flavorful”, describes Ms. Powell, “It starts from the moment we wash our protein in lemon juice. We almost never cook without our fresh thyme, garlic and pepper. Whatever we cook, we always have to season the pot—salt and pepper just won’t do!”

“Choosing just one word would not do justice to Caribbean cuisine,” states Ms. Nelson. “We are a dynamic people and that dynamism is expressed in our varied cuisine. We are multi-cultural and our food shows our diversity by uniting to make a particularly unique cuisine.”

Caribbean cuisine is a melting pot left simmering over hundreds of years—each decade adding a new ingredient, modifying the old techniques, to the point of palatable perfection.

For Caribbean recipes you can visit:
www.jehancancook.com by Jehan Powell
www.tasteslikehome.org by Cynthia Nelson

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Indo-Caribbean World, August 26, 2009

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Comments
2 Responses to “The Caribbean Plate–where geography meets gastronomy”
  1. Christeena says:

    A very colourful article Rishma!

    I always admire your use of description, especially for this article, it really stirs the senses!

    Christeena

  2. Your article is very rich and doe s a lot to capture the wide variety of Caribbean food available and how this cuisine demonstrates the intersection of cultures and colors in the region. I agree with you that versatility is the hallmark of Caribbean cuisine. I think it is an advantage as we can capture the tastes of the scope of people who visit the region or are from there. It could be a disadvantage in terms of making it hard to delineate what is Caribbean cuisine in contrast to other types but I don’t think this is as significant.

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