Best Caribbean Islands for Foodies
“Caribbean food has something for everyone,” says Virginia Burke, the Jamaican author of Eat Caribbean and other cookbooks. “A decade ago many of the hotels still served European-style food as the local cooking was deemed too heavy. There has been quite a revolution. Caribbean as a cuisine has shaken off the old restraints and is evolving quickly.”
While the Caribbean is rarely included among the great gastronomic hubs, it may be time to change that. Among its advantages: fresh ingredients like straight-off-the-boat seafood, tropical fruits picked each morning, and a plethora of spices that European empires fought wars to control in centuries past.
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That history also explains the uniqueness of Caribbean cuisine: the food reflects traces of the British, French, Spanish, Dutch, Swedes, Danes, and Americans, all of whom had colonial presences in the region. The Europeans brought in African slaves and Asian indentured servants with their own culinary traditions, and the Arawak, Taino, and other First Nations groups added to the collective cooking pot, as have Latin American cultures that flourished after the Spanish left.
“Each of the islands has a series of elements that set them apart,” says Puerto Rican celebrity chef Wilo Benet, who pilots Pikayo restaurant in San Juan.
“Cubans prefer black beans and cumin. Dominicans boil their staple plantain dish (mangu) and use more oregano than we do. Puerto Ricans prefer red beans and fry their staple plantain dish (mofongo). Curry is favored in many of the English islands. And of course the French ones like Martinique have lots of French influences. One element all of us have in common is flavor-packed recipes,” Benet says. “In the evolution of the general palate, those who disliked spice now love it and need more intensity consistently.”
Aiding and abetting the culinary revolution is a new wave of chefs, some of whom are European and North American maestros lured to the islands alongside local cooks. “I would venture to say that our local cooks learned a great deal once the tourism industry expanded and more modern and highly trained chefs came in to run the hotel kitchens,” says Burke. “I think there has been quite a trade-off of skills, with everyone learning new ways to use our local ingredients.”
The gastronomic boom takes different shapes in different places. On small yet super-chic islands like St. Bart’s and Anguilla, upscale tourists sparked a surge in European and Asian eateries. On larger islands like Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and Trinidad, an expanding middle class and growing sense of ethnic or national pride inspired a renaissance of local cooking traditions. Whatever you choose, you won’t be disappointed since, as both the quantity and quality of food on the islands has grown, the West Indies is proving itself to be among the most exciting places on the planet to dine.
The big island’s cocina criolla combines Spanish, American, and First Nations influences into a cuisine like no other in the Caribbean. Pork and peppers dominate the ingredients. Lechón asado (roast pig on a spit) is an island-wide passion while the use of peppers in both traditional and nouvelle dishes is an art form mastered by only the best chefs. Old San Juan and swank Condado are both culinary hubs in the capital, but even roadside stalls will blow your mind and taste buds.
Local Favorite: Pikayo restaurant in San Juan.
From beachfront barbecue joints to chic hotel eateries, the tiny British island of Anguilla personifies the transformation of the Caribbean from culinary backwater to gastronomic paradise. With four gourmet restaurants, professional cooking classes, fine wine and rum tastings, and hydroponic herb garden tours, the island’s CuisinArt resort is dedicated to bringing your taste buds alive. Many of the best local restaurants specialize in barbecue that could give the pits of Memphis or Kansas City a run for their money.
Local Favorites: Tokyo Bay at the CuisinArt resort and Smokey’s at the Cove.
Banking isn’t the only thing they do well on this tiny western Caribbean archipelago. The British territory also offers a unique food culture with roots that stretch back more than 300 years to the buccaneers who settled on the islands. “Old Caymanian” cuisine is an eclectic mix of British, Jamaican, and Central American influences. Although rare these days, turtle soup is the unofficial national dish. Among the other island delights are fried land crab, corn bread with custard, and a heavy cake made from coconut, cassava, sugar, and spice.
Local Favorites: Vivine’s Kitchen and Mango Tree.
With a population made up of more than 50 nationalities, Curaçao’s food scene is incredibly diverse. Restaurants run the gamut from French and Dutch to Brazilian, Indonesian, and Japanese. Local krioyo (Creole) specialties include yuana (stewed iguana), keshi yená (stuffed cheese), and kokada (coconut patties). Willemstad, the island capital, combines fine dining and Dutch Colonial architecture, especially in the restored Kura Hulanda compound with its delectable alfresco eateries.
Local Favorite: Blues Restaurant at the Avila Hotel.
The “Island of Spice” has long produced cloves, nutmeg, ginger, and cinnamon for export as well as for local kitchens. This bounty of flavor goes into Grenadian dishes like ginger pork, curried mutton, crayfish broth, and stir-fried rabbit. It’s also the Caribbean stomping ground for British chef Gary Rhodes, who kicked off the celebrity chef rush to the Caribbean a decade ago when he created his self-titled restaurant at the Calabash resort.
Local Favorites: Rhodes Restaurant and Patrick’s Local Homestyle Cooking Restaurant.
Along with reggae and Red Stripe, jerk has become a Jamaican national icon. Originally conceived by runaway slaves, jerk is meat marinated in a piquant sauce and then slow-cooked over a pimento-wood fire. Chicken and pork are traditional, but nowadays Jamaicans will prepare anything jerk-style, including goat, mutton, beef, and even fish. Boston Bay, near the island’s eastern tip, is celebrated for its roadside jerk stalls. But tangy jerk—and the smoky aroma of the barbecue pits—has spread across the island and to other parts of the Caribbean.
Local Favorite: Scotchie’s jerk stalls in Ocho Rios, Montego Bay, and Kingston.
Foie gras and green bananas? Only in Martinique, where French haute cuisine marries Creole cooking in restaurants that look as if Bogart and Bacall might have romanced there in To Have and Have Not. Many of the best eateries are set in French colonial villas and plantation houses, setting the mood for exotic tropical dishes like lobster in vanilla butter, sea urchin in a red curry sauce, or mousseline of smoked marlin with avocado.
Local Favorite: Restaurant Le Brédas in St. Joseph.
Long a darling of the rich and famous of Europe and North America, this French island has cultivated a cosmopolitan dining scene to feed a demanding clientele. Eateries range from the charming sidewalk cafés in Gustavia to upscale beachfront spots that easily hold their own against counterparts on the French Riviera. St. Bart’s also boasts the region’s largest wine store—La Cave de Saint Barthelemy—with more than 200,000 bottles and 300 varieties of French wine.
St. Martin offers two for the price of one: French cuisine on one side of the island and Dutch delights on the other. Chic waterfront dining is found in French villages like Marigot and Grand Case, while the best Dutch-side dining hits the gastronomic jackpot with restaurants like Rare and Temptation in the Atlantic World casino. The island also has its own homegrown libation, guavaberry liqueur, made from oak-aged rum, cane sugar, and a rare berry harvested from bushes that grow in the island’s central highlands.
Local Favorites: Le Santal in Marigot and Bistrot Caraïbes in Grand Case.
Dining in Trinidad is a journey through the foods of the various cultures that have come to populate this southern anchor of the Lesser Antilles. More than 40 percent of the population is of South Asia origin, so the Indian cuisine is especially good. But immigrants from Africa, Europe, South America, the Middle East, and China have also enhanced the local food culture. From roti bread and red-hot curries to callaloo soup and jerk meats, it’s hard to know where to start.
Local Favorite: Chaud restaurant in Port of Spain.
St. Lucians flock to the waterfront towns of Gros Islet and Anse la Ray on Friday nights for “jump ups” that blend food, drink, music, and dancing in the streets. The barbecued seafood is straight off the boat, served with breadfruit, sweet potato, or blackened corn on the cob. Local Creole cuisine is influenced by both the French and British, who once ruled the island. Salt fish and green banana is the national dish—and much tastier than its name might suggest. For something completely different, pop into the restaurant at the Hotel Chocolat Boucan for cacao gazpacho and confit of duck in a white chocolate mash.