Antigua & Barbuda featured in travel article on 20 of the best Caribbean destinations for food

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This article was first published by TRAVELMAG

By Paul Joseph

Necessity being the mother of invention is an idiom that could easily relate to the food culture of the Caribbean. The region’s geographical confines have compelled its vast cluster of islands to seek out self-sufficiency, reliant not on global production chains but rather, more simply, the fruits of their lands. Equally apt when used in connection with Caribbean cuisine is the phrase ‘melting pot’ – alluding to the hotch-potch of cultural influences upon which its food makers have drawn inspiration down the years.

It is this colonial legacy that has given rise to a wonderfully diverse culinary scene – one that renders the term ‘Caribbean food’ almost redundant. Because while there may be common features across the region’s restaurants, market stalls, street vendors and home kitchens – not least the ubiquity of locally sourced seafood – cuisine in the Caribbean could never be described as homogenous. Rather, each island’s offerings have their own distinct character, defined by their imperial past and their people. And so, we come to our list of 20 unmissable – and sometimes widely unknown – food destinations in the Caribbean.

Anguilla

At just 26 miles in length and a few miles wide, Anguilla may be small in size but it packs a punch when it comes to food. With very little farming or animal rearing taking place on the island, most of its meat is imported, leaving fish and seafood as its most prominent staples, along with home-grown herbs, grains, fruits and vegetables. Indeed, it is two such modest ingredients – pigeon peas and rice – that make up the unofficial national dish (served both with meat and as a simple side dish) and found everywhere from chilled-out beach huts to swish international eateries to domestic homes. Further showcasing the island’s food scene each year is Extraordinary Eats, a two-week celebration of Anguillan food, culture and the culinary arts.

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This article was first published by TRAVELMAG

Bequia (The Grenadines)

The 7-square-mile island of Bequia in the Grenadines could be described as one of the last vestiges of the old-school Caribbean. Lush, green forests provide a dramatic backdrop to the largely deserted bays and sugary beaches dotted with swaying, sun-kissed palms. Inland, in tiny towns, winding streets are lined with low-rise shops and sidewalk restaurants, where you’ll invariably find roasted breadfruit and fried jackfish – the national dish – on menus. For waterside eating, take a scenic stroll past boats bobbing in the harbour before reaching Lower Bay beach, where shoreline bars serve delicacies such as crisp-fried ballyhoo (a sardine-like bait fish) and madongo dumplings (typical of local home-style cooking) to be  savoured while soaking up the views.

Bridgetown (Barbados)

A traditional Bajan dish of fried flying fish with macaroni pie (Photo: Steph Couvrette Shutterstock)

There’s no better way of getting to know a place than by visiting a public market. Located on the edge of town, Bridgetown’s fish market, where expert fishmongers are perpetually busy filleting red snapper or delicately preparing swordfish and lobster, offers a sensory snapshot of the capital’s vibrant food scene. With its British colonial architecture and pastel-painted warehouses lining the waterfront, the low-key port city is a magnet for tourists, many of whom take the opportunity to sample cherished local delicacies. Among them, the national dish of flying fish and cou cou is easy to come by, as are hearty portions of pork and fish, typically washed down with beer or rum. For street food, barbequed pigtails are the well-loved, Asian-influenced treats to pick up from rickety roadside stalls.

Christiansted (USVI)

It’s been said that when you taste the food of the US Virgin Islands, you taste the area’s very history. From the enslaved Africans who cooked fungi and turned dasheen or taro leaves into hearty soups, to the Indian workers who brought with them curry-filled roti, to the Danes who introduced red grout pudding, the islands’ cuisine reflects the influences of its people and cultures. Of all its islands, it is St Croix – and in particular the town of Christiansted – that has the most widespread foodie reputation, earning it the moniker of the ‘culinary gateway to the Caribbean’. In Christiansted on the island’s northern shore, you’re just as likely to stumble upon a fisherman selling his fresh catch from the back of his truck as you are tourist-thronged restaurants serving up creative interpretations of national staples such as fish and fungi, cow foot soup and callaloo.

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English Harbor (Antigua & Barbuda)

Colour is everywhere on the two neighbouring islands that make up Antigua & Barbuda, and nowhere more so than in the kaleidoscopic food scene of English Harbour. Here, roadside vendors hawk kenip fruit (a cousin of the lychee), and distinctive black pineapples, first introduced by the Arawak people and often considered to be the world’s sweetest variation, along with nutty corn, sweet potatoes, cassava, and guava. Amid the colonial architecture of Nelson’s Dockyard, the former naval marina on the harbour’s western shores, restaurants offer a more refined flavour of local fare. Spiny lobster and queen conch are often delivered directly from fishing boats before they’re barbecued or made into fritters or curries. For more casual dining, head to the town centre where eateries serve up delicacies such as fungee, dumplings of cornmeal and okra; and pepperpot, a hearty stew of meat and vegetables.

Havana (Cuba)

A vendor selling fresh produce on the streets of Havana (Photo: Pedro Szekely via Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED)

It wasn’t so long ago that Cuba and its energetic capital Havana were considered something of a culinary desert. Not so anymore, and it is Havana leading the revolt, with its coastal position and capital status making it the first port of call for a conveyor belt of freshly-caught seafood arriving on its shore each day. A legacy of the enduring food embargo resulting from Cuba’s fraught geopolitical history has also impacted the gastronomy. A steady stream of locally produced land-based foodstuffs makes it onto plates, too, with pioneering, ecologically-sound farming packing the nation’s meats full of flavour. The result is dishes like guava-basted ribs and, more famously, vaca frita – skirt steak laced with fresh herbs and braised until tender. In Havana, such dishes can be found everywhere from its privately-owned eateries known as paladares to front gardens, porches and street trolleys.

Kralendijk (Bonaire)

Bonaire’s fish market (Photo: Roger W via Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED)

Located in the southern Caribbean, close to the Venezuelan coast, the Dutch island of Bonaire goes under the radar of most visitors to the region, but those who do come will find an enticing culinary landscape. At its hub is the capital, Kralendijk, which has risen in prominence in recent years. As the tourist numbers have grown, so have the choices of places to eat, now including cosy local joints known as snèks, where patrons nurse glasses of liquor from the island’s Cadushy Distillery, to top eateries helmed by celebrity chefs. Fish is prominent on menus – a tribute to the instrumental role of fishing in the island’s culture or meat lovers, but goat is a routine fixture, too. One of the only animals raised on Bonaire, goat is particularly popular in stews. Adventurous types may also be tempted by another local delicacy, iguana soup, containing the unctuous meat of the distinctive green lizards that you’ll regularly spot on the island.

Nassau (Bahamas)

One of the delights of food rooted in other cultures is the culinary quirks that spawns, such as the Bahamian take on the classic macaroni and cheese. Available across the vast archipelago of over 700 picture-postcard islands and cays, this spice-heavy spin-off is most readily found in Nassau, the official capital of the Bahamas and its foodie heartland. Across the city, you’ll find everything from top restaurants in chic resorts to no-frills beach shacks, all sharing the common theme of rich, intensely-flavoured and simply-cooked food. In contrast to the island’s macaroni and cheese, many of the staple dishes peddled by local food purveyors are inspired by African cuisine. You’ll often find these recipes on neighbouring Caribbean islands – think curry chicken, pigeon peas and rice, plantains, and just about every preparation of conch known to man – adding character to the Bahamas multicultural food scene.

Negril (Jamaica)

A classic plate of food served up in Negril (Photo: Christina Xu via Flickr / CC BY 2.0 DEED)

Known for its miles of sandy beaches and rocky cliffs jutting out over the sea, the town of Negril is one of Jamaica’s busiest tourist spots. It is also where you’ll find the best in Jamaican cuisine, with its blend of influences from native Taíno and Arawak tribes to the many communities that settled here post-16th century. Even the humble Jamaican beef patty has outsider origins, with the concept brought here by British immigrants familiar with the Cornish pastry. At the town’s eateries–many positioned to afford views of Negril’s epic sunsets – you’ll find the ubiquitous ackee, sautéed with salted fish, tomatoes, onions, and chiles. And no visit to Jamaica is complete without trying some jerk chicken, earning its distinctive smoky flavour through the use of pimento wood while cooking.

Nevis

Pleasingly free of fast food or chain outlets – and, by no coincidence, the cruise ship masses – Nevis is instead typified by Mom and Pop homestyle restaurants, inviting bistros and modest street shacks with brightly-painted tin roofs. African and South Asian flavours abound, a legacy connected to the slave trade and colonial era. An abundance of home-grown produce has also fostered a vibrant market for homemade jams, sauces, and sweet treats, lapped up by the many tourists who descend here. Stroll around the island and you’re likely see fresh fish sold directly from fishing boats, market stalls displaying tropical fruit, and exotic meats sizzling away on roadside barbecues. Head beachside to try grilled lobster or salted dried cod fish under breezy open-air cabanas as you lap up the views.

Noord (Aruba)

Beach-goers walk past a seafood restaurant in Noord (Photo: TomH2323 via Flickr / CC BY 2.0 DEED)

Papiamento, Aruba’s official language, could be compared to its cuisine. A fusion of influences dating back centuries, Papiamento is derived mostly from Spanish and mixed with Portuguese, the Arawak indigenous lexicon, and African and Dutch words. Hearing a local speak offers a window into the island’s past, and watching one rustle up Aruba’s national dish, Keshi Yena – a casserole poured into a cheese crust and baked – has a similar effect. Encompassing the northern reaches of the island, the enchanting neighbourhood of Noord (meaning ‘north’ in Dutch) is the epicentre of Aruba’s tourism, home to the island’s best beaches, and arguably, its best food. Dozens of popular restaurants are augmented by mellow beach bars serving another quintessential Aruban delicacy – frituras – which further reflect the island’s jumble of cultures. From the variety known as bitterballen, inspired by Aruba’s Dutch heritage, to cala, made with fried black beans, these popular snacks are best eaten by hand on the sand, ideally with a bottle of local Balashu beer to wash them down.

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Port of Spain (Trinidad & Tobago)

A blend of African, Indian, Chinese, European and Latin American influences characterise Trinidad & Tobago cuisine. At the heart of the islands’ cultural life is the Port of Spain, the dynamic capital where panyards, galleries, a large central market, and restaurants sit side by side. Around the Western Main Road in St James, the Queen’s Park West end of the Savannah and Independence Square, street life bustles with traders selling everything from cinnamon sticks to more hearty fare like gyro wraps and roti. Mauby bark (a tree bark-based drink) is also in steady supply and rum retains a strong presence thanks to historic Angostura Distillers, with its aromatic bitters still added liberally to drinks, marinades, soups and puddings.

Saint Francois, Guadeloupe

Where you’ll find luxury yachts, you’ll also invariably find high-quality food. But the fine fare that can be enjoyed in the restaurants that line the boat-filled Marina Saint-François – the main port of the coastal town of Saint Francois on Guadeloupe – is steeped in far more heritage than might be assumed from the international elite-packed eateries during peak season. In fact, to get an authentic sense of Saint Francois’s food culture, head to the weekly marché nocturne, or night market selling a bounty of fresh fruits des mer and locally-grown spices that underpin the island’s distinctive French Creole cuisine. For perhaps the quintessential Saint-François food experience, simply find one of the many food carts that line the street serving bokit, a deep-fried Guadeloupean sandwich, split in half and stuffed with saltfish, charcuterie, cheese or smoked chicken.

Saint Martin

Lolo-style fare in Saint Martin (Photo: Richie Diesterheft via Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED)

Nowhere on St Martin exemplifies the island’s food culture and heritage more than Marigot market. Nestled on the waterfront below the imposing Fort St. Louis on the French half of the island (the other is Dutch), the market bustles with the sights, sounds and aromas of culinary commerce in action. Here, dozens of stalls brim with locally grown fruit, vegetables, spices, and fish that showcase the very best of the island’s produce. A stone’s throw away, cruise ships dock, and visitors split between Saint Martin’s French and Dutch halves. Those heading to the former will quickly discover locally-owned cafes, bistros, roadside pop-ups and casual beachside eateries known as lolos serving up mouth-watering French cuisine embellished with a Creole- Caribbean spin. Among the most popular local staples are oxtail stew, Johnny cakes, and perhaps the island’s most traditional dish, crab and rice.

San Juan (Puerto Rico)

The vibrancy of Puerto Rican culture comes alive in its cuisine, a blend of culinary traditions from around the world. European, African, American, and Taíno (Caribbean) influences are a product of Puerto Rico’s historical roots, first as a Spanish colony and then as a U.S. territory. Perched on the island’s Atlantic coast, the cosmopolitan capital of San Juan is renowned for its dishes that are as flavourful as its cobblestone streets are colourful. From street food to fine dining, the city is a veritable gastronomic goldmine, with local favourites including mofongo, a mouth-watering mashed plantain dish topped with meat or seafood, and lechon abodo, made from a whole pig marinated in spices, herbs and vinegar, then slowly roasted over coals.

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Santa Domingo (Dominican Republic)

The cuisine of the Dominican Republic displays a strong Spanish influence, but also has roots in African and indigenous Taino traditions. Flying the flag for this diverse culinary history, culture, and identity is Santa Domingo, the nation’s capital and one of the Caribbean’s oldest cities, with its cobblestoned historic core boasting buildings dating back to the 1500s. In 2018, and again in 2019, the city secured the coveted title of Culinary Capital of the Caribbean, awarded by the prestigious Ibero-American Academy of Gastronomy – and for good reason. Peruse hotel buffets and head out to any of the city’s authentic local eateries and you’ll discover hearty, flavour-packed food. One of the most typical dishes is Sancocho, a thick stew made with meat, vegetables, tubers and condiments and served with white rice and sliced avocado. Produce also plays a prominent role, with almost every cafe selling freshly-prepared tropical fruit juices such as chinola (passion fruit), piña (pineapple), lechosa (papaya), zapote (sapote), and tamarindo (tamarind).

Soufrière (St Lucia)

A dish of grilled fish served up at Mango Tree restaurant in Soufriere (Photo: Mango Tree / Courtesy St Lucia Tourism Authority)

The volcanic soil of Saint Lucia is fertile ground for some of the best tropical fruits, vegetables, and spices, not to mention coffee and cacao, you’ll find anywhere in the Caribbean. And while the teardrop-shaped island’s growth into a luxury travel destination has seen an influx of international cuisine, the true essence of Saint Lucian food can still be found at roadside stands, village restaurants, snackettes (snack bars) and local stores. Set against a backdrop of mountain peaks, volcanic plugs and lush rainforest, the laid-back fishing town of Soufrière exemplifies this culinary combination of old and new, seen in the town’s many upscale resorts and hotels, where well-heeled guests seek out the familiar foodie trappings of home, and in the many delicacies peddled by casual food purveyors fusing French, English, Indian, and native Arawak traditions.

St Barts

Little surprise given its label as a playground for the rich and famous that the small, rugged island of St Barts boasts some of the most refined cuisine anywhere in the region. Indeed, dining here has been compared to feasting on the French Riviera, but with a Caribbean twist. And while well-to-do travellers flock to its high-end restaurants, St Barts’ food culture is underpinned by rich local traditions melding African, Creole, Italian, Indian, Asian and most starkly, Francophile influences seen in many dishes, cooking styles and daily routines. Look out, for example, for the women of French origin in traditional headdresses picking thyme in their garden to make cotriade, a traditional fish soup from Brittany. In the main town of Gustavia, an annual gourmet festival brings together the island’s culinary diversity in one giant showcase.

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St Georges (Grenada)

Developed around a large natural harbour, St George’s white- and pastel-tinted houses, stone churches, and terracotta tiles flood the hillsides with colour. Add to this the surrounding azure sea and backdrop of mountains and tropical forest and it is easy to see why so many are drawn to the Grenadian capital. Known as ‘the Isle of Spice’ owing to its highly-prized spices during the colonial era, Grenada boasts a formidable reputation for food, and St Georges is where this is best earned. The epicentre of its culinary scene is the downtown Spice Market, where local chefs congregate early to score the best produce and, hours later, Grenadians can be found perusing and socialising too. At restaurants and cafes, local ingredients are plentiful, including freshly-caught fish, home grown fruits and vegetables, and an abundance of herbs and spices. At almost any eatery, for the most authentic flavours of Grenadian cuisine, try oil down. The name reflects the cooking process involved in creating this one-pot wonder typically comprising chicken, pigtails, vegetables, dumplings, coconut milk, and seasonings.

West Bay (Cayman Islands)

An enticing spread in West Bay (Photo: goatling via Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED)

What do you get when you cross an island blessed with a wealth of local produce and native fish, where hundreds of nationalities from far flung corners of the globe have come to live and work, bringing with them their own distinct culinary traditions? The answer is the Cayman Islands, where fertile soil, a tropical climate, and prolific oceans afford access to a bounty of fresh ingredients including coconut, plantains, conchcassava, tuna, snapper, mahi, rice and peas, yams, and mango. The residential neighbourhood of West Bay is a magnet for visitors thanks to its unspoiled beaches and opportunities for eating well – very well indeed. A mix of casual and sophisticated eateries showcase the district’s food, with many local chefs working hand in hand with farmers and fishermen to create sea-to-table menus featuring seasonal fare for everywhere from roadside shacks to wallet-busting dining destinations.

This article was first published by TRAVELMAG

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