From super-fresh seafood to spicy jerk, the food of the Caribbean is as vibrant and diverse as the islands themselves.
By
Kylie Walker

12 Aug 2019 - 12:32 PM  UPDATED 21 Oct 2019 - 6:20 PM

It’s the kind of food you want to cook, or eat, with the music on, turned up. Dance in your kitchen to some calypso or reggae beats. Dream of white sandy beaches; food full of flavour; markets piled with tropical produce. 

Caribbean food is a fresh, often punchy, something-for-everyone cuisine that has influences from across the globe. With hundreds of islands dotted across a swathe of sea sitting above South America, with Mexico to the west and Florida above, the Caribbean includes Jamaica, Cuba, Dominica, Barbados, the dual-island nation of Trinidad and Tobago, and many more.

Like the islands themselves, the food of the region is hugely diverse; whether you’re a fan of fresh seasonal produce, or you like things hot, hot, hot, the Caribbean has something to offer. Jerk (meat, and sometimes fish or vegetables, seasoned with a mix containing all spice, fiery Scotch Bonnet chillies and other ingredients, then) is the Caribbean dish best known in Australia, but there’s an enormous array of other dishes and flavours, too.

“The Caribbean is such a multicultural and diversely rich region and so are our foods,” says Élan Mottley Harris, who grew up in Barbados and moved to Australia 17 years ago, and now sells a line of Caribbean sauces.

“There are Indian, African, Chinese, French influences, to name a few, and an amazing array of ingredients to work with, and to create the magic, is there at our fingertips. Fresh herbs and spices, fresh seafood and salted meats and exotic fruits and vegetables are used so creatively, along with spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, pimento. And of course, the many varieties of the habaneros is so crucial to Caribbean flavours.

“And Caribbean people love to have their condiments. Hot sauces or pepper sauces are never far away from the finished meal.”

It’s a diversity that Ainsley Harriott explores with gusto in Ainsley’s Caribbean Kitchen (Sundays 7.30pm on SBS Food, then on SBS On Demand), which sees the energetic, always smiling UK-based chef visit Jamaica, Trinidad, Tobago, Grenada, Barbados, St Lucia, Dominica and Antigua. The journey takes him back to the flavours of his childhood – both his parents were from the Caribbean, and his mother was a huge influence on his cooking.

“My Mum was the main reason why I became a chef. She influenced all of my family to feel free in the kitchen – it was the centre of our home and I have wonderful memories of helping Mum cook and experiencing the love and patience that went into the food. Our house was always full of friends and family and we would all sit down to enjoy my mum’s Caribbean food, which was always a generous and shared experience.

“Food is an integral part of Caribbean life – it’s diverse just like Caribbean culture, with flavour influences from India, Europe, China, South America and Africa. To me, Caribbean food is about fresh, seasonal produce – using what's in season to create vibrant and great tasting food. The spicing is also important. A dish doesn’t necessarily need to be hot, but spice is important to the flavour,” Harriott tell us.

Was it what he expected, we asked Harriott, or was it full of surprises?

“Partly what I expected, because a lot of the flavours and produce are obviously familiar to me from my childhood. Access to Caribbean produce is also easier than it used to be and it is much more familiar now in the UK. Years ago this wasn’t always so.

“I’ve been to the Caribbean a few times, but for the series, I was lucky enough to travel to islands I’d never been to before and so I discovered a lot more than I expected. The difference between the food of the islands is so interesting – the Indian influence in Trinidad, the aromatic spicing in Grenada, the Latin American influence in Dominica for example. I also discovered lots of vegetarian and vegan dishes I’d never tried before.”

While Caribbean food isn’t on almost every corner in Australia, like Chinese or Thai, it is winning fans across the country, from the Jamaican food and good vibes experience of Brisbane’s mobile event maker, the Ja Joint, to the rum, reggae and Jamaican eats at Sydney bar Rosie Campbell’s. And there’s a thriving expat community, too.

Jacqueline Bobb, one of the volunteer co-ordinators of CaribOz, a Caribbean and West Indian expat group that organises events and social nights, says that when she moved to Australia from Trinidad, “I thought I’d be the only Caribbean person here! But it was great to find a big group.

“CaribOz has over 1000 members in our database just in Sydney, but there are many more than that, with people on Perth, Melbourne, Queensland…”

With such diversity in Caribbean food, it’s not surprising that Mottley Harris says “Gosh, that’s a difficult question!” when we ask what her favourite Caribbean dishes are.

“There are so many phenomenal dishes and recipes moving from island to island. For instance, in Barbados, my favourite food would have to be cou cou and flying fish -  our national dish because of its exotic and rich flavours.” Cou cou and flying fish is a two-in-one national dish: flying fish (a torpedo-shaped fish, common in the waters off Barbados, which can glide impressively long distances above the water) is served with cou cou, or coo-coo, which is cornmeal cooked with okra.

“Then you have the amazing curries and Indian influences from Trinidad, and roti, which has to be that perfect street food and easy eating that everybody enjoys. In Jamaica, the Chinese influence and jerk pork are mouth-watering and spicy!!

Street food is popular with locals and visitors alike across the Caribbean islands, with everything from Jamaican jerk shacks to Trinidad’s doubles sellers (doubles consist of two overlapped flatbreads, bara, filled with a spiced chickpea mix) serving up food with distinctive local flavours.  

But while street food is fast, some of the best-loved dishes across the islands are slow.

“By far one of my favourite dishes in the Caribbean would have to be my Dad‘s pepper pot,” Mottley Harris says. “The aroma of this one-pot dish of cassareep, meats, herbs and spices simmering for days is such a fantastic memory because he usually makes it for Christmas Day!” Cassareep is a thick, dark sauce made by boiling cassava root juice, and it’s the key ingredient in pepperpot (get this Jonathan Phang recipe here), which is also one of the national dishes of Guyana.

 

Get this Jonathan Phang recipe for pepperpot right here.

 

For Harriott, “the dishes which made the biggest impression on me were the slow-cooked or one-pot dishes. Dishes that reminded me of my childhood. The oil down I made with Barry in Grenada was just great – dasheen, yams, coconut – all cooked slowly for a stew bursting with flavour. Tara from Trinidad’s home-cooked dosti and roti was also to die for – simple home-cooked food at its best!”

Since his travels around the islands, Harriott has been discovering a very different destination – Australia.

“Filming Ainsley’s Market Menu [coming to SBS this October] was wonderfully exciting because I got to see parts of Australia that I’ve never been to before. I was also introduced to some great food producers whose passion really comes across in the show. I love fresh food markets and it was a joy to travel around Australia and visit new places and the local markets. Markets are a great way to buy your food – you can handle the produce and talk to the people who grow or produce it – it’s shaking hands with the farmer, developing a closeness that you don’t get in a supermarket. It also helps brings communities together.”

A market is also where Ainsley’s Caribbean Kitchen kicks off, as Harriott discovers the enormous Coronation Market in the Jamaican capital, Kingston.

“I love to go to local markets when I travel because you see so many ingredients you don’t often get to find at home,” he says, as he discovers enormous avocados and fiery chillies, and buys yams for a cooking session later on at a local beach.

Some ingredients common in the Caribbean can be hard to get here – Bobb says the dish she misses most is cullaloo, a dish made with leafy greens that we don’t have in Australia, although she does make it with spinach sometimes – but online retailers like Touloulou Creole Shop (sauces, spices and nuts); Jammin’ Jerk (marinade pastes and BBQ sauce);  and Elan’s Caribbean Flavours (Mottley Harris’s sauce range) help bring Caribbean flavours and ingredients here. Groups such as CaribOz, CaribVic and Caribbean Sydney can be another way to find out about businesses serving the expat community.   

“People are often nervous about trying Caribbean food at home, but I urge you to try it. It’s really not difficult and so vibrant and full of flavour that you will be delighted that you’ve given it a go,” Harriott says.

Get a taste for island life in Ainsley’s Caribbean Kitchen, as Ainsley Harriott visits Jamaica, Trinidad, Tobago, Grenada, Barbados, St Lucia, Dominica and Antigua. Sundays 7.30pm on SBS Food Channel 33; episodes will be available on SBS On Demand after they air. Start with episode 1 right here:

 

island flavours
Eat the flavours of Jamaica with jerk, golden patty and hot rum sauce
It's a cuisine shaped by a melting pot of history, and spiked with plenty of hot chilli and spice!
Caribbean-style black bean soup

This is no bland winter soup – enjoy a tropical recipe with a fiery touch.

Rum-drunk barbecued chicken

“There’s nothing more Caribbean than rum and to get that flavour right through the chicken, it helps to make a few incisions into the meat before marinating it. I love the idea of keeping a little bit of bone on the chicken so when you put it onto the barbie it’s got a bit of structure.” Ainsley Harriott, Ainsley Harriott’s Street Food

Grilled corn on the cob with coconut-butter sauce

“The sight of fresh coconuts everywhere in Barbados took me right back to my childhood visits to the Caribbean. That’s why I like using freshly grated coconut in my butter, but desiccated works just as well. To grill the corn, I remove some of the outer layers of husk, then grill them in the green leaves to stop the kernels from charring and drying out. I then peel back all the husks, brush them with the coconut-butter and grill them again until golden and lovely.” Ainsley Harriott, Ainsley Harriott’s Street Food

Spiced Jamaican rolls (bulla)

Sometimes referred to as bulla cake, these sweet, flat rolls are spiced with ginger and, often, molasses. They are a popular snack for school children and can also be filled with butter or cheese.

Jamaican ginger cake

Ginger is one of the world’s most ubiquitous spices, used fresh in Chinese, Korean and Indian cuisines, pickled and served with sushi, and added to cakes, biscuits and marinades in its dried powder form. For this rich Jamaican cake, both fresh and dried ginger are used.