The Caribbean is awash with restaurants offering hip cuisine. Flashy menus feature gourmet beef delights, chicken delicacies and fish fresh from the sea. Few can resist the intoxicating aromas pouring from these tricked-out kitchens, and why would you?
Strolling past, I inhale, imagining the gastronomic origins, picturing the presentation of the perfect plate. I admit, it’s tempting. But I tack away, preferring instead the rickety snack shack or colorful, cramped hole-in-the-wall where I’m sure to experience a taste of the island I worked so hard to sail to. I want local. I’m after food that’s steeped in generational tradition; recipes that are worn and well loved.
Every country boasts a national dish. In Barbados it’s Coucou and Flying Fish. Grenada’s special, Oil Down, is as much about the prep as the edible product. Montserrat’s specialty is Goat Water; Trinidad’s is Crab and Callaloo; and in Martinique, Grilled Snapper swims under luscious creole sauce.
Some dishes are regional, like salt fish and Johnny cake or pigeon peas and rice. Fried chicken is a street staple and conch water a favorite no matter where you roam. Of course, nothing beats a plate of grilled chicken- unless it’s barbecued ribs.
To stretch my taste buds, I look for dishes with odd names and unusual ingredients. Dukana, I learned, is a savory steamed dumpling made of sweet potatoes. Chop-up, a soft mash of okra, pumpkin, eggplant and spinach. Buss Up Shut (with its memorable name), is curried meat wrapped in flatbread.
My dining horizon was rapidly expanding until the little marsupial, manicou, crossed my plate. Maybe it was those tiny feet or that rat like tail that caused me to decline a taste, though everyone around me seem delighted. Even the iguanas, sharing the same coals, didn’t elicit pangs of hunger. Maybe it was the presentation …
It’s important to remember that finding exemplary local cuisine can be a challenge. Most one-off eateries run by their own set of norms. Hours of operation are often set to island time. A menu, when there is one, might be missing some truth. Chances are, the dish you want is yesterday’s news, so push on. In the West Indies, perseverance can be your key to gastronomic success.
Recently, rave reviews for a Bokit, the Guadeloupean sandwich fried in sunflower oil, sent me to find one on the sister island of Marie-Galante. The first sample, from a food truck, didn’t meet the mark. The second was no better but when I bit into the third one and it was ‘just right’, I was Goldilocks, heading back to the boat for a nap.
As cruising sailors, we find ourselves in foreign grazing territory, which adds a new dimension to eating local. Not grasping the language taught me the Spanish words for liver and brains. It also taught me to eye the pot before asking for a bowl. In Monte Cristi, a tiny town tucked in the northwest corner of the Dominican Republic, I mimed my way into the darkest little kitchen where the cook toiled over open fires. Pot by pot she lifted lids, pointing in, then out to the barnyard to clarify the contents. Her chicken stew was sublime and if not for the long sail, I’d go there again for more.
A break from bad weather held us captive in a Panamanian bay with only one wooden structure on shore. Atop it was a misleading sign shouting ALKASELTZER! Despite the warning, we wandered in and when we asked about lunch, the cook hauled us into her kitchen for a tour and language lesson. The next meal, even better, featured handmade flashcards.
Questions are an important tool when seeking that perfect meal. I ask about the specials, the chef’s favorite dish and I like to know about those secret ingredients. I’m a fan of chicken roti but I like mine without bones. A bowl of souse can hit the spot but not if my spoon collects an ear or snout. Once I discovered that the main ingredient for Manish Water is the head of a goat, complete with teeth and eyes, I had to draw the line. I’m a little picky that way.
Finding the best island food is a lot of work and the search is prone to failure. I’ve had more than one mission result in hunger and believe me, I’ve crossed a few restaurants off my chart—like the place that knowingly served rotten ‘poo-cante sauce’. The upside, of course, is that mouthwatering plate of perfection. It’s the cook’s secrets shared at the table. For me, it’s also the adventure that landed me at the table and the convoluted stories collected along the way.
Writer, photographer, sailor, Jan Hein calls the Caribbean home when she’s not on a boat in Washington State. [email protected]