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San Antonio Express-News

Caribbean Food A Feast For The Palate

By Karen Haram

May 20, 2004
Copyright © 2004 San Antonio Express-News. All rights reserved.

If you think the beauty of the Caribbean is limited to its bright blue waters, pristine beaches, golden sun and cooling breezes, you need to look a little bit harder.

Or do a little more tasting.

On a weeklong cruise through six islands of the southern Caribbean, I discovered that flying fish, nutmeg-laced rum punch, searing salsas, jerk pork, chicharrons and fish fritters are just a few of the culinary delights that reflect the flavors of the area.

My trip through the Caribbean aboard the Constellation, Celebrity's award-winning ship in its Millennium series, was the final in the cruise line's eight Savor the Caribbean sailings. The cruises were held in conjunction with Bon Appitit magazine and included meals as well as food and spirit tastings, culinary lectures and cooking classes led by experts selected by the magazine.

Among those experts was Jessica Harris, Caribbean food historian and cookbook author, who explained in lectures and a follow-up interview that in the Caribbean, the food is inexorably intertwined with the region as it is in few other areas of the world.

Although many mistakenly think that the culinary history of the region began with Christopher Columbus' visits in the 1490s, two groups of Americans -- the Arawaks and Caribs -- occupied the land long before the Italian's arrival in the New World.

The tribes lived on sweet potatoes, cassava, peanuts, pineapples and cashew fruit along with native fish, wild boar and waterfowl, Harris says. The Arawaks even roasted their meats over an open fire on green wood sticks, a process they called barbacoa.

When Columbus arrived, significant changes took place in the food of the region -- changes that still are reflected today in the area that Harris refers to as "one of the world's original melting pots."

Culinary influences include those from South America, Africa, Asia, Indonesia, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Great Britain.

"Atlantic Rim fusion food" is how Harris describes it.

But there are regional variations. Take chicharron de pollo in the Dominican Republic and chicharron, or pork cracklings, in Puerto Rico. Though the concept is the same, they taste quite different. Puerto Rico's chicharron are crisply fried and salted pork rinds; the Dominican Republic's chicharron are bite-size bits of marinated chicken that are floured and fried.

As foods from the New World such as corn, tomatoes, chilies, chocolate and spices made their way to Europe, rice, bananas, sugar cane, breadfruit and more were making their way to the islands.

Pork shows up today in multiple ways -- the chicharron in Puerto Rico, the Cubano sandwich in Cuba, pepperpot in Guyana, locrio in the Dominican Republic and jerked pork in Jamaica, to name a few.

"So many of the indigenous ingredients transformed the food of the world. Before Columbus, there were no tomatoes in Italy, no potatoes in Ireland, no chilies in Thai food. This was an incredible larder into which Columbus sailed," Harris said.

Although there are differences in the foods from one island to the next, plantains are a favorite on all the islands -- only eaten cooked, Harris cautioned. Hot sauces, often made with the fiery Scotch Bonnet pepper, also are a region-wide specialty.

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