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July 4, 2010

Foods and spices native to the Caribbean

Because the history of Caribbean cuisine is the history of exploration and colonisation itself, foods and spices we commonly think of as Caribbean are in fact adopted newcomers to the islands. However, it is only in the fusion environment of the islands that these foods and spices have attained the wonderful melange which we have come to think of as quintessentially Caribbean.

The original food ingredients native to the Caribbean are guava, cassava, and of course fish. Among these, cassava, also known as yucca or manioc, is the real workhorse of the Caribbean diet. It can be boiled, baked, fried, or it can be made into bread, tapioca, or casareep, a bittersweet syrup. Guava berries make an excellent juice. Arrowroot, a flavoured starch, is commonly used as a thickener in stews. Jerking, the slow-cook method of grilling meats spiced with hot peppers over an open fire, has become world-renowned. In addition to the hot peppers, modern jerked pork or fish is coated with a mixture of savoury spices and chopped vegetables such as onions, scallions, thyme, and of course Jamaican allspice (pimento). A sweeter jerk can be achieved by adding molasses or brown sugar, while lime juice or vinegar adds tartness.

Many well-known Caribbean foods and spices are of west African origin. Perhaps the best known of these are okra, commonly used as a thickener in Caribbean and Creole cooking, and ackee, a pod fruit which is a very popular breakfast food in Jamaica.

The mild climate of the Caribbean islands made them ideal for transplanting fruits from Polynesia and other parts of the south Pacific. Such imported fruits which have come to be synonymous with the Caribbean are breadfruit, served roasted or baked, and mangoes, excellent for fruit salads, juices, or chutneys.

Beans of various types are mostly imports from the mainland Americas, although a few, such as lentils, were originally brought over from Europe, Asia, and Africa. Kidney beans, lentils, black beans, and black-eyed peas are all commonly used in Caribbean cuisine, especially in the many Caribbean curries. Yams, potatoes, and papaya are other mainland American natives.

Limes, along with dates, oranges, and figs, were brought to the Caribbean by the Spaniards. In particular, lime juice has become an indispensable ingredient of Caribbean cooking, in recipes ranging from ceviche to lime pepper sauce to traditional jerking. Caribbean limes tend to be light yellow rather than green in colour.

Callaloo is a bit tricky, as it refers to two totally different plants (dasheen, amarynth), both of which can be used to make the classic callaloo dish. However, amarynth is the true Jamaican version. Other ingredients in Jamaican callaloo are eggplant, okra, Scotch bonnet peppers (among the hottest in the world), garlic, scallions, thyme, and coriander or parsley. Adding crab, lobster, ham, potato, or breadfruit makes the callaloo into a main dish.

What list of Caribbean foods could be complete without mentioning roti? Unlike the traditional east Indian bread from which it sources, Caribbean roti usually refers to a bread in the roti style which has been stuffed, pita-like, with ground yellow split peas, cumin, garlic, and pepper, or sometimes with potatoes, goat, chicken, or even cabbage, brushed with oil, and then grilled or baked until golden and just a little crispy.

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