The Arawak, Carib, and Taino Indians were the first inhabitants of the Caribbean islands. These first inhabitants occupied the present day islands of British Virgin Islands, Cuba, Dominica, Grenada, Haiti, Trinidad, and Jamaica. Their daily diet consisted of vegetables and fruits such as papaw, yams, guavas, and cassava. The Taino started the process of cooking meat and fish in large clay pots.
The Arawaks are the first people known to make a grate of thin green wood strips on which they slowly cooked meat, allowing it to be enhanced by the flavor of the wood. This grate was called a barbacoa, and the word we know today as barbeque is taken from this early Indian cooking method.
The Carib Indians added more spice to their food with hot pepper sauces, and also added lemon and lime juice to their meat and fish recipes. The Caribs are said to have made the first pepper pot stew. No recipes exist since every time the Indians made the dish, they would always add new ingredients. The Carib had a big impact on early Caribbean history, and the Caribbean sea was named after this tribe.
Then the Caribbean became a crossroads for the world . . .
Once the Europeans brought Africans slaves into the region, the slaves diet consisted mostly of food the slave owners did not want to eat. So the slaves had to be inventive, and they blended their traditional African foods with staples found on the islands. The Africans introduced okra, callaloo, fish cakes, saltfish, ackee, pudding and souse, mangos, and the list goes on.
Most present day Caribbean island locals eat a present diet that is reflective of the main ingredients of original early African dishes, and includes cassava, sweet potatoes, yams, plantains, bananas and corn meal.
African men were hunters in their homeland, and often away from home for long periods of time. They would cook spicy pork over hot coals, and this tradition was refined by the early slaves in Jamaica. The technique is known today as “jerk” cooking , and the secret involves a slow meat cooking process. Jamaica is famous for jerk chicken and pork, and you’ll find jerk all over the island.
After slavery was abolished, the Europeans went to India and China for labor, and more cooking styles were introduced. Much of the Indian cooking culture remains alive and well in the Caribbean of today with the introduction of curried meats and curry powder. Indians call it kari podi, and we have come to know this pungent flavor as curry.
The Chinese introduced rice, which is always a staple in home cooked island meals. The Chinese also introduced mustard, and the early Portuguese sailors introduced the popular codfish.
Most visitors to the Caribbean have no idea that the fruit trees and fruits so familiar to the islands were introduced by the early Spanish explorers. The fruit trees and fruits brought from Spain include orange, lime, ginger, plantains, figs, date palms, sugar cane, grapes, tamarinds and coconuts.
Even the Polynesian islands play an important role in Caribbean cooking. Most of us remember the movie “Mutiny on the Bounty”, but do not know that particular ship carried breadfruit, which was loaded on board from the islands of Tahiti and Timor. In the movie the crew took over the ship, forced the captain into a small boat to fend on his own, and they threw the breadfruit, which they considered “strange fruit” overboard. Another ship was more successful in bringing breadfruit from Polynesia to Jamaica and the St Vincent and the Grenadines. Breadfruit is a staple diet in the current day Caribbean
America is responsible for introducing beans, corn, squash, potatoes, tomatoes, and chili pepper to the Caribbean. In fact these particular foods had never been seen in Asia, Europe or Africa, so America actually introduced these foods the rest of the world via the Caribbean.
So it’s no wonder Caribbean cooking is so rich and creative with the flavors of Africa, India, and China, along with Spanish, Danish, Portuguese, French and British influences. Food served in the Caribbean islands have been influenced by the cultures of the world, but each island adds its own special flavor and cooking technique.