Must-try island dishes of the Caribbean


By Sarah Sekula; Published on

The best way to understand the true flavor of any given Caribbean island is to step away from the tourist traps and seek out the true island delicacies. Likewise, sampling traditional dishes made from local ingredients often reveals an island’s personality and sometimes its history, too. From food markets to street stalls to high-end eateries, these must-try dishes are not hard to find. The only tough part is not going back for seconds or thirds.

Cou-cou and flying fish, Barbados

A rollicking atmosphere in which to try the national dish of Barbados is Oistins fish fry, held on Friday and Saturday nights in the southern parish of Christ Church. Here, dozens of stalls dot the shoreline and locals cook in the open air. Made up of cornmeal and okra topped with tomato, onion, chives, thyme, fresh pepper, garlic and a spicy stock, cou-cou is similar to a firm polenta. The thick concoction is prepared in a large pot and stirred with a wooden stick reminiscent of a cricket bat (because little broth is used, it can be a bear to stir). Flying fish, typically fried or steamed, often complements the cou-cou. And why not? Barbados is known as “The land of the Flying Fish,” after all. It is plentiful in the warm waters and often skims above the water’s surface, hence the name. It’s such an important fish, it’s even on Barbadian coins, the national logo and in artwork. The best drink to wash it down? Local rum, of course. Add a side of macaroni pie and plantains, and you’re all set.

Shark and bake, Trinidad

Foodies from around the world flock to Trinidad for its shark and bake (also known as bake and shark). The drool-worthy native dish consists of deep-fried shark fillets stuffed into “bake,” kneaded flour that is fried and formed into puffy rolls. You’ll find it at food stalls across the island, as well as, fancy restaurants. But the most popular spot to chow down on this dish — hands-down — is Maracas Beach, about a 45-minute drive from the capital city of Port of Spain. Across the street from this world-famous beach are a dozen shark-and-bake huts. To top it off, there are condiment stands, offering tempting sauces and toppings, including pineapple, mango chutney and tamarind sauce. Be sure to visit Richard’s stand, owned by Richard Ferguson for the past 30 years. Rumor has it, he invented the dish.

Keshi yena, Curacao

Keshi yena is the perfect find for cheese-lovers. A traditional dish with humble beginnings, the hearty meal originated during the country’s slave trade when the Dutch would eat the moist insides of Gouda or Edam cheese and send the rinds back to the kitchen. Plantation house workers would then stuff the rinds with bits of discarded meat from stews and steam it. These days, the cheese casing is much more thick and made from prime slices of Gouda. You might find chili con carne inside with a spicy tomato sauce or chicken and olives. Great places to try it include La Bahia, La Belle Terrace and The Governeur.

Sopa de lima, Cancun

This specialty soup of the Mayan-influenced Yucatan Peninsula is Mexico’s version of chicken soup, comforting and filling. Made from chicken stock and limas agrias (a citrus fruit similar to lime but less acidic), it is packed with chunks of chicken, avocado, cilantro and crispy tortilla strips. It’s best on a cold night, or when you simply want to revert back to childhood. Find it at Restaurant Labna, Restaurante Los Mestizos and a handful of spots in Merida.
The lionfish has no natural predators and has devoured the ecosystem in the Caribbean waters. (Photo: sserg_dibrova, Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Lionfish, Cayman Islands

Back in 2008, non-native lionfish were spotted off the shores of Little Cayman, voraciously eating local fish and destroying the natural ecosystem. Since then, thousands more have shown up. Turns out, though, humans find them quite delicious. So, in an effort to combat the pesky prowlers, several local restaurants now have them on the menu. Chefs denature the fish’s venom by cooking it with the spines on. After that, it’s safe to eat. Lionfish hunter and chef Thomas Tennant of Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink serves the fish in a variety of forms, including ceviche and chowder.

Callaloo, Jamaica

If you want to get your dark, leafy greens, noshing on callaloo is a tasty way to do it. This curry-like dish with West African roots is popular throughout the Caribbean, although each island has its own variation. In Jamaica, for example, it is often combined with saltfish and mixed with tomatoes, onion and scotch bonnet peppers, then steamed; you might call it Jamaica’s take on collard greens. For breakfast, it’s common to have the warm salad accompanied by fried dumplings, boiled yams and fried plantains. You’ll also spot it on lunch and dinner menus mixed with various meats, seafood and stews.