Beyond its white-sand beaches and azure waters, the Caribbean is home to a colorful culinary culture. The Caribbean draws flavors from all over the world after centuries of colonialism, trade, and immigration. For example, Indian flavors are ever-present in Trinidadian food through its curry and roti. From indigenous ingredients like yuca, a root vegetable found in many Caribbean dishes, to staple fruits such as plantains brought from African ancestors, to European colonial cooking techniques, there are plenty of enticing dishes to enjoy in the region. Here are five Caribbean dishes you must try.
1. Dhalpuri Roti with Curry Chicken
Trinidad and Tobago
To understand the food of Trinidad and Tobago, you have to understand the history. Initially occupied by Taino and Carib Indigenous peoples, the islands were colonized by the Spanish, Dutch, French, and British between the 16th and 19th centuries, bringing many culinary influences. Descendants of enslaved Africans and Indian indentured servants now make the majority of the island’s population, and it’s reflected in its diverse cuisine.
A must-have dish is dhalpuri roti with curry chicken. Voiceover actor and native Trinidadian Vanessa James recommends this beloved Indian-rooted meal. “Dhalpuri roti is our comfort food island style; it’s the perfect pairing of our spices and unique flavors in one bubbling pot. The Trini flatbread [dhalpuri roti] is typically served with a side of pumpkin, aloo [potato], and even curried mango,” she says.
2. Jerk Chicken
No trip to Jamaica is complete without a taste of one of its most beloved dishes, jerk chicken. You can find it in many menus across the island, but nothing beats a spicy chicken drumstick smothered in jerk seasoning from a street vendor, especially after a night out with too many Red Stripes (local beer) and good music. Most street vendors cook the jerk chicken on a steel oil drum grill. You get the smokiness of the charcoal merged with the flavors of the marinade, which usually includes hot peppers, soy sauce, garlic, and Chinese five-spice, among others.
Every cook has their secret ingredient and technique honed throughout the years. “We put a lot of love in the marinade, which I feel is one of the two most important parts of preparing proper jerk chicken. The second and equally important step is the smoke,” says chef Chris Morgan, who learned his jerk recipe from his uncle back in Jamaica and brought that taste of the island to his restaurant, Bammy’s in Washington, D.C.
3. Conch Salad
Turks and Caicos
The idyllic archipelago of Turks and Caicos is known for its picturesque white-sand beaches and tranquil waters—which are also the perfect breeding ground for conch. The small sea snail’s meat is prepared in a salad with fresh peppers, onions, lemon, olive oil, and local herbs and spices that make for one of the most popular dishes.
A frequent visitor of Turks and Caicos, Caribbean expert Sarah Gabbadon-Graves raves about conch salad: “Full of flavor, high in protein, and low in fat, conch salad is a TCI must-eat. I enjoy it with most of my toes in the sand at Da Conch Shack or Bugaloos Conch Crawl on Provo,” she says.
Plantains are consumed throughout the Caribbean, but arguably no country loves them more than the Dominican Republic. From breakfast to dinner, they are part of every Dominican meal. You can’t go to the Dominican Republic without having mangú, a dish made of boiled plantains, mashed into a puree and usually prepared with red onions. It’s most commonly served with salami, fried egg, and fried cheese called “Los Tres Golpes.”
Mangú is a significant cultural part of the Dominican Republic and a link to its African heritage. Although they originated in Southeast Asia, plantains arrived in the Caribbean from Africa on the slave trade ships in the 16th century and are a big part of Afro Caribbean cuisine. “It maintains our connection to our African and Indigenous roots, while celebrating our Caribbean culinary traditions,” says Carol Cain, a travel writer who was born in the Dominican Republic.
5. Lechón Asado
Lechón asado (roasted pork) is one of the centerpieces of Puerto Rican cuisine. The whole pig is carefully marinated with adobo and roasted over charcoal or wood, and the process can take several days. There are even restaurants solely dedicated to the craft. They are called lechoneras. You can find lechoneras throughout the country roads of the island. The most popular one is in Guavate, in the central town of Cayey, also known as “La Ruta del Lechón.”
Lechón is a big part of Puerto Rican culture, especially during the holidays. “A true Puerto Rican party needs to include lechón! And very important: The skin must be extra crispy; we call it cuerito,” says chef Raul Correa, co-owner of Bacoa, a restaurant, and farm in Juncos, Puerto Rico.