A trio of paradise islands famed for sparkling sapphire waters, white-sand beaches, and, yes, favorable taxation laws, the Cayman Islands also boast a reputation for being the Caribbean’s culinary capital. These compact islands have limited options in regard to agriculture, so locals turned to an abundant alternative: the sea.
With more than 200 restaurants covering Grand Cayman, Little Cayman, and Cayman Brac, the cuisine takes the islands’ rich marine life as its foundation, then steeps it in the flavors and influences of the Greater Antilles and nearby Mexico, Cuba, and Miami. Snapper, mahi-mahi, and lobster seasoned with herbs, citrus, and a generous helping of chile are the most popular Caymanian staples, but the menu doesn’t stop there.
Here are 10 dishes you must try during your next visit to the Cayman Islands, as well as a few of the best places to find them.
Reading the name, you’d be forgiven for thinking this dish merges two ingredients one should never combine. This hearty soup is, however, lovingly toiled over for hours in homes across the Caribbean. Commonly made with yam, pumpkin, cassava, and bananas plus a fresh seafood catch, the soup is seasoned with a liberal dose of thyme, butter, and coconut milk.
Ronaldo and Rosie Garcia at Heritage Kitchen are the local authorities on this Caymanian classic. Take a seat at one of the brightly colored tables, or better yet, perch on the seawall next to this friendly West Bay beach hut. Dishes change daily, but fish tea is always on the menu.
When tasting what some argue is the most popular dish in the Caymans, you have to experience it at an appropriately excellent restaurant. Run by jovial couple Ozzie and Nancy Bodden, Grape Tree Café draws crowds for its huge portions of fish fry.
They’re usually made with battered or breaded snapper or mahi-mahi, pan fried and served with coleslaw, fries, and hot sauce. You’ll be so full that you probably won’t need to eat for the remainder of the day. Or opt for Jamaican favorite escovitch: a crispy whole red snapper with scotch bonnet peppers and vinegar that add up to some fiery Caymanian heat.
This sugary dessert leans far into the sweet stuff: coconut milk, brown sugar, vanilla butter, and cassava. Also known as “heavy cake,” this syrupy brown Cayman Islands staple is often made with yam or sweet potato and is a favorite at festivals and celebrations.
Arrive early at Vivine’s Kitchen, the seafront yellow house belonging to Vivine and Ray Walter, who serve the best cassava cake in Grand Cayman. For your main dish, the curried goat or Cayman style beef are delicious, but be warned: By early afternoon they will almost certainly be sold out and the café shuttered for the day.
Whether on the roadside, in local homes, or at expensive restaurants, you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyplace in the Cayman Islands that doesn’t serve goat curry. A rich, spicy dish also popular in India and Sri Lanka, goat curry is flavored with scotch bonnets, ginger, tomato, thyme, and—in the Caribbean version—hot Jamaican curry powder.
At the brand new Palm Heights restaurant Tillies, a team of chefs hailing from across the Antilles take the dish back to its South Asian roots using a whole local goat with added coconut sambal and flaky tamarind roti.
There’s a new fish on the block, and this invasive, spiky, poisonous predator is the unlikely hero of the Cayman Islands’ sustainable seafood scene. A tasty white fish similar to grouper, lionfish is easily fried or served as sushi, although for a local twist you’ll want to try it in a citrusy ceviche.
Tukka on Grand Cayman has become one of the biggest advocates for eating lionfish, where chef Ron Hargrave artfully blends Caribbean ingredients into Australian classics. Don’t miss its sizzling lionfish tacos with sweet chile and fried onions. Both the East End and West Bay eateries have rum lists longer than Seven Mile Beach, which you can enjoy mixed into a refreshing Cayman Island Iced Tea.
The deep-fried, golden goodness of cracked conch is a Bahamian dish that’s firmly ingrained in Cayman Island life. Conch appears in endless recipes, and whether boiled, stewed, fried, or steamed, the crispy strands of cracked conch—similar to calamari and typically served with fries and hot sauce—always hit the spot.
The “cracked” designation is derived from a preparation technique that involves using a frying pan to pound the meat into thin and tender strips, and those who do it best are the chefs at the eponymous the Cracked Conch, where the dish has been served with pickled fennel and escovitch tartar sauce since it opened more than 40 years ago.
A blackboard emblazoned with “Pat’s Kitchen” and a few scribbled dishes is all that alerts you to this popular local café on Cayman Brac, where conch stew is the must-try menu item.
Slow-cooked with potatoes, carrots, dumplings, and tomatoes, it’s a hearty, family-oriented dish that originated in the Florida Keys. On these islands, you’ll almost always order it “Cayman style,” which means well-cooked and spicy. At Pat’s Kitchen, chef Patrick rubs dishes off the menu throughout the day, so when it’s gone, it’s gone.
At Tomfoodery Kitchen, with its bright interiors painted by local artists, you’ll find Caymanian classics with a twist. Cayman-style beef is a favorite dish of chef and owner Thomas Tennant, founder of the Cayman Islands’ movement to put the invasive lionfish on menus and advocate for using home-grown ingredients.
A dish that he says is “simple and satisfying,” the tender strips of beef are combined with onions, garlic, and peppers before marinating over many hours. A particularly popular meal during Christmas in the Caymans, Tomfoodery serves it no frills, with coconut rice, peas, and fried plantain.
Jamaica doesn’t have a monopoly on jerk chicken. If you can handle the heat, it’s a not-to-be-missed meal in the Caymans, too. Jerk—derived from the Spanish word charqui meaning “dried meat”—includes three essential ingredients: scotch bonnet, allspice, and thyme. Chicken or pork is marinated in this spicy, savory blend to achieve a hot, smoky flavor.
At Island Bites—a self-proclaimed Cay-Mex food truck owned by chef Huey Crawford—jerk chicken is a lunchtime favorite. Grab a $7 plate with some breadfruit fries and Cayman-style rice for a taste sensation. Those who prefer to go easy on the chiles should opt for the panko-crusted snapper or conch chowder, which are similarly tasty but gentler on the tastebuds.
Hailing from nearby Jamaica and Tobago, rundown is a stew traditionally made with mackerel mixed with thyme, tomatoes, pumpkin, and thick, heavily reduced coconut milk to produce a creamy sauce. On the Cayman Islands, okra and cassava are added and milder ingredients are switched out for scotch bonnets.
At Peppers—an open-air palapa with ongoing happy hours—this Caymanian special is made with mahi-mahi. Order with roasted breadfruit and loaded jerk fries and enjoy the live music every weekend.