“What is Caribbean food?” is a common question and one that many seniors want the answer to before they head off on their island vacation. The short answer is that there are as many different flavors and cuisines as there are islands. And, seniors with an adventurous palate will surely not want to miss out on any of the local cuisines.
Though the flavors can be quite different from one island to the next, there are many similarities. All Caribbean island food has one thing in common: they are a culinary fusion of local native cuisine and the flavors brought by the early European settlers.
Another similarity is the main staple ingredients, such as rice, beans, plantains, tomatoes, peppers, seafood, fish, and chicken. And much of the food, especially meat, is cooked using roasting and grilling methods.
Plus, most of the islands have a special dish unique to the local culture, and we have compiled a list of some must-try foods when visiting these various islands.
10 Must Try Caribbean Dishes
- Cuba – Ropa Vieja
- Belize – Rice and Bean Fish Stew
- Dominican Republic: Sancocho
- Saint Lucia: Green Fig and Salt Fish
- Aruba: Keshi Yena
- Bonaire: Guiambo
- Purto Rico : Arroz con gandules
- Barbados: Flying Fish and Coucou
- Bahamas: Conch Fritters
- Jamaica: Jerk Chicken
Cuba – Ropa Veija
Cuba’s national dish is ropa veija, which originated in Spain. The translation of ropa veija is old clothes, which does not sound all that appetizing.
However, the dish is linked to a Spanish fable about a man who used his old clothes to make a stew for his family. After the man prayed over the bubbling pot of clothes, something magical occurred, transforming the clothes into meat.
Ropa veija later traveled from Spain to the Caribbean, where it found its home in Cuba, later becoming the national dish.
Traditional ropa veija is made with slow-cooked shredded beef in a tomato-based sauce with bell peppers, onions, and garlic served over rice. Depending on where you get it, the ropa veija may be served with a side of tostones or maduros; both are made from plantains.
And though not the national dish, congri rice arroz con pollo is another popular dish found in Cuba. Congri is a staple in Cuban dining; it is a combination of black beans and rice, served with several dishes. However, one of the most common is congri con pollo, rice and beans with chicken.
Though congri doesn’t need to be served with any other item, it is sometimes presented as a standalone main dish or as a side dish.
Belize – Rice and Beans
Rice and beans are the national dish in Belize. Rice and beans are a typical food eaten by most throughout the week, but primarily on Sundays.
The rice and beans are cooked in coconut milk, with various seasonings such as garlic, parsley, and onion. It is frequently served with chicken and a side of plantains. It is not a spicy dish but instead more savory.
And seniors visiting Belize won’t want to miss out on relleno negro, also referred to as black dinner. And you shouldn’t judge a dish by its name because if you do, you may miss out on what could be a new favorite. Relleno negro is a hearty stew made with chicken, beef, and pork. The stew contains shredded meat and a meatball made with all three proteins, plus an egg.
Rellano negro is spicy and smoky, filled with tomatoes, peppers, chili, garlic, onions, and black recado (a Mayan spice which gives this dish its distinct color).
Dominican Republic: Sancocho
It is believed that sancocho originated from a region of Spain and started as a fish stew. However, over the centuries, sancocho has traveled the seas and evolved from fish to land proteins.
In homes sancocho is most often made as a special occasion dish, but it is served several restaurants on the island.
Sancocho is a stew made with chicken, pork, and Dominican sausage, along with yucca, squash, plantains, and carrots. In addition to the main ingredients, sancocho gets much of its flavor from adobe seasoning, garlic, and fresh lime and cilantro. Sancocho is most often served with rice and garnished with avocado.
Though the traditional recipe contains only three main proteins, you can find several variations throughout the island, some with seven types of meat instead of three; other meat types found in sancocho include goat and beef. Some versions of this stew use different vegetables and starches like pumpkin, yams, malanga, red beans, green pigeon peas, or corn
Saint Lucia: Green Fig and Salt Fish
Green figs and saltfish is the national dish in Saint Lucia. The saltfish can be either kippered herring or salted cod. Though this dish may not sound appealing to most American tastebuds, it is a flavorful dish with garlic, onions, tomatoes, and sweet peppers.
Saltfish can be prepared in a variety of ways, including in fritters, known as Accra. Accra is served at many restaurants as a snack food. Another popular version is salt fish and green figs, which are served for special occasions or weekends. Saltfish and green figs are made with green bananas, also referred to as green figs, along with fresh vegetables, herbs, and seasonings.
Green figs and saltfish are made by boiling the green bananas and then sautéing them with the other vegetables and spices. The salt fish is boiled to remove the saltiness, and the fish is later added to the bananas and vegetables.
Aruba: Keshi Yena
Seniors with a less adventurous pallet but who enjoy cheese will likely want to try keshi yena.
Keshi yena is a dish born out of slavery in Dutch colonies on Curaçao and Aruba during the 17th – 18th century. Initially, the Dutch slave owners would hollow out cheese, eating only the center and leaving behind the rind. The slaves would then take these leftover cheese shells, put meat and vegetables inside, and bake it until the cheese melted.
The cheese used to make keshi yena is usually gouda Holland or edam Holland. Traditional ingredients used in this recipe include eggs, tomatoes, garlic, parsley, bell peppers, and onions.
Over the years, the keshi yena has evolved to include other fillings such as raisins, scotch bonnet peppers, capers, and olives.
Numerous restaurants in Aruba offer keshi yena.
Guiambo is an okra and fish-based soup found in Bonaire. It goes by both guimbo or jambo, but either term means the same thing.
This soup comes in several variations, but a few things rarely change. First, it must have okra. The okra gives this soup its distinct texture, which has been described as a bit slimy at times.
However, for those who can get over the texture, this soup is full of flavor. In addition to okra, most jambo includes white fish, sometimes shellfish, and salted beef or pork tail.
Guiambo is not a soup that can be quickly thrown together; instead, this is a dish that takes time. The soup is cooked in multiple steps. For example, the salted meat must either be soaked or boiled to remove the saltiness. After the meat has been de-salted and rinsed, it gets cooked, and then the okra must be prepared. Ingredients are added at specific times to ensure everything is properly cooked.
Oddly, guiambo does not have many other ingredients outside of the meat, fish, and okra; rarely are other vegetables added to this soup.
Guiambo is traditionally served with a style of polenta called funchi.
And just in case you were wondering, guiambo is very similar to the American version of gumbo.
Puerto Rico: Arroz con Gandules
Arroz con gandules has been a favored dish since before the 1900s and is now recognized as Puerto Rico’s national dish. Arroz con gandules is generally made for celebrations and holidays. Grandules are a type of bean grown on a bush; they are more commonly known today as pigeon peas.
Arroz con grandules are made with rice, pigeon peas, and sofrito (a mix of onions, green bell peppers, coriander, and garlic). Although arroz con grandules is traditionally a vegetarian dish, everyone has their version of this dish, so some add bacon, sausage, or other cuts of pork to enhance the dish’s flavor.
And don’t worry if you happen to be visiting Puerto Rico and want to try this national delight; many of the restaurants in the city offer it year-round, no celebration necessary.
Barbados: Flying Fish and Coucou
Coucou is a national favorite found all over and all the time in Barbados, though you will be hard-pressed to find it anywhere else. Flying fish are smaller fish around 9-inches in length and are similar in shape to a herring. They’re served throughout Barbados and are a staple food for the locals. The fish is most frequently prepared by steaming with lime juice or frying it instead.
And the most popular way to enjoy flying fish is when it is served with coucou. Coucou has a similar texture to grits and polenta. It is made from cornmeal and okra muddled together, resulting in a savory porridge-like dish.
When the fish and coucou are plated together, the meal is often accompanied by a tomato and pepper-based sauce seasoned with garlic, curry powder, onion, and thyme.
Bahamas: Conch Fritters
Of the many choices we’ve talked about, conch fritters should be top of your list. Even seniors who aren’t a fan of fishy-tasting seafood will love this deep-fried goodness.
The conch fritter is likely to be in the appetizer section on most menus in the Bahamas.
Conch fritters are made from queen conch and various local vegetables, goat pepper, and hot sauce. Some of the more traditional vegetables found in these fritters include sweet peppers, onion, and tomatoes. Even though conch fritters are a popular dish in the Bahamas, no two restaurants will use the same recipe since everyone seems to have their own take on conch fritters.
When making conch fritters, the conch and vegetables are ground together and mixed into a batter then deep-fried. Grinding up the conch is done not to mask the sweetness of the flavor but to balance the chewy texture of the meat.
Jamaica: Jerk Chicken
Last but not least is the famous jerk chicken of Jamaica. By now, most seniors have heard of jerk seasoning if not already tried it. And those who have enjoyed jerk chicken in the US will love Jamaican jerk.
Jamaican jerk isn’t just about the seasonings but instead refers to the food preparation and cooking method. Authentic Jamaican jerk relies on a blend of seasonings used to marinate the meat, which is then cooked over hot coals, often using green pimento wood. The heat of the coals cooks the meat, and the smoke adds to its flavor.
Jamaican jerk finds its roots in slavery. British slaves who came to Jamaica escaped to the mountains and used this method to cook and preserve their meat, though back then, it wasn’t chicken they were cooking but instead wild game.
Today Jamaican jerk is found throughout the world, but none compares to the flavors you will find in Jamaica.