Trinidad's signature sandwich, the “bake and shark,” features shark or an alternative fish and self-selected condiments. // 2014 © Trinidad and Tobago Tourism Development Company
Feature image (above): In Jamaica, Jerk cooking uses numerous spices, including thyme, allspice and hot Scotch bonnet peppers. // 2014 © Jamaica Tourist Board
The Caribbean is sometimes painted with a broad brush, depicting white sand beaches and azure waters as the entirety of the region. Experienced travelers know that each island has a different character and nuances all its own.
This is especially true when it comes to island cuisine. Each Caribbean island has a signature dish, usually possessing deep roots in the island’s history. Here’s an overview of five top signature dishes on the Caribbean Islands.
Bake and Shark, Trinidad
One of my favorite beaches is Maracas Beach on Trinidad, a popular public shoreline that is about an hour’s drive from Port of Spain, the capital of Trinidad and Tobago. The beach’s dozen or so open-air restaurants — some might call them shacks — that sell the island’s signature bake and shark sandwich are a big factor in that popularity.
I ate at Richard’s Shark and Bake restaurant, which many claim is the best on the beach. An authentic sandwich uses shark meat, but other fish are sometimes substituted, depending on availability. Part of the appeal is dressing the sandwich the way you like, from an array of condiments and chopped vegetables. A breeze from the sea, a bake and shark sandwich and some soca music (a genre that originated in Trinidad and Tobago) playing in the background makes for a great time.
Conch Fritters, Turks and Caicos
I think of conch fritters as Caribbean comfort food — a unpretentious, delicious dish consisting of fried and breaded conch dipped into a spicy sauce. The batter is usually seasoned with cayenne pepper, salt, onion and garlic. I order conch fritters as an appetizer accompanied by an icy Turk’s Head beer, which is the local brew.
Those who want to delve into all things conch should schedule a visit to the islands during the annual Turks & Caicos Conch Festival, which is usually held in November or December. Visitors can’t go wrong dropping into Da Conch Shack & Rum Bar in Providenciales, or heading for the fresh and funky conch huts on Blue Hills Road.
Jerk cooking is said to have started in the mountains of Jamaica, when runaway slaves called Maroons developed the smoking process as a way to preserve meat. Little did they know they were also creating Jamaica’s signature dish. Jerk cooking involves slathering cuts of chicken, pork and fish with spices that include thyme, allspice and fiery scotch bonnet peppers. The meat is then cooked over a fire of pimento wood.
Jerk is most often accompanied by fried bread that offers a hint of sweetness and served with hearty sides of roasted yam and breadfruit. Scotchies is considered one of the best restaurants for jerk dishes on the island, with locations in Montego Bay, Ocho Rios and Kingston. My favorite jerk dish is fired up in Port Antonio’s Boston Beach. I still remember the cook slicing a hunk of pork for my meal, with a big bud of herbs sitting on the edge of the chopping block.
Keshi Yena, Curacao
Most signature dishes of the Caribbean are simple fare. Keshi yena, which literally translates to “stuffed cheese,” is a bit more complicated, however. Keshi yena is found on Curacao and has roots in the island’s slave history. Centuries ago, the Dutch settlers would receive huge wheels of Edam cheese from the homeland. With so much cheese on hand, they tended to discard the rind. Slaves in the kitchen would then take the circular rinds; fill them with fish, meat, vegetables and even fruit; and finally, bake the dish. It’s a culinary concept that calls for invention, and the possibilities are almost endless.
Unlike many signature dishes in the Caribbean, travelers won’t find keshi yena at roadside shacks. Restaurants in Willemstad, the capital of Curaco, that serve their take on the traditional dish include La Bahia and Belle Terrace at the Avila Hotel.
Mofongo, Puerto Rico
The first time I saw mofongo I was perplexed: It looked like a huge ball of starchy, unappetizing food that was too much for one meal. Minutes later, there was nothing left on my plate, and I had finished one of the best dishes I have ever eaten.
Mofongo is made with mashed and fried green plaintains flavored with garlic, olive oil, pork rind and chicken broth. This mixture is formed into a ball and then topped with a well-spiced protein, which can be anything from beef to crab. Visitors will find mofongo throughout the island, with many restaurants offering variations on the dish. A friend once told me that there is no such thing as a bad slice of pizza. I feel you can say the same about mofongo.