The islands of the Caribbean are amongst the most culturally vibrant places on earth. Whether it is dance, art, music or food – the people of Caribbean attract billions of visitors to their shores each year utilizing these gifts. The greatest pulling factor amongst these fine cultural forms would be the cuisine – the very flavor of the Caribbean islands. With a mixture of influences the Caribbean has great palate diversity throughout the basin, however the impact of the African ancestors are still very evident in Caribbean cuisine of today.
During the African slave trade that began in the early 1600’s, foods from West Africa came to the Caribbean Islands, including okra, pigeon peas, plantains, callaloo (a green leafy vegetable), taro, breadfruit and ackee(Jamaica’s national fruit), yam, dasheen, eddoes, bananas and plantain.
Because the islands are multicultural, there are distinct regional differences in the authentic cuisines of the Caribbean. Islands like Puerto Rico and Cuba have distinct Spanish-influenced food. Guadeloupe and Martinique are French-owned; their native cuisine has obvious ties to France. Jamaica, which was once a major slave-trading center, is rich in African culture, even though it was a British colony until 1958.
The African slaves brought by these Europeans had to live on the leftovers of their owners, which mainly consisted of the local staples, fruits and vegetables. Using overpowering seasonings and spicing essential to make poor foods palatable, the African slave developed a style of cooking that is basic to Caribbean food. Soups and other one-pot hearty meals was the mainstay of the plantation slaves who relied on only one dish for their daily nutrition. The slaves used their African knowledge of cooking and blended Caribbean ingredients with the spices they brought with them to give birth to unique fusion dishes which later became the heart of Caribbean cuisine.
The enslaved Africans were sometimes allowed to grow and harvest some of their own food supply on their little plots near their huts. These plots of land usually existed on the periphery of the main estates and they worked these plots on Saturday’s or Sunday’s. The excess produce/surplus was traded in markets which were usually conducted on Sunday
The role of women as market sellers/traders was also very noticeable in the era of enslavement and even in the post-slavery epoch which mimicked the scene in West Africa where the gender division of labour in markets is quite evident. Women sell certain type of crops such as vegetables and ground provisions and the men would sell what would be termed as ‘male produce’ such as yam. This gender division in the market place is still very noticeable in Jamaica.
The infamous ‘jerk’ cooking of Jamaica was introduced by the escaped African slaves (maroons) who cooked wild hogs without smoke in order to keep their hideout place a secret. Also following the abolishment of the slave trade in 1838, laborers from India and China came to work in the fields and plantations, adding to very established culinary culture of the Caribbean. Today, these delectable foods are enjoyed by tourist, diasporas and native islanders alike.