The Caribbean is the ultimate culinary melting pot. Take French and Spanish cuisines, mix with African techniques and East Indian flavours, throw in some British and Dutch traditions, add tropical ingredients and abundant exotic fruits. Leave it all to steep, or ‘creolise’ for several centuries – then serve as you sit with sand between the toes and views over a radiant blue sea.
It would be a tragedy to miss it by sticking to the buffet-based ‘burgatory’ of the islands’ big resorts, or to rely on tourist restaurants.
The good news is that it is possible to find plenty of authentic culinary experiences on every island, with chefs, both local and from overseas, determined to raise the region’s gastronomic game.
Lap it up: The Fish Pot restaurant is an ‘excellent dining room’ attached to the Little Good Harbour hotel (pictured)
Orlando’s restaurant is located in the picturesque town of Soufriere (pictured), St Lucia
At Orlando’s restaurant in Soufriere, St Lucia, owner Orlando Satchell, a Birmingham chef of Jamaican and Barbadian extraction, retains Caribbean traditions while reconstructing recipes.
‘The marinade is critical in West Indian cooking, so I keep that,’ he says. ‘We wash meats in lime or vinegar, and season them before cooking, usually on the bone.’ Then he calls on the region’s fantastic fruits and other flavours to add something special.
His yellowfin tuna, for example, is seasoned, sprinkled with grated cocoa, grilled and served on a base of grilled watermelon. And the starchy vegetables? Plantain is reduced to a spicy salsa.
He is also taking a new approach to stews. His meats and vegetables are cooked separately before being mixed. The result can be tasted in the Caribbean’s traditional ‘oil-down’ – a slow-cooked stew that Satchell makes with pork, coconut milk, green bananas, potato-like dasheen and dumplings.
Stay at Stonefield Villa Resort, with pretty self-catering cottages on the hills just outside Soufriere, from £242 per night (stonefieldresort.com).
Chef BB’s Crab Back restaurant overlooks the lively St George’s Harbour in Grenada, pictured above
On Grenada there are other variations on traditional dishes to try. Chef BB, also back in the Caribbean after running a restaurant in Britain, cooks a more traditional oil-down at his Crab Back restaurant, which overlooks the lively St George’s Harbour.
He follows a long-established process, with ingredients stacked neatly and covered by coconut milk and spices before gently cooking for hours. Eventually the coconut milk and turmeric are absorbed, leaving succulent and aromatic chunks of meat and vegetable. Meanwhile, Le Phare Bleu restaurant, which sits in its own cove on the island’s south coast, takes a more delicate approach, serving a lovely, boneless goat curry.
Until Covid struck, the town of Gouyave held open-air ‘Fish Fridays’ each week – fun evenings out with music and coal-filled grills made out of old oil drums lining the street. The events are due to restart soon and, when they do, fish cakes, fillet sandwiches and lobster-to-go are perfect with a juice or beer.
Le Phare Bleu restaurant, pictured, sits in its own cove and serves a lovely, boneless goat curry
On a trip to Grenada’s Grand Anse Beach (pictured), spend the night at the Blue Horizons Garden Resort
Pictured is a dining table at the Blue Horizons Garden Resort, where rooms are priced from £140 per night
Trevon Stoute in his kitchen, preparing Bajan recipes with a twist that he delivers to villas
Sea fresh: Anguilla lobster. You can try excellent shellfish at almost any Anguillan beach bar
Stay at Blue Horizons Garden Resort in a prime position above Grand Anse Beach from £140 per night (grenadabluehorizons.com).
On Barbados, the west coast is famous for having restaurants that are in superb seaside settings, but few do more than nod to the island’s culinary traditions. A chef trying to put this right is Trevon Stoute, who brings luxury dining to private clients in the island’s villas. He has even finessed Bajan ‘pudding and souse’ (basically boiled, pickled meat with steamed sweet potato) and created a delectable pork tenderloin accompanied by a sweet potato mousse (tstoute.com).
At the opposite end of the scale, some traditions never need adapting. Bajans love a weekend picnic on the remote eastern beaches. Join them with a picnic box from Cutter’s Deli near the airport. Expect saltfish fritters, cutters (salt-bread sandwiches stuffed with breaded fish fillets) plus a bottle of wine or their home-made rum punch. For something more traditional, join locals at the Sunday buffet in the 100-year-old and recently revamped Atlantis Hotel on the east coast.
Enjoy a buffet with the locals at the 100-year-old and recently revamped Atlantis Hotel. Pictured is the hotel’s restaurant
Venture to Martinique, pictured above, to sample some of the best Creole cuisine in the Caribbean
Bouillante, Guadeloupe, pictured, is home to chef Jimmy Bibrac’s restaurant O Z’Epices
Meals look like tropical versions of a Victorian feast – tables groan with spicy breadfruit and corn soup, saltfish and pumpkin fritters, slabs of kingfish, yam gratin, candied sweet potato and green banana pickle.
Stay at Atlantis’s low-key sister hotel, Little Good Harbour, with its own excellent dining room, the Fish Pot, from £285 per night (littlegoodharbourbarbados.com).
Martinique and Guadeloupe are the places to go for the best Creole cuisine. Their blaff (named after the sound of a fish dropped into a hot stock) uses similar seasonings to oil-down. The islands’ court bouillon is just as good. It’s a broth where fish is simmered with lemon juice, bay, peppercorns and celery.
Stay at Malliouhana on Anguilla’s stunning Meads Bay, pictured, from £585 per night
Pictured is Le Toiny’s Beach Club, where guests can enjoy a glass of rosé on the beach
On Guadeloupe, spices feature extensively, if subtly, in chef Jimmy Bibrac’s cooking at his restaurant O Z’Epices.
He adds French technique to Creole flavours and ingredients: daily caught fish comes cured, cubed and stacked in a colourful tower, sitting in a creme of conch and a hibiscus flower sauce.
B&B at Le Jardin Malanga, with sweeping views of the sea, costs from £206 per night (jardinmalanga.com).
Farther north there’s a stronger French influence on the islands of St Barts and St Martin. Daily flights from France (and Miami) bring in ideas and ingredients – so expect some of the most imaginative food in the region.
On St Barts, the coolest lunch is a lobster salad and a glass of rosé on the beach at restaurants such as Le Toiny or La Cabane. For an elegant taste of Creole, try the Grain de Sel – its christophine (a local squash) seasoned and stuffed with codfish is very popular.
Suitably for this expensive island, you can buy a ready-made champagne picnic. A top tip is to head to Kiki-e Mo’s for avocado and mango salad with prawns or white anchovies. Then hire a boat to explore the hard-to- reach, castaway-style beach around Colombier.
Stay high in the island’s hills at Villa Marie – B&B is from £595 per night (saint-barth.villamarie.fr).
Stay at Guadeloupe’s Le Jardin Malanga, pictured, to soak in sweeping views of the sea
Stay high in the St Barts hills at Villa Marie, pictured above, where B&B is from £595 per night
Head to Miss T’s Kitchen in Ocho Rios, pictured, and dine on oxtail in her colourful, open-air dining room
A sign in St Martin, where many restaurants serve classical French cuisine
Over on St Martin, the town of Grand Case is a top spot for local cuisine. A strip of restaurants lies by the sand, and most serve classical French cuisine, but Villa Royale will offer you a local court bouillon – red snapper sizzled to perfection in stock and spices – and the delectable French/Caribbean curry called Colombo.
Or head to one of the West Indian grills found all over the Caribbean. Called ‘lolos’, they are some of the islands’ finest outdoor restaurants, serving marinated grilled chicken, sticky ribs or lobster with heaped rice and peas and fried plantain.
Five miles away is Anguilla, where you can pick almost any beach bar for excellent lobster and crayfish, or try Leon’s at Malliouhana for salads and ceviches. Stay at Malliouhana on Meads Bay, from £585 per night (aubergeresorts.com).
Puerto Rico is the place for perfect pork, poke bowls, buttermilk chicken in brioche and mofongo: fried green bananas served with chicken or pork. All these and more are on offer by the beach at the many ‘kioskos’ across the island. Or get all the choice you’ll ever need at the restaurants crammed in at Lote 23, a riot of parasols in Santurce, east of San Juan.
Reina Mora, a small restaurant in the island’s north-west, shows how careful cultivation of local, seasonal produce can achieve something remarkable. At an open kitchen in a family house, they create a gourmet Caribbean experience – brined pork chops seasoned and marinated in vinegar, mixed with sweet and sour peppers. Stay at the Ritz Carlton Reserve on Dorado Beach for a taste of luxury. From £1,385 a night (ritzcarlton.com).
Get all the choice you’ll ever need at the restaurants crammed in at Lote 23 in Santurce, east of San Juan (pictured above)
A dish from El Cuchifrito in Lote 23, where visitors are greeted by a ‘riot of parasols’
Sadly, Jamaica has relatively few independent restaurants, not least because the island has so many all-inclusive hotels. One place to try is Miss T’s Kitchen in Ocho Rios, where you can get run-down (Jamaica’s version of oil-down) and oxtail in her colourful, open-air dining room.
What you can do in Jamaica is to join locals on a culinary road trip – buying different courses from different shops. Each has its own speciality, including ‘pepper shrimps’, which can make the lips sting, or chunks of yam topped with a little salt cod. It’s the food that Usain Bolt says made him run so fast!
Finally, try another Jamaican favourite called simply ‘pudding’. It’s a sweet potato or cornmeal mix with coconut milk, cinnamon, sugar, vanilla and nutmeg, left to simmer and solidify in a steel pot by the roadside. Locals say it’s best eaten before an afternoon nap – another joy of a holiday in Jamaica. B&B at the Half Moon Hotel in Montego Bay costs from £442 a night (halfmoon.com).
Jamaica’s Montego Bay. While holidaying in the area, feast on ‘pudding’ – a sweet potato or cornmeal mix with coconut milk, cinnamon, sugar, vanilla and nutmeg