Caribbean Islander Diet

Definition

Popular dishes of selected Caribbean islands

Island

Special dishes

Antigua, Montserrat, Nevis

Fish soup, pepper pot soup (any available fish, meat, chicken, and vegetables cooked in fermented cassava juice), saltfish with avocado and eggplant

Barbados

Flying fish, jug-jug (mashed stew of pigeon peas, usually served at Christmas)

Black pudding (a type of sausage made by combining cooked rice mixed with fresh pig's blood; seasoned with salt, pepper, and other condiments; placed in thoroughly cleaned pieces of pig's intestine; and tied on both ends and boiled in seasoned water)

Belize

Rice and chicken, tamales, conch fritters, refried beans and iswa (fresh corn tortillas)

Dominica

Tannia (coco, a starch tuber soup), mountain chicken (frog's legs)

Grenada

Callaloo (soup with green vegetables), Lambi souse (conch marinated in lime juice, hot pepper, onion), oil-down (a highly seasoned dish of coconut milk and salted fish)

Guyana

Mellagee (one-pot stew of pickled meat/fish and coconut milk with tubers and vegetables), rice treat (rice with shrimp, vegetables, and pineapple)

Jamaica

Saltfish and ackee (a fruit commonly used as a vegetable, boiled and then sauteed in oil), escoveitched fish (fried fish marinated in vinegar, spices, and seasoning), roasted breadfruit, asham or brown George (parched dried corn that is finely beaten in a mortar, sifted, and mixed with sugar)

St. Vincent and the Grenadines

Stewed shark

British Virgin Islands

Fish chowder, conch salad, saltfish and rice

Trinidad and Tobago

Pelau (rice with meat, fish, peas, vegetables), pakoras, kachouri, palouri (fried vegetable fritters)

Guadeloupe and Martinique

Mechoui (spit-roasted sheep), Pate en pot (finely chopped sheep and lamb parts cooked into a thick, highly seasoned stew)

Popular dishes of selected Caribbean islands.

Origins

Travel advertisements for the Caribbean Islands portray long stretches of sun-drenched beaches and swaying palm trees, with people dancing to jazz, calypso, reggae, ormeringuemusic. Indeed, the beauty, warmth, and lush landscapes had Christopher Columbus in awe in 1492 when he came upon these tropical islands, stretching approximately 2,600 miles between Florida and Venezuela.

European settlement

The Arawaks and Caribs, the first natives of the islands, were not treated kindly as the Spanish, French, Dutch, and British conquered the islands at different periods, all but wiping out the native populations. Today, only a few aboriginals remain in the Caribbean. The European settlers soon realized that sugarcane was a profitable crop that could be exported to the European market. However, there was a shortage of European farmers, and slaves were brought from Africa to work on the sugar plantations. The slave trade started in 1698. European settlers fought to keep their territories and hoped for great wealth, while actively pursuing the sugar and slave trades.

Two things changed the situation on the islands. In 1756, missionaries from Germany (Moravian Protestants) came to the islands, though the landowners were opposed to their presence, fearing that any education of the slaves could lead to a revolution. At about the same time, a German scientist by the name of Margraf discovered that sugar could be produced from beets, and many European countries began to produce their own sugar.

In 1772, after many revolts and uprisings, the Europeans began to free their slaves. The sugar plantations still needed laborers, however, and indentured workers were brought from China and India to work in the fields. Sugar cane and its by-products, molasses and rum, brought great prosperity to the settlers. However, not wanting to depend solely on sugar, they began to grow yams, maize, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, coconuts, and pineapples on a very large scale. Coffee also began to flourish. Many of the islands had wild pigs and cattle on them, and spiced, smoked meat became part of the diet. Today, jerk meat is a specialty.

Description

Foods of the Islands

The foods of the Caribbean are marked by a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, meats, grains, and spices, all of which contribute to the area's unique cuisine. Foods of Creole, Chinese, African, Indian, Hispanic, and European origin blend harmoniously to produce mouth-watering dishes.

Chayote, also called christophene or ho-cho, is a firm pear-shaped squash used in soups and stews. The Chinese vegetable bokchoy (or pakchoy) has become widely used on the islands. Plantains, which resemble bananas, are roasted, sautéed, fried, and added to stews and soups. The breadfruit grows profusely and is either boiled or baked, sliced, and eaten hot, or ground into flour. Breadfruit blossoms are often turned into a preserve.

Yucca, also known as cassava or manioc, is a slender tuber with bark-like skin and a very starchy flesh that must be cooked and served like a potato, or it can be made into cassava bread. Mangoes can be picked from trees and eaten by peeling the skin and slicing the flesh off the large pit. They are used in salads, desserts, frozen drinks, and salsa. Papaya, which has a cantaloupe-like flavor, contains the enzyme papain, which aids in digestion. To be eaten, the black seeds must be removed and the flesh scooped out.

The soursop is a large, oval, dark-green fruit with a thick skin that is soft to the touch when it ripens. The fruit has a creamy flesh with a sweet, tart flavor. Its rich custard-like flavor can be made into a sherbet, ice cream, or refreshing drink.

SPICES AND CONDIMENTS. Many foods of the Caribbean are highly spiced. The Scotch bonnet, a colorful pepper with a hot aroma, is widely used in soups, salads, sauces, and marinades. Some other important spices are annatto, curry, pimento, cinnamon, and ginger. Annatto seeds are often steeped in oil and used to flavor soups, stews, and fish dishes. Curry powder is made from a variety of freshly grounded spices. Curry dishes and hot sauces, which are used regularly in cooking, were brought to the islands by Indian settlers.

Pimenta, also known as allspice, is used in pickles, marinades, soups, and stews and is an important ingredient in jerking, a method of cooking meat and poultry over an open fire. To bring out the flavor of meat and chicken, they are marinated in a mixture of scallions, garlic, thyme, onion, lemon juice, and salt. The spices and the method of slow cooking over a fire give jerk meat its distinctive flavor.

PROTEIN. Although fish, conch (a pink shellfish), goat meat, pork, and beef are used throughout the Caribbean, legumes make up a fair percentage of the region's protein intake. Kidney and lima beans, chickpeas, lentils, black-eyed peas, and other legumes are used in soups, stews, and rice dishes. Accra fritters, made from soaked black-eyed peas that are mashed, seasoned with pepper, and then fried, is a dish of West African origin similar to the Middle Eastern falafel. Sancocho is a hearty Caribbean stew made with vegetables, tubers, and meats.

COOKING METHODS. A “cook-up” dish is one made with whatever ingredients an individual has on hand and presents an opportunity to be creative. Such a dish will often include rice, vegetables, and possibly meat. By adding coconut milk, this could turn into a coconut-scented pilaf. Burning sugar to color stews is another technique used in island cooking. This process begins by heating oil, then adding sugar, and stirring until the sugar becomes an amber color.

The roti is a griddle-baked flour wrapping that is filled with curried meat, chicken, or potatoes. Coucou, or fungi, is a cornmeal mush that is served with meat, poultry, fish, or vegetable dishes.

BEVERAGES AND DESSERTS. A variety of fruit beverages are often served in the Caribbean. Beverages include green tea and “bush tea,” served sweetened with sugar or honey and with or without milk. Bush tea is an infusion of tropical shrubs, grasses, and leaves that has a number of medicinal uses. People drink it as a remedy for gas, the common cold, asthma, high blood pressure, fever, and other ailments. Sweetened commercial drinks made from carrot, beet, guava, tamarind, and other fruits and vegetables are also popular.

A number of fermented drinks are also common. Garapina is made from pineapple peelings, while mauby is made from the bark of the mauby tree. Grated ginger is used to produce ginger beer. Horlicks is a malted milk made with barley.

Fruit is eaten anytime of the day but is not considered a dessert unless prepared in a fruit salad or some other form. Coconut and banana form the basis for many desserts. A sweet pudding that goes by many names (e.g., duckunoo, blue drawers, pain me, paimee, and konkee) is made from grated banana, plantain, or sweet potato, which is then sugared, spiced, mixed with coconut milk or grated coconut, wrapped in banana leaves, and boiled in spiced water. A prepared sweet pone (pudding) cake or pie is a popular dessert. Black fruitcake, made from dried fruits soaked in wine, is popular at Christmas time, and is also used for weddings and other celebrations.

Health issues

In the Caribbean region, nutrition-related chronic diseases are common, threatening the well-being of the people of the islands. In the 1950s, the governments of the Caribbean were concerned about the malnutrition that permeated the region. They were able to meet the protein and calorie needs by making meat, fats, oils, and refined sugar more readily available. The health and nutrition initiatives introduced helped curb the malnutrition, but new and related health and nutrition problems began to emerge.

The health administrators of the Caribbean region are concerned with the rise of iron-deficiency anemia in pregnant women and school-aged children due to inadequate iron intake and poor absorption in the body. The increased incidence of diabetes, hypertension, coronary heart disease, cancer, and obesity, especially in people aged 35 and older, is thought to be directly linked to the existing lifestyle and dietary practices of the islanders.

The Caribbean Islands have seen a proliferation of fast-food restaurants, and the increased consumption of meals high in fat, sugar, and salt has contributed to the increase in chronic diseases. In addition, there has been a reduction in the amount of cereals, grains, fruits, vegetables, tubers, and legumes that are eaten. The popularity of fast foods among the youth has led the government to focus on improving nutrition in the schools. Also contributing to the health problems is the dependency on costly imported processed foods that can do the body harm. Overconsumption of imported foods high in fat and sodium has led to a deterioration of the health status of people throughout the region, with an increase in health problems such as obesity, diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.

Nutrition programs

Due to insufficient resources and less than adequate planning, school-feeding programs on most of the islands exhibit many shortcomings. However, on the island of Dominica, where a self-help initiative involving the parents was introduced, the eating habits of school-aged children improved, and the parents and communities adopted many of the program's menus and preparation methods. As a result, school attendance increased and the attention span of the children in class improved.

School nutrition programs need constant monitoring to improve the nutritional status of the children involved. Furthermore, a good nutrition promotion campaign must be designed to educate and promote a healthy lifestyle for the population at large.

KEY TERMS
Diabetes mellitus—
A condition in which the body either does not make or cannot respond to the hormone insulin. As a result, the body cannot use glucose (sugar). There are two types, type 1 (formerly called juvenile onset) and type 2 (formerly called adult onset).
Iron deficiency anemia—
A condition characterized by an inability to make sufficient red blood cells; symptoms include fatigue, shortness of breath, headaches, and weakened immunity.
Malnutrition—
Chronic lack of sufficient nutrients to maintain health.
Tuber—
Swollen plant stem below the ground.

The Caribbean region has the tremendous task of putting in place appropriate policies, plans, and programs to address the changing health and disease patterns of the region's people. This effort is made more difficult because of the socioeconomic, political, and cultural differences among the Caribbean countries. The various countries must not only examine the food availability and how it is consumed, but they must also assess and evaluate the quality of the food and the nutrition intake of those most at risk.

The Caribbean Food and Nutrition Institute (CFNI), established in 1967, aims to improve the food and nutrition status in member countries, which include Anguilla, Antigua, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, the British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, Montserrat, St. Christopher-Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, and Turks and Caicos Islands.

The governments of the Caribbean have come together under an initiative called Caribbean Cooperation in Health. They hope to work closely together through five types of activities: service, education training, providing information, coordination, and research. The food goals of each country must be analyzed, with care and attention paid to the agricultural policies and economic opportunities in each specific country.

QUESTIONS TO ASK YOUR DOCTOR

Adequate nutrition cannot be achieved without the consumption of sufficient foods containing a wide array of nutrients. Poor health status, whether as a result of insufficient food intake, overconsumption, or nutrition imbalance, threatens longevity and increases health care costs. The challenge is to improve the availability of nutritious foods and the eating habits of the varied population.

See also Adolescent nutrition ; Adult nutrition ; Green tea ; Protein .

Resources

BOOKS

Barer-Stein, Thelma. You Eat What You Are: People, Culture, and Food Tradition. 2nd ed. Toronto, Ontario: Firefly, 1999.

Campbell, Versada. Caribbean Foodways. Kingston, Jamaica: Caribbean Food and Nutrition Institute, 1988.

Houston, Lynn Marie. Food Culture in the Caribbean. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005.

Kittler, Pamela Goyan, Kathryn P. Sucher, and Marcia Nahikian-Nelms. Food and Culture. 6th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning, 2012.

Sheridan, Richard B. Sugar and Slavery: An Economic History of the British West Indies, 1623–1775. Kingston, Jamaica: Canoe Press, 1994.

ORGANIZATIONS

Caribbean Food & Nutrition Institute, University of the West Indies Campus Mona, PO Box 140, Kingston 7, Jamaica, (876) 927-1927, Fax: (876) 927-2657, e-mail@cfni.paho.org, http://new.paho.org/cfni .

Pan American Health Organization, 525 23rd St. NW, Washington, DC, 20037, (202) 974-3000, Fax: (202) 974-3663, http://new.paho.org/index.php .

Paulette Sinclair-Weir

  This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.