7000 islands. Over 20 island states. At least 10 historical ethnicities. When we look to the world, it is like gazing into an ancestral mirror. If we travel west, we are referred to as “Caribbeans” yet an eastern migration brings West Indian recognition. We have the colonizers to thank for that.
The joy we bring to the world is not limited to Bob Marley’s “One Love” or DJ Bravo’s “Champion”. Before Chiquita became a household name, Windward Islands Banana Growers Association met the desires of many a foreign tongue. Although primarily supplying the European market from the 1960s, WINBAN was considered enough of a threat to warrant a massive industry takeover. With the accruement of continental land and mastery of climacteric produce transport, we were quickly devoured by our American counterparts and left to figure out how else we could impact the market. Similarly, Dole’s head start in the fresh fruit industry has made it difficult for pure pineapple varieties such as “Antigua Black” to fairly engage consumers.
What has been constant, was the messaging that the exotic nature of our food and its ingredients did not match the current palate of our providers. In the midst of us dismissing a history where half of our ancestors were forced to consume undesirables and unknowns, the industrialization of the wider world preached “Now” and “More” in the form of fast-food conglomerates. This race was never ours to run but soon enough, our faint cries could be heard joining the fray.
If necessity is the mother of invention, then grief is the precursor of indulgence. According to Alton Brown, Food Network reality television pioneer, the global obsession with culinary undertakings stems from the desire to self-medicate. After 9/11, as he rightfully predicted, the value of food entertainment rose – it became Xanax on a plate.
However, influencer culture, environmental consciousness, and the self-awareness movement have birthed a specific hunger – one which the Caribbean is well suited to feed from the root up. The days of Slim-Fast and the Atkin’s Diet have been replaced by organic, raw and flexitarian diets; meals which frequent West Indian lunch boxes. This desire to place fast food on the back burner in favour of whole foods is admirable but with the lack of conditions to support said cravings, it is reminiscent of the fashion industry’s constant pilfering of ethnic culture, credit in absentia. More specifically, the faint aroma of Rodentia Rattus Columbus.
Atkin’s South Beach Diet
Master Cleanse or Lemonade Diet
Raw Food Diet
Apple Cider Diet
Dr. Young’s Alkaline Diet
Dr. Sebi’s Alkaline Diet
In fact, the next time you peruse the explore page, pause for a moment to look at what new item the influencer of the month is trying to sell you. Flat Tummy Tea? The primary ingredient just happens to be Senna alexandrina; the same herb in our mother’s post-vacation cleansing ritual and as adults, a means of discharging the gluttony of Christmas. Seamoss gel in a pretty mason jar? With a claim to provide 90% of your body’s required mineral intake? That’s the same Chrondus crispus found in under-the-counter rum, privy only to those who frequently engage in back-breaking activity. Additionally, it is the main source of carrageenan, a quite popular emulsifier in gluten-free products. If these “newly discovered” treasures were sourced in the Caribbean, we may never know, much less to reap the benefit.
This is not to say that we have taken our financial death as sheep, like the folks say. Many islands have experienced an agricultural renaissance, rebranding their tourism product to offer more than a mouthful of sandy rum punch. Grenada has seen this in the establishment of their annual chocolate festival. Not only can they be considered the unofficial chocolate capital of the Caribbean but the manufacturers of five fine cocoa chocolate brands, including two of award-winning status. This coincides with the global desire to diversify chocolate consumption and has created more opportunity for Grenadian, Trinidadian and Jamaican cocoa farmers to supply specific chocolatier needs. Although our combined efforts may never crack the upper echelon of global cocoa bean exporters, these unique contributions ensure the sustenance of our economies. Furthermore, though we secretly indulge in candy-coated thievery, we can enjoy the empowerment and pride of being self-sufficient.
Admittedly, there is only so much that we can accomplish on our own. Social and celebrity influencers, who utilise their platform intentionally, provide genuity and legitimacy to Caribbean offerings. Fenty Skin’s ode to Bajan Cherry may not have direct culinary reference but from this point onwards, the definition of cherry has been pluralised. The Hot Ones Youtube series “with hot wings and even hotter questions” always pays homage to Trinidadian scorpion peppers which hold two positions on the world’s ten hottest peppers list. As the show has progressed, episodes with scorpion-based sauces such as Hot One’s Eye of the Scorpion and Wiltshire Chilli have resulted in an actual West Indian brand, Shaquanda’s, being part of the Hot Sauce lineup.
Shaquanda’s Hot Sauce is an artful blend of traditional spices and scotch bonnet, birthed in Brooklyn, NY and of Bajan heritage. This should come as no surprise since the Caribbean diaspora makes up 17% of the New York population. Import supermarkets and creole restaurants are the cornerstone of these communities, maintaining strong island connections through flavours and ambiance. They have bridged the global culinary scene, establishing the language of Caribbean food, as have Italian and Dominican hubs within each borough.
The same can be said for the UK, which has experienced a growing interest in West Indian cuisine while curbing the hunger of self-discovery. By combining a longing for home and entrepreneurial survival instinct, England can now boast pockets of both casual and fine dining, reflective of island roots. And in some cases, these chefs have accomplished the difficult task of filling in the nostalgic gaps caused by Transatlantic misdemeanor. Riaz Phillips captures these pure efforts in his written food documentary “Belly Full”, a copy worth lending.
Similarly, 6% of Torontonians claim Caribbean heritage as evidenced not only in community restaurants but in media. MasterChef Canada introduced Caribbean chefs from its first season, with black cod and pigeon pea puree landing Marida Mohammed in first runners up position. Coincidentally, she won most of the Mystery Box challenges because we have been instinctively trained to make something out of nothing. Since then, the reality series has seen more Caribbean finalists as well as challenges based on Jamaican cuisine. Which brings us to the most important question. What is Caribbean cuisine? Can one nation’s dish represent us sufficiently or should we reflect our cricket team roster by creating a fusion of flavours. Is that even possible when we have yet to agree on one name for fried bread or Mamoncillo bijugatus?
Our microcosm of Amerindian, European, African, Asian, and Indian cuisine chronicles our turbulent history. It may even display triumphant victory over the atrocities of our ancestors. However, the expression of our multicultural heritage is integrative as it is distinct. In practical terms, a roti prepared in Marabella, Trinidad should not be pitted against that of Georgetown, Guyana much less the streets of Mumbai, India. These are complexities we may never unravel.
Perhaps what we can do is determine a common thread. One chef who accomplishes this quite well is Brooklyn-based Vincentian, Rawlston Williams. At his restaurant Food Sermon, the Caribbean ingredients are authentic but its preparation is not meant to transport you back to your grandmother’s kitchen. It carries the essence of the islands and is open to the interpretation of the present. This approach allows the evolution and elevation of Caribbean cuisine while keeping it recognizable and therefore replicable. It is prepared with the pride and understanding of one’s history and is captured in each bite and snapshot.
It proves that a clear distinction of Caribbean cuisine is actually possible. If we truly wish to be appreciated and acknowledged for our food culture, we need to know the accent of our food. Especially where at present, all eyes are on us to provide answers and resources. We need to give our food a voice that speaks beyond the plate. That tells the journey of corn shelled in the verandah or coconut milk squeezed through sore, grated fingers. The slow but sure traditions which have preserved and sustained us. Our food longs to speak its truth. So we should let it.
- British Aid and Windwards Bananas: The case of St. Vincent and the Grenadines – journal article by Lawrence S. Grossman
- Independence and dependency: Britain and bananas in the Windward Islands – journal article by Katherine J. Lake
- Belly Full: Caribbean Food in the UK – book by Riza Phillips