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Caribbean Cuisine

caribbean cuisineThe Caribbean, a chain of many islands off the Southern coasts of Florida, offers a wealth of diverse, soulful, and colorful cuisine. The islands, most notably Cuba, Trinidad, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Barbados, and the Dominican Republic and Haiti, have a long history of foreign influence. The region changed hands between the British, Dutch, French, Spanish, Danish, and American colonial powers, all of whom contributed ingredients and approaches to food, and whose presence ultimately led to a richly varied regional cuisine.

Staples of Island Cuisine

Though the food on each island may vary greatly, the region's geography, as well as the natural resources available, dictates that the staples of the Caribbean diet are essentially the same. All forms of seafood are readily available, with fish, lobster, crab, shrimp, and other shellfish appearing most often; dishes like fried flying fish, the national dish of Barbados, are signatures of the area.

Pig and goat were traditionally the most utilized livestock, along with chicken, which also added eggs to the diet. It is also not uncommon to see iguana meat used in authentic dishes, and the use of tofu has become more prevalent in recent years.

The warm climate is friendly to tropical agriculture, and produces fruits like plantains, bananas, mango, melons such as cassava, passion fruit, pineapple and papaya, as well as coconut, which has many roles in the kitchen on the islands. Root vegetables like yam, yucca, onion, and sweet potato are most common, with avocado and a variety of peppers, both mild and sweet, rounding out the diet. Sugar cane must also be mentioned not only because of its use in island cookery, but because it is one of the chief exports of the area.

Rice is the staple starch in Caribbean cuisine, though it varies greatly from region to region and home to home. Yellow rice, red rice and white rice, as well as rice which has been cooked with other ingredients like pigeon peas (arroz con gandules, a staple dish of the diet in Puerto Rico), other legumes, capers, or olives, are the foundation for much of the cuisine in the islands, and are usually accompanied by beans (which also vary depending on the area). Cornmeal is also utilized, turned into a polenta-like dish known as cou-cou (corneal cooked with okra), which is served with fish and stews.

Island drinks are wildly popular in the United States and abroad, both alcoholic and virgin. Rum, a liquor preferred in the islands largely because it is produced there, lends itself well to sodas, fruit juices, and other beverages like pina coladas (made with rum, pineapple, and coconut cream or milk), mojitos (sugar, lime, and mint leaves) or daiquiris. Beer and sangria (wine based punch) are also consumed, though the latter usually before or after a meal. Non-alcoholic beverages like ginger beer (attributed to Jamaica) and milkshakes (Cuba) are also favorites, as is malta, a drink made from mashed barley water and molasses. Strong coffee with milk (Cuba's cafe con leche) and tea are also enjoyed. 

Spices and Cooking

are prominent in the islands and help to define regional cuisines. Onion and garlic are utilized throughout, with ginger, allspice, lime, cumin, cilantro, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, bay leaf, and a variety of hot peppers appearing throughout the more localized food offerings. Jamaican cooking particularly favors the potent Scotch Bonnet pepper, and uses it in its signature spice blend, jerk. Jerk is a combination of allspice, Scotch Bonnet peppers, garlic, cloves, and cinnamon or nutmeg, which is dry rubbed into meat before grilling or steaming in banana leaves. Puerto Rican and Cuban cooking by comparison are much milder, using spices to add flavor without heat, as in the case of Puerto Rican sofrito (a base sauce consisting of vegetables, herbs, spices, and sometimes tomato) and Cuban mojo or mojito (oil, onion, garlic, and lime juice).

Grilling and steaming tend to be the most prevalent cooking techniques. Frying is also used, particularly on the Spanish speaking islands where empanadas (steamed meat or cheese turnovers) and savory dumplings are prepared. Meat is can also be eaten sandwich-style; the famed Cuban sandwich, or media noche, is the best known example: roasted pork, ham, cheese, pickles, and a garlic mayo or simple mustard, toasted between two pieces of Cuban bread.

One-pot cookery is additionally recognized as being a central way of preparing meals, with soups and stews playing vital roles in the daily diet; most meals on many islands begin with soup. Cuban cuisine is known for black bean soup, Puerto Rican for chicken with rice soup and asopao (chicken or fish gumbo). Pepper pots, a soupy stew made of meat (generally pig, beef, or chicken), vegetables, peppercorns and spices, as well as callaloo (a soup made of either taro, Spanish callaloo, malanga, and/or Chinese spinach leaves, garlic, herbs, coconut milk, veggies, and meat) are also good examples, considered signature dishes of island cooking.
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