Caribbean cuisine is a unique blend of the traditional dishes of the indigenous people coupled with the traditional foods of Africa, Asia and Europe. The discovery of this archipelago of nineteen islands originally inhabited by the native people, Arawaks, Caribs and Taino, resulted in an influx of Europeans seeking ‘El Dorado – The City of Gold’. Instead, they found verdant mountains, waterfalls, green fields, and a deep blue sea teeming with marine life.
The Europeans brought with them their own cultural identity and with eventual exploitation, those of African slaves, Indian and Chinese indentured labourers. The inevitable result of the blending of these food cultures is the unique flavours we now call Caribbean Cuisine.
Based on the availability of ingredients, each island developed its recipes for food preparation. The prevailing recipes were influenced by the predominant racial identity of the slaves and the indentured workers. In Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana, African and Indian cuisines are the major influences on culinary culture. In the other islands, the emerging food culture was also influenced by the Dutch and Spanish and to a lesser extent the Portuguese colonizers.
One universal example of an imported staple is salted codfish which originally formed the main protein in the diet of the African slaves and is still a major part of our breakfast menu together with fried bakes or Johnny (journey) cakes.
Although small variations exist on different islands, the essential ingredients are the same. The protein content consists mainly of animal protein including poultry, fish, and red meats, such as pork, beef, lamb and goat.
The mainstay of carbohydrates is rice, macaroni, ground provisions, green bananas and plantains. Here in the Virgin Islands, our vegetables are again mainly imported, and we eat whatever the supermarkets choose to import based on the most profitable items. The multicultural populations also brought with them a wide variety of herbs and spices which influenced the flavour of the dishes we now enjoy.
In the Caribbean, over time we have come to love and respect each other through our links with food. Consequently, our recipes have crossed many racial and cultural barriers. Our cuisine is a fusion of local ingredients from the different islands and the ingredients and cooking techniques brought by a myriad of cultures.
During the last century, many Caribbean people migrated to North America and the United Kingdom taking with them their culinary identity. As a result, what was once solely Caribbean cooking is now widely available in many other countries.
As Caribbean people, our culinary history is a unique treasure that should be nurtured and passed on to succeeding generations as part of their cultural identity.
In any discussion on Caribbean food culture, we must acknowledge the influence of the native Amerindians, such as the Kalinagos and Tainos, on our Caribbean culinary identity. In the region, as everywhere else food forms a major part of our cultural identity. It is out of our difficult and painful past that our diverse and rich flavours have emerged.
Wherever the dreaded pair of colonization and exploitation occurs, the effects on native people were devastating. Very few of the original native populations in the Caribbean still exist and much of their culture and traditions have been lost forever.
The emergent rich cultural cuisine has been influenced mainly by the invaders and their slaves and indentured labour. In these Virgin Islands, we continue to import over ninety per cent of what we eat. Basic food items such as ground provisions, bananas, plantains and other food items that used to be grown locally are now imported from other islands. Over the years successive governments have provided little or no incentive to our local farmers to produce food.
A few of our farmers continue to provide locally produced food once per week at the Sir Olva Georges Plaza. This is well received but is not enough. So now is the time for our government to take our food security more seriously, and provide the support required for our farmers to provide natural ingredients from the ground up. This action can significantly reduce our dependence on the importation of tropical fruits and vegetables and ground provisions.
Tropical agriculture has developed over the years with new and exciting techniques to assist farmers to produce food in large quantities. Our islands which were once the food basket of the US Virgin Islands is now the importer of the same foods we exported.
In recent years these islands have experienced an explosion of culinary diversity as speciality restaurants now provide a range of menus. Unfortunately, most of the ingredients used are imported. If we wish to develop our tourism industry as a main source of income, then we will have to find innovative ways to provide unique foods that excite the palates of our visitors with the proud label – Grown in the BVI.