Foodie Friday: Caribbean Street Food 101

by  Chanize Thorpe | Apr 4, 2014
San Juan, PR
San Juan, PR / dbvirago/iStock

 When visiting the Caribbean islands, odds are the restaurants, food stalls, and street vendors are peddling snacks and dishes you’ve never heard of, let alone eaten. But don’t avoid them because you’re nervous. After all, exploring the local cuisine could become the highlight of your trip. Here are the items you’re most likely to encounter, plus info on how much they typically cost, and how to order like a local. Now, dig in!

Ackee: This scrambled egg-like dish is made from the fruit of a tropical tree. It appears on many breakfast menus and is Jamaica’s national dish. You’ll see it served with saltfish, a mild-tasting shredded cod or mackerel. Bonus points if you request a side of dumplings. ($5).

Bakes: A morning in Trinidad usually starts with this fried dough snack, often stuffed with salted cod, or more likely shark — hence many shops selling “shark and bakes.” At $3 a pop, it’s a cheap, tasty snack to eat while you're on the move.

Bammy: Made with grated cassava root (similar to tapioca) and soaked in coconut milk, this thick, pancake-like bread is a Jamaican staple. Order it baked, or fried ($1). Add fried red snapper for a quick, hearty lunch ($10).

Callaloo: A vegetable that looks and tastes like spinach, but with a richer flavor, this leafy green is commonly served in soups ($4). You'll especially see it on St. Lucia, Dominica, and Guyana. It's often used to accompany main dishes.

Coco Bread: Most U.S. travelers are already familiar with beef patties, which are readily available stateside; however, locals (especially in Jamaica or Barbados) may order theirs with a piece of this soft, slightly-sweet roll. Traditionally, it’s sliced open and wrapped around the patty to form a sandwich. Patties (pros ask if they’re "Juici" or "Tastee" brand) are $1 — with coco bread, $2.50.

Conch: The chewy, calamari-textured mollusk is carved from its shell and prepared in a variety of styles – stewed, mixed into salads ($10), fried into round fritters ($7 for 5), and added in soup ($6). The Bahamas, Cayman Islands, and Turks and Caicos are masters of conch cooking.

Doubles: A Trinidad and Tobago specialty popular at breakfast and lunch, these small round, flatbreads are flash-fried, sliced open and filled with curried chick peas called channa. One double, which can cost less than $2, is usually not enough, so go ahead and order a few rounds. You're on vacation, remember?

Escoveitch Fish: Jamaica is tops for this spicy, vinegar-marinated flaky fish that’s pan-fried, then topped with a layer of pickled onions, carrots and peppers. It’s a hearty meal ($13) usually served with rice and beans (kidney or pigeon peas) and another side. Note: sometimes the fish is cooked with the head attached — so be sure to have it removed if you’re squeamish. Bones are usually left in, but go ahead and use your fingers to pick them out. It’s expected.

Fungi: Made of cornmeal and okra, the polenta-like starch (pronounced foon-gi) is a USVI, Haiti, and Antigua favorite and often presented as a side dish to a main meal. Other islands may call it coocoo. You’ll find it either cut into squares, or balls.

Mauby: A brown, bitter, refreshing drink (sometimes spelled maubi or mavi) made from boiled buckthorn tree bark and laced with cinnamon, nutmeg, and brown sugar ($3), this concoction is popular with Jamaican, Vincentian, Bermudan, Puerto Rican and Grenadian men due to its rumored male-enhancement properties. Most locals drink it over ice or in soda form.

Mofongo: Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic are where you’ll likely find this heap of mashed green plantains served with a main protein of, say, garlicky pork chops, chimmichuri-style beef, or fish.

Pastelitos: When you’re on the go in Spanish-speaking countries like Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Aruba, pick up one of these flaky pastries (also called pasteles). Choose from a variety of fillings like savory beef or chicken, or sweet guava-paste and cream cheese ($1.50).

Ground Provisions: This fragrant root vegetable mash of christophene, dasheene, tannia, and yams is traditionally served with hearty meat and fish dishes in St. Lucia, Grenada, and Jamaica.

Roti: Many islands have roti on the menu, though the queen of this burrito-like snack is Trinidad. The islanders' East Indian background ensures that the chickpea-made “skin” is the thinnest and most pliable imaginable. This makes it easier to stuff them with curried chicken, goat, potatoes, or veggies (from $6). Chefette, a fast-food restaurant in Barbados, comes closest to a Trini roti — there’s even an outpost in the airport!

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