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It was a place secluded from the rest of the world. The American continent was not part of Europe or Asia. Thus, the culture in the Caribbean remained constant for hundreds of years. Then Christopher Columbus came up with a brilliant idea to sail westward, confident that there is a new route to the other side of the world. In so doing, he accidentally discovered the Americas, and his first stop was the Caribbean. Since that time, conquistadors from Europe as well as neocolonialists in the 20th century began to transform this region. The result is a melting pot of culture but, most importantly, a fusion of cuisine that is not only a great addition to the world’s culinary arts but giving joy to the people of the Caribbean as well as to the rest of mankind.
Caribbean culture is rooted in its history. It is a region untouched by the empires of Asia and Europe. This is because the American continent was separated from the rest of Europe and Asia. There is a geological explanation for this but suffice it to say that for hundreds or even thousands of years, this part of the planet developed its own unique culture and traditions. Without a doubt, the people in the region called the Caribbean had something similar to other tropical islands such as those found in the Pacific Ocean, but it has also developed a culture and a cuisine distinctly it’s own.
This pre-colonial culture, as well as culinary arts, was shaped by the forces of nature as well as the natural resources that abound in the area. This means that the tropical climate dictated what types of food can be prepared on a daily basis, as well as the type of foods that can be preserved for future consumption. With regards to the natural resources, the most dominant factor is the bounty of the sea and the presence of flora and fauna unique to a tropical climate which, by the way, is absent in the temperate regions that can be found north of the Caribbean.
According to one commentary, the Caribbean lifestyle is a by-product of its tropical environment, “The music, architecture, and customs have all, in some way, been shaped by the physical landscape and climate” (Segisys, 2009). Aside from the tropical setting, there are other factors such as the European colonialists, African slaves that came with European dominance, and the influence of the neighboring Native American Indian tribes. The following major islands in the Caribbean have their own unique history and thus contributed to the rich cultural diversity of the region:
- Barbados – One of the more important islands in the Caribbean and was a former British colony. It has retained enough British traditions that it is even called “Little England” by more than one commentator.
- Jamaica – This is another island that was heavily influenced by the English colonizers, and thus it is difficult to observe its people and traditions without being reminded that once upon a time, the British were the rulers of Jamaica.
- Dominican Republic – Christopher Columbus claimed this island for the King and Queen of Spain and became a springboard for Spanish conquests in the Caribbean. There is no need to elaborate on how the Spaniards influence the way of life on this island (CIA-World Factbook, 2009).
- Puerto Rico – On this island, there is a combination of influences coming from European as well as neocolonialists of the 20th century. Thus, one can find in Puerto Rico Spanish and American influences as well as African and French.
Food and Culture
Based on the Caribbean’s history of being colonized by European superpowers, its proximity to the United States, plus the fact that it was major nexus in the Europe-Africa slave trade makes it is very easy to understand the origins of Caribbean culture, especially when it comes to its food. Cuisine became a fusion of Europe, Africa, and the Americas inevitably. Historian Lynn Marie Houston was able to put it succinctly when she said that, “To speak of the Caribbean islands as a whole, as when speaking of its food culture, is to celebrate the positive: the shared cultural heritage that has come to exist among, different languages and different governmental systems … On the other hand, many food items and cooking techniques owe their appearance in the Caribbean to the negative aspects of history…” (Houston, 2005). It is indeed bittersweet; on the one hand, there is an exchange of ideas. On the other hand, these ideas came because of conquest, slave trade, and forced labor.
Thus, there are two important features of Caribbean cuisine that contributed to its development over hundreds of years of colonization, slave trades, and the rise of different forms of governments in the area. The first one is the idea that poor people or those not belonging to the elite class had to make do with what they have (Houston, 2005). This means the use of indigenous ingredients and the use of cooking methods that will result in achieving cost-efficiency. Thus, it is common to find barbecues and the use of boiling and smoking as one of the most common ways of preparing food.
The second major feature of Caribbean cuisine is the use of imported ingredients that are readily available because of established trade routes and trading systems with other countries (Houston, 2005). The immigrants living in the Caribbean created a demand for imported ingredients, and this is the reason for the diversity of Caribbean cuisine. This is also the reason why there are recipes in this region that are similar to those found in Latin America and Africa not to mention the European dishes that were brought by the colonizers (Houston, 2005). The following pages will expound on the ingredients and the cooking methods used.
Ingredients and Cooking Methods
The first challenge of the people dwelling in this region is how to effectively use the indigenous ingredients readily available all year round. The second challenge is how to prepare food so that will not only taste good but to prepare it in such a way that it will be able to survive the brutal assault of the Caribbean heat. High temperatures and the absence of refrigeration for the most part of its history forced the people to experiment with natural preservative so that their food will not spoil and more importantly to protect their families from food poisoning.
The Amerindians developed widely popular techniques such as smoking and seasoning their food with three main ingredients: chili peppers, cassareep (made from cassava, and annatto (Houston, 2005). Aside from the fact that there is a need to preserve food, the significant usage of spices is also attributed to the abundance of spices in the region as well as the need to improve the poor quality of food made available to slaves and poor immigrant workers. Some of the major spices found throughout the Caribbean are allspice, nutmeg, cloves cinnamon, and ginger.
There are places where a high quality crop is available and so in Jamaica for instance, many recipes feature ginger flavors. But it must be pointed out that many of the inhabitants prefer the use of hot peppers, while the English Caribbean would like to start with a basic seasoning consisting of scallion (green onions), parsley, coriander leaves, and thyme. There are also those who use a mixture of bell pepper, chili pepper, garlic, thyme, parsley, lime juice and black pepper.
East Indian influence on the other hand made it possible to enjoy a variety of relishes and chutneys that will accompany rice and curry dishes. Indian dishes in the Caribbean are cooked with the use of a seasoning mixture called the masala which is a combination of coriander seeds, anise, cloves, cumin, fenugreek, mustard, and turmeric (Houston, 2005). Others would imitate Indian dishes but add their own interpretation such as the use of cardamom, bay leaves fennel and cinnamon.
Caribbean cooking is peasant cooking at its best, meaning there is no need for precise measurements and timing (Houston, 2005). Traditional cooks would tend to use earthenware pots such as those used by African immigrants, called yabba (Houston, 2005). These kinds of pots are very good for slow cooking over medium or low heat. When it comes to smoking, meat and other foods would be smoked over an open fire using a basket-like container made of metal wire, called kreng kreng (Houston, 2005). Caribbean cooks are now familiar with modern cooking implements but most of them could not work well without a traditional cooking implement called the lele. It is a six-pronged wooden stick used for mixing, or as a whisk to beat or whip ingredients such as the vegetable stew (callaloo) which is very popular throughout the Caribbean.
No matter how one will try to unify the various Caribbean cooking methods and culture into one single theme, it would be impossible without sacrificing accuracy. It is therefore acceptable to simply acknowledge the great variety that exists within Caribbean cooking. This is due to its rich history and heritage. The combination of English, Indian, French, African and American influences made it not only a culturally diverse place but an area where people can visit and be reminded of home. There are recipes with English spices as well as foods that are made with Indian methods of cooking. The smoking and preservation techniques can easily be linked to Amerindians and the chilies and peppers abundant in Caribbean recipes can also be found in other regions of the world.
Central Intelligence Agency. (2009). The World Factbook. Web.
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Houston, Lynn Marie. (2005). Food Culture in the Caribbean. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
Segisys. (2009). Caribbean Culture.