Just as Barbadian culture is a blend of British and African traditions, so the cuisine of Barbados is a mix of British and West African tastes and ingredients, developed over the centuries with some other flavours brought to the pot by immigrants from other nations, such as India.
The need for carbohydrates to fuel slave labour and arduous work in the sugar cane fields has led to a diet based on starchy vegetables known as ground provisions, while difficulties in storing meat and fish in the tropical heat led to common use of salt meat and fish, pickles and other preserves. Sugar, the main crop of the island for generations, features heavily in both food and drink, reaching perfection in the production of rum.
Fresh fish is excellent and sold at the markets in Oistins, Bridgetown and elsewhere in the late afternoon and evening, when the fishermen come in with their catch. It is a fascinating sight to watch the speed and skill with which women fillet flying fish and bag them up for sale. The main fish season is December-May, when there is less risk of stormy weather at sea.
Flying fish is the national dish and a speciality with two or three fillets to a plate, eaten with chips, breaded in a sandwich (flying fish cutter) or with a sauce made from onions, tomatoes and herbs. Other popular and tasty fish include red snapper, wahoo or kingfish, barracuda, yellowfin tuna, and ‘dolphin fish’ – the latter being also called dorado or mahi mahi on restaurant menus with no relation or resemblance to the mammal dolphin. There is also plenty of local crab, lobster, conch (lambi), octopus and shrimp/prawns.
Cou-cou is a filling starchy dish made from breadfruit or corn meal with okra, peppers and hot sauce. Jug-jug is a Christmas speciality made from guinea corn, pigeon peas and salt meat, supposedly descended from the haggis of the poor white Scottish settlers exiled to the island after the failed Monmouth Rebellion of 1685. Pudding and souse is a huge dish of pickled breadfruit, black pudding and pork.
Conkie is a corn-based dish often referred to as stew dumpling, traditionally made and sold during November, originally to celebrate the failure of Guy Fawkes’ attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament and King James I, and later to celebrate independence from British colonial rule. Conkie contains spices, sugar, pumpkin, corn meal, coconut and sometimes raisins or cherries, all wrapped and steamed in a banana leaf, served hot.
There is a riot of tropical fruit and vegetables: unusual and often unidentifiable objects as well as more familiar items found in supermarkets in Europe and North America but with 10 times the flavour. The best bananas in the world are grown in the Caribbean; they are cheap, incredibly sweet and unlike anything you can buy at home. Many of the wonderful tropical fruits you will come across in juices or in ice cream. Don’t miss the rich flavours of the soursop, the guava or the sapodilla.
Avocados are nearly always sold unripe, so wait several days before attempting to eat them. Avocados have been around since the days of the Arawaks, who also cultivated cassava and cocoa, but many vegetables have their origins in the slave trade, brought over to provide a starchy diet for the slaves. The breadfruit is eaten in a variety of ways: with tomato and onion, a cucumber and lime souse, mashed like a potato or as wafer-thin crisps. It is one of the many forms of starch popular in local cooking; others include sweet potato, yam, eddo, green banana, plantain, bakes, cassava, rice, pasta and potato. Rice usually comes mixed with pigeon peas, black-eye peas or split peas. Macaroni cheese is a popular accompaniment, and is referred to as ‘pie’.
Barbados is a major producer of rum and you can find some excellent brands including Mount Gay, Cockspur, Malibu, Foursquare and St Nicholas Abbey. It is worth paying a bit extra for a good brand such as VSOP or Old Gold, or for the slightly sweeter Sugar Cane Brandy, unless you are going to drink it with Coca-Cola, in which case anything will do. A rum and cream liqueur, Crisma, is popular in cocktails or on the rocks. Mount Gay produce a vanilla and a mango-flavoured rum. Falernum is sweet, sometimes slightly alcoholic, with a hint of vanilla and great in a rum cocktail instead of sugar syrup.
For non-alcoholic drinks, there is a range of refreshing fruit juices, including orange, mango, pineapple, grapefruit, lime, guava and passionfruit. Sorrel is a bright red drink made with hibiscus sepals and spices, and mauby is a bitter-sweet drink made from tree bark. Both are watered down like a fruit squash and they can be refreshing with lots of ice. Banks produces Bajan Light (a lager) as well as a milk stout and a non-alcoholic malt drink. Water is of excellent quality, as it comes mostly from deep wells sunk into the coral limestone, but there is bottled water if you prefer.