Packing a punch: Food and drink in Barbados

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. Barbados is not cheap, but there are ways of making your money go further. Even on a tight budget you will need US$50 per day for food and drink. Eating where Barbadians eat for lunch, for instance, will cost you US$5-6, but lunch at a beach bar will cost two or three times that amount. Stick with local Banks beer (US$3 for 500 ml) rather than imported beers and rum is better value than wine.

Food

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 are the national emblem and a speciality with two or three fillets to a plate, eaten with chips, breaded in a sandwich (flying fish cutter) or with an elegant sauce. Dolphin fish, also called dorado or mahi mahi on restaurant menus, and kingfish are larger steak-fish. Snapper is excellent. 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. Mangoes in season drop off the trees and those that don’t end up on your breakfast plate can be found squashed in abundance all over the roads.

Caribbean oranges are often green when ripe, as there is no cold season to bring out the orange colour, and are meant for juicing not peeling. Portugals are like tangerines and easy to peel. The grapefruit originated in Barbados in the 18th century, crossing a sweet orange and a bitter citrus called a shaddock, brought from Polynesia by Captain Shaddock. 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, a common staple rich in carbohydrates and vitamins A, B and C, was brought from the South Seas in 1793 by Captain Bligh, perhaps more famous for the mutiny on the Bounty. It is eaten in a variety of ways in Barbados: 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’. With sugar being grown on the island, Barbadians have developed a sweet tooth. It is worth trying tamarind balls, guava cheese, chocolate fudge and peanut brittle, while for dessert, coconut bread and Bajan baked custard and lemon meringue pie are firm favourites.

Drink

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 mangoflavoured rum. Falernum is sweet, sometimes slightly alcoholic, with a hint of vanilla and great in a rum cocktail instead of sugar syrup. If you drink in a rum shop, rum and other drinks are bought by the bottle. The smallest size is a mini, then a flask, then a full bottle. The shop will supply ice and glasses, you buy a mixer and serve yourself. ‘Wine’, in a rum shop, usually means sweet sherry.

If you are not careful, it is drunk with ice and beer. 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 Beer produces Bajan Light (a lager) as well as a milk stout and a nonalcoholic malt drink. Water is of excellent quality, it comes mostly from deep wells sunk into the coral limestone, but there is bottled water if you prefer.

Eating out

There are excellent restaurants on Barbados, many of gourmet standard, especially along the west coast catering to the well-heeled visitors. Some of these are in the luxury hotels such as Sandy Lane, but you don’t have to go to a hotel for cordon bleu cuisine.

Many of the chefs have been around a bit, working in high-class kitchens in London or Paris before trying a spell in the Caribbean, bringing a variety of skills to the task of preparing tropical ingredients. Eating out is not cheap, and restaurants will charge around US$1240 for a main course, but standards are high and the settings often special; you may get an open-air waterfront table or a garden terrace, perhaps even a table on the beach.

The majority of places to eat are clustered around Holetown on the west coast and St Lawrence Gap on the south coast, where you can indulge in Italian, Mexican, Indian, French, Japanese or whatever takes your fancy. In Bridgetown there are several cheap canteens for office workers where you can get a filling lunch for around US$6, and around the island there are beach bars for lunch, especially seafood and barbecue grills, and you can make a day of it with cocktails and sun loungers on the sand. But what is lacking are Bajan restaurants serving cheap, local food in the evenings.

Apart from a few rum shops selling fried chicken and some fast-food places, there’s not much at the budget end of the scale after dark. However, on a Friday night, Oistins Fish Fry is a major event for both Barbadians and tourists; see box, page 76. VAT is usually included in menu prices but a service charge of 10% is added to the bill; most menus stipulate what is and what is not included.