When the Amerindians arrived in Dominica it was a combination of seafood and cassava that formed the basis of their diet. As agricultural practices developed on the island, root crops such as yams, sweet potatoes and tannias were cultivated for food.
West African slaves working the coffee and sugar plantations tended to have a staple diet of root crops, or provisions, which they spiced up with seasonings such as peppers, bay leaves, parsley and thyme, adopting the influences of the French.
Following the abolition of slavery, these Caribbean Creole culinary practices continued to develop, particularly with the arrival of freed slaves from the French islands, and are the foundation for the local traditional dishes served in many of Dominica’s snackettes and Creole restaurants today.
Sometimes it seems that Dominicans would not be able to survive the day without having their lunch. Despite busy lifestyles and the influence of fast foods, almost everything comes to a standstill for what many Dominicans continue to regard as the main meal of the day. In local eateries a menu board may simply say ‘fish lunch’ or ‘chicken lunch’ and typically it will consist of a main ingredient, such as fish or chicken, with a fairly standard selection of rice, red beans and boiled ground provisions.
This term refers to any one or a collection of root crops such as varieties of yam, eddoe, dasheen, sweet potato or tannia. The term is occasionally stretched to include breadfruit, plantain, and green bananas (rather confusingly known as figs), though purists will contest this inclusion.
There are many traditional dishes for you to try. Perhaps one of the oldest and most basic is the one-pot dish, or braf. One-pot cooking simply means placing all the ingredients you have, whatever they may be, in one large pot, cooking them up in water and seasoning to create a nutritious broth.
This dish tends to be eaten in homes rather than in restaurants, though some local eateries do serve it, especially on Friday nights (fish braf) and Saturday mornings (pig and cow’s foot braf). Try Miranda’s on the Imperial Road in Springfield.
Most local dishes are rich in vegetables and seasonings. You may find meat and seafood dishes in some local eateries a little overcooked. This is a legacy of the past, and a lack of proper refrigeration.
The Dominican palate has become accustomed to eating meat dishes in this way. Larger restaurants are more likely to cook meat and seafood in a more international manner, though you should always check when ordering.
Hot pepper sauce, made from scotch bonnet peppers, is used to spice up dishes. Be very careful with it though: just a few drops can completely transform a dish, and maybe not in the way you want!#
Calalou dasheen leaves (a ground provision), and occasionally spinach. It is a thick green soup that is often served with crab. It is delicious and usually a speciality on restaurant menus during the Creole season. Other popular soup dishes are pumpkin soup, goat water, which is a goat meat stew, and chatou water, a soup made with octopus.
Sancoche is a traditional dish made from coconut milk, provisions and usually codfish. Ackra is a kind of seasoned and fried fritter, often made from codfish, breadfruit, tannia and, from September to November, in the days after the moon’s last quarter, titiwi, which is a juvenile goby caught in fine nets at the mouths of rivers. In September each year the west coast village of Layou hosts the Titiwi Fest where, along with music, river and beach activities, you can sample a wide variety of titiwi dishes. Crab backs are a delicious savoury dish and are also available during the Creole season.
The land crab’s flesh is mixed with a secret combination of spices and seasonings and then stuffed back into the shell, sprinkled with breadcrumbs and baked in a hot oven. Curried goat is a popular spicy meat dish (and yes, it is goat), usually served with rice, and, when in season, stewed agouti is another local delicacy. A common staple is a heavily seasoned rice dish called pelau, usually a lunch dish served as chicken pelau.
Vegetarians should have few problems finding good food in Dominica. With a preponderance of fresh fruit and vegetables, the choice is varied. Tannia ackra, rice and peas, fried plantain, breadfruit puffs, provisions, vegetable sancoche and macaroni cheese are all staple foods and very common dishes.
You may also come across the term ital. This is a term commonly used by Rastafarians to mean wholesome, natural food. It is always vegetarian. If you happen to hear the distinctive sound of a conch shell being blown then it means a fisherman is selling his catch. The fish caught locally and used in Dominican cooking will typically include tuna, marlin, flying fish, jacks, snapper and dorado (mahi mahi), also known locally as dowad or dolphin.
Popular roadside snacks include bakes, a fried flour and water dough that is usually stuffed with seasoned saltfish, tuna or cheese. You will also see people selling fried or barbecue chicken, corn and plantain. A filling snack is roti, a flat bread most commonly stuffed with either curried vegetables or chicken. It is a very inexpensive dish that is very filling and great if you are on a tight budget.
Freshly made juices are always available, the selection being determined by season and what is ripening. Lime squash and freshly made ginger beer are particularly refreshing drinks on hot days. Passionfruit, pineapple, orange and grapefruit juices are also commonly served.
Sorrel, known in some parts of the Caribbean as hibiscus tea, is a delicious drink, usually available around the festive season. It is made from the sepals of the sorrel flower (Hibiscus Sabdariffa) and is fruity and fragrant. It is also served as a warm, spiced tea or as a wine, and tastes rather like a European Christmas mulled wine.
Coconut water extracted from unripe jelly coconuts is an acquired taste, though it is very refreshing, especially direct from a coconut. Always drink coconut water and/or fresh fruit juice in moderation. Too much may have the effect of a laxative.
When thirsty, drink water. Tap water is usually clean and safe to drink, though after heavy rains it may become dirty for a short period and so should be avoided. Usually the water supply is temporarily suspended if it has been contaminated with dirt.
Dominica has two main rum distilleries. The Belfast Estate produces Soca rum, Red Cap rum and Bois Bandé rum, and the Macoucheri Estate produces dark and light Macoucheri rum which is distilled from sugarcane grown on its own grounds.
Dominicans will decant rums from these distilleries into bottles as a basis for their own individual blends of rum punch and bush rum, the latter being white cask rum with an infusion of herbs, spices or tree bark.
One of the island’s most famous blends of bush rum is bois bandé which is said to have a tumescent effect upon male drinkers. Locals will often refer to it as a ‘natural Viagra’. Stripping pieces of the bois bandé tree’s much sought-after bark is common practice, though illegal in the national parks where it is mostly found.
Dominica’s national beer is Kubuli which is brewed using natural spring water by the Dominica Brewery at Snug Corner near the southern village of Loubiere. In 2002 this lager beer won a gold prize at the Brussels Monde Selection Awards.