CUISINE OF
THE ISLANDS

The Caribbean,
crossroads of the world

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The Caribbean is in many respects the crossroads of the world, especially in the days of sail, when the tradewind routes led from the far ends of the earth to the British Virgin Islands' home in the Lesser Antilles.
History. A succession of peoples and cultures swept over the Caribbean bringing or finding their distinctive foods, many still eaten today.

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The Arawaks were followed by the fierce Caribs, for which the Caribbean is named. Explorers and many sea captains transported food items. Colonists, settlers and planters of Spanish, Dutch, English, and French origin brought their respective cuisine with them in some form.

East Indians contributed their distinctive curries, called colombos in the French Antilles, condiments such as chutneys and food items like the widely adopted roti.

Africans were a strong influence throughout the region, bringing many foodstuffs, such as okra and yams, and many other varieties of greens, beans and roots as well as cooking techniques and seasonings, such as Creole-style gumbos.

Derived from an African word for the okra that originally contributed its thick, characteristic texture, gumbo broadens to a thick stew or soup with a hodgepodge of local ingredients, then travels to the West Indies, transmuting there into that ubiquitous soup called callaloo that is emblematic of the Caribbean.

Callaloo. Often thickened with okra and well-seasoned with chile peppers and other herbs, this irresistible West Indian soup (Crab Hole and Callaloo) may be ladled out of an iron cooking pot with a wooden spoon into a calabash bowl in a Caribbean version of age-old practices (see recipes).

Callaloo comes in as many styles as there are islands and cooks, and now refers to a complex mixture with a "confusion" of ingredients (see song lyrics). Strictly viewed, if that's possible, callaloo exhibits one constant--  a spinach-like, tender green leaf. Generally from the dasheen family, the preferred variety has a large purple dot on its leaf. Sometimes the leaf is what is called callalou and the soup is called Pepperpot.

The focus on the "greens," including green vegetables like okra and the green leaf itself, and their preparation in the form of a thick soup or sauce, expresses African-inspired cooking, with its emphasis on the importance of greens and garden-variety seasonings, albeit in sensual, aromatic combinations.

Paradoxically, key ingredients of callaloo and gumbo-- the chile pepper and tomato-- originated in the New World. And their transport to Africa as foodstuffs during the Age of Discovery, before coming back as part of these distinctive dishes, demonstrates the complexity of this cultural "stew" that has enriched the Caribbean.

Jerk. The original inhabitants of the Caribbean, the Arawaks, cured meat by smoking it over a slow fire--no doubt a very widespread "primitive" practice. Jerk, in fact, means to preserve dried meat, derived from American southwest Spainish charqui, from the Native South American cc'arki.

Also, the term buccaneer, a 17th century adventurer or sea robber, comes from the technique, called "boucan" (meaning barbecue), of curing meat by smoking it slowly over a fire, its French practitioners being called "boucaniers." See Pirates & Privateers.

And Tortola's Beef Island gets its name from its use as pasture for cattle for this purpose by local buccaneers (see Black Sam Bellamy: Prince of Pirates).

So today we see "jerk" pork ribs and chicken, the Jamaican being the most famous with the roadside jerk huts, smoky with the open pit fires of smoldering Pimento wood to ensure the proper slow-smoke cooking.

But it is the "fire" and subtlety of the seasonings that make "jerk" what it is. Fiery Scotch Bonnet or bird peppers, onions, scallions, Jamaican pimento or allspice, thyme, cinnamon and nutmeg are combined into a pungent "paste" that is rubbed on the meat in a non-tomato based style. See Barbecue Jerk Dinner on the Grill.

Spice Trade. Enlivening the imagination like these pungent plant parts do food, spices epitomize the exotic, sunny tropics. In the days of the Spice Trade, peppercorns were worth their weight in gold. And it was the incredible value of the cloves filling the hold of Magellan's only returning ship that ensured the financial success of his historic voyage around the world. New spices and routes motivated Columbus to set sail to the East Indies in the first place-- hence the West Indies name when he accidentally discovered a new land.

Except for saffron where countless tiny crocus stigmas must be plucked by hand, spices are now commonplace, inexpensive and widely grown (and annatto oil is used for saffron). Once only grown in China, ginger is a major product of Jamaica, and widely diffused, via East Indian chutneys and curries, throughout Caribbean cooking. Now nutmeg is synonymous with Grenada, called the Isle of Spice. Conversely, as mentioned, the chile pepper was transported to Africa for cultivation.

Nutmeg. One of the spices, nutmeg, was brought to the Caribbean when an English sea captain brought the tree from Indonesia to Grenada (an important producer of nutmeg today). From a tall, fragrant, tropical evergreen tree and found in local markets, the best is the nut's fresh shell with its threads of bright scarlet mace still clinging to the outside. Rum drinks favor a dusting of nutmeg, so much more flavorful when freshly grated.

Seafood

Being surrounded by the ocean in the characteristic island fashion, with numerous bays, cays and coral reefs, as well as the more protected waters of the Sir Francis Drake Channel, the BVI has an astonishing variety and abundance of fresh local seafood. Anegada's North Drop, off the undersea plateau underlying the islands, is world famous for game fishing in addition to supplying BVI tables.

Lobster

Actually a large crayfish without claws but with a large, succulent tail, lobster is a favorite (above photo of Pusser's Marina Cay lobster: Our B.V.I. Adventure). Often from Anegada's ten-mile-long Horseshoe Reef, lobster is served on Anegada (barbecued for dinner at the Anegada Reef Hotel and boiled for lunch at the Big Bamboo) and throughout the islands as main entree (Rum Runner Lobster Tail at your own villa by private chef, Catalana Style at Giorgio's Table or Lobster Bahamian at the Bitter End Clubhouse), or chowder (house specialty at Myett's).

At Jost Van Dyke's Little Harbour, there is almost a competition to serve the best lobster between Sydney's Peace and Love, Abe's By The Sea, and Harris' Place. On St. Croix in the USVI, Hendrick's serves Caribbean Lobster Spring Rolls with Crisp Leeks and Red Curry-Honey Dipping Sauce.

Conch. Don't miss the perfect snack or companion to cocktails--conch fritters! Conch (pronounced "conk") must be tenderized and, similar to the clam, is found as chowder (Myett's), stewed (Jolly Roger and Quito's Gazebo), stuffed in ravioli with banana-lemon chutney (Tradewinds Restaurant), stuffed in mushrooms (Callaloo restaurant), in salads (Sebastian's on the Beach) and with pasta in parsley sauce (Sugar Mill) (Consair's conch fritters photo: Trip Advisor review).

The conch shell, used by sailors as a fog or signal horn, is widely treasured for its beauty and, like oysters, for the use of its contents as an aphrodisiac (don't get any ideas). See Queen Conch for more information about this fine creature in nature.

Whelk. The local name for the West Indian Top snail, whelk is the marine equivalent to escargot, and is prepared the same classic way--steamed (in sea water) and served with garlic butter. Or Grilled in a Garlic Butter Sauce. Or in rotis (Roti Palace) Or pictured (Le Grande Cafe).

Land Crabs. A land dweller, the land crab is fed bread and spices before becoming a delicacy with its very delicate flavor, prepared and stuffed back in its shell in crabes farcies in the French Antilles.

Fish. Blue water fish, caught locally at Anegada's North Drop for BVI tables, include swordfish (grilled at C&F), tuna, spearfish (related to marlin--broiled down into a butter sauce at Nepture's Treasure), wahoo (grilled at Brandywine Bay) and mahimahi.

Steakfish are traditionally grilled, often after being marinated beforehand or covered with a sauce, or other topping afterward, or baked, very traditionally in banana leaves (see recipe) or parchment paper (stewed Red Snapper Papillote at Chez Bamboo) and even foil, or broiled.

Other fish commonly served include grouper, triggerfish, yellowtail snapper (fried at Da Wedding, chef's recipe) and king mackerel. Fish, of course, is served in an infinite variety of ways from from haute cuisine to West Indian style, which often involves an Creole sauce on top (Quito's Gazebo).

Flying Fish. Sleek, silver-blue fish with fins that resemble dragonfly wings, flying fish, to the delight of sailors, propel themselves in the air at speeds up to 30 mph to escape predators. A specialty of Barbados and part of its national emblem, flying fish is lightly breaded, pan-fried and served as "Flying Fish Bajan (Barbadian) Style" throughout the region. Or Seared with Smoked Beef Glaze at Biras Creek.

Salt Fish. Salting was originally a method of preserving food, especially for long ocean voyages. Salt fish, occasionally mackerel but usually cod, is popular throughout the Caribbean. Salt fish is found as a special at the Virgin Queen or as the Salt Fish Spring Rolls appetiser by Chef Richard Buttafuso of the Sugar Mill).

Stamp and Go. Jamaica's saltfish (or codfish) fritters, called Stamp and Go (recipe), an island form of "fast food," is made from a batter of soaked, cooked, skinned and flaked saltfish, with scallions, chiles, and tomato, fried in coconut oil until golden brown (Islands at Sugar Mill). Acras is a French Caribbean variation using corn oil and different seasonings. Balalaitos is a Puerto Rican variation.

Fish Fry. The closest thing in the BVI to the Jamaican "hut" scene is Apple Bay's Friday and Saturday night "Fish Fry." At Little Apple Bay where Zion Hill Road meets Tortola's North Beach Coast, delicious fish is to be had from roadside stands. Also, local fisherman Poui has a fish fry at Da Wedding in Cane Garden Bay.

Blaff. In the French Antilles, "poached" fish called Blaff earns its name from the sound made when dropped in the boiling water with spices added (see recipe).

Drinks

Rum. Distinctive of the Caribbean in general, rum is said to have been brought by Columbus from the Canary Islands. Once called Kill Devil, rum was an integral part of the sugar plantation trade.

Cut with water to form grog, rum fueled the British Navy. Pusser's Rum, made on Tortola, continues the original rum of the British Navy, with flavor similarities to scotch whiskey (order here).

Now each island has its favorites and many produce their own varieties. Amber Barbados rum has a fine brandy-like aroma good as a mixer. Family run distilleries like Guadeloupe's rhum agricole produce rums that, when aged resemble fine Cognacs. Light Puerta Rico rums like Bicardi popularized the pina colada created there and can be substituted for many liquors.

Rum is still distilled from sugarcane in the BVI (Callwood Rum Distillery). Widely used as a flavoring agent in cooking, such as rum cheesecake (The Garden) and French toasted muffins (Crewed Charter Scubada), rum is most famous in drinks, such as rum punches and the pina colada ( Mad Dog Bar at Virgin Gorda-The Baths).

Rum Punch. Aptly named, the traditional Caribbean rum "punch" has 1 "sour" ounce of lime juice, 2 "sweet" teaspoons of honey, 3 "strong" ounces of dark rum, and 4 "weak" ounces of crushed ice, plus a grating of nutmeg. Versions of the rum punch abound from island to bartender.

Painkiller. A famous BVI drink, the Painkiller originated at the Soggy Dollar Bar at White Bay on Jost Van Dyke. This frozen delight is made (strongly) from dark rum (often Pusser's), pineapple juice (4 parts), orange juice ( 1 part), and Coco Lopez (1 part sweetened cream of coconut) with fresh nutmeg ground on top.

Bushwhacker. From the old Pirate's Pub of Bert Kilbride's, now "The Rock," is this recipe: equal parts Vodka, Dark Rum, Frangellico, Amaretto (a little less of this), Creme de Cacao, Kahlua and Bailey's Irish Creme, then blend with ice until the consistency of a milk shake (from Gary Kunkel).

Smoothies. Smoothies are another popular drink. Here's a recipe from the self-service beach bar at the Anegada Reef Hotel for Anegada smoothies:

  • 12 oz. dark rum
  • 24 oz. (2 12 oz. cans) guava nectar
  • 3 oz pineapple juice (1/2 a small can)
  • ½ oz. grenadine syrup
  • 3 oz cream of coconut
  • Lightly sprinkle with freshly grated nutmeg

Ok, this is more than one drink. So who's counting?

ting. From Jamaica, ting is a refreshing citrus drink with a grapefruit taste (held by Lorraine at Elm's). Also, from Jamaica is Ginger Beer, a lively, non-alcoholic soda based on ginger (order ting here).  

Meat

Beef. Roast beef (English Carvery at the Bitter End) is very popular in the islands. Other beef dishes include Her Majesty's West Indian Regimental Beef Curry (recipe) in honor of those West Indians who served in World War II (Sugar Mill).

Pub Food. This British colony is especially fond of pubs where plentiful selections of beer and ale, steak and kidney pie (English Pub), fish and chips (Virgin Queen), meat pies (Pusser's Pub) and even dart boards are found. Sailors have been known to kick back a brew and tell lies.

Pork. Introduced by the Spainards, wild hogs were hunted by the Arawaks. Pig roasts are very popular in the islands (Ali Baba's).

Doved Pork. Another favorite is "doved" pork (Netty's Diner). Doved means it's browned first and cooked in a sauce.

Goat. Goats are well adapted to the hilly terrain and arid climate of the islands and you will see goat on many menus, often curried, as in rotis. Goat milk, of course, can be used to make goat cheese, which the Greeks call Feta cheese in the classic Greek salad.

Goat Water. When goat is stewed in the BVI, the resulitng dish is referred to as "goat water" (Da Wedding). See recipe at West Indian Curry.

Sides

Rice and Peas. Rice and beans in the BVI are called rice and peas (accompaniment at Myett's), short for pigeon peas, otherwise known as Congo peas or gungoo peas, which originated in Africa (pictured with ribs from Coconut Junction).

Many beans are eaten in the Caribbean, often with rice as in moros y cristianos from Cuba, where black beans are ascendent as in most Spanish cooking. In Jamaica, kidney beans are preferred.

Rice is very popular in the Caribbean and sold in large sacks in stores. A nice balance to spicy dishes like curries, rice is frequently served as an accompaniment to chicken (arrozo y pollo) and fish, often with a West Indian sauce on top.

Fungi. Derived from the West African mash, fungi (or funghi) is a cornmeal-based side dish, called coocoo elsewhere in the Caribbean.  Its upscape cousin is the Italian polenta, except coconut milk replaces the water at the Bitter End's Clubhouse Restaurant.

A corn meal based local side dish, fungi is made from "scratch," or ad hoc, usually with added okra, onions, sweet peppers, etc. See recipe.

Fungi also gives its name to the indigenous BVI musical style, a combination of instruments likewise "cooked up" to become a "scratch," or fungi band, especially if consisting of assorted homemade instruments, like washboards or gourds.

Breads

Roti. First brought to Trinidad by East Indians, roti is a sandwich-like "wrap" (Roti Palace) consisting of curried meat, chicken, seafood or vegetables wrapped in a crepe-like bread. Or roti may refer to just the curry dish itself. The West Indian roti, unlike the original, is more like a flour tortilla, being made with white flour leavened with baking powder. See West Indian Curry recipes.

Pain de Kassav. A traditional Caribbean bread, pain de kassav is made from the cassava root  tuber, famously by the roadside in Haiti in a thin and crispy style with a slightly 'nutty' taste. Bammie is the Jamacian cassava flat bread.

Johnny Cakes. A corn meal based flat bread, Johnny Cakes is popular throughout the Caribbean (see recipe video).

Pantry Flavors

Condiments. Chutneys and hot pepper sauces are two popular condiments that may accompany Caribbean meals.

Chutney. Along with the curries brought by East Indians comes its perfect culinary accomplice-- chutney-- to somehow balance the hot, spicy flavor. Strangely, the sweet and sour nature of chutney does the same when made with sweet tropical fruits, especially everyone's favorite, mango chutney (served with rotis at Roti Palace). Other chutney varieties include pineapple- coconut (Pam's Kitchen), papaya (Sunny Caribbee) and banana- lemon (with conch ravioli at Tradewinds).

Hot Pepper Sauces. Traditionally used fresh, peppers (chilies), beginning with the Arawaks, have also been made into hot pepper sauces of all kinds (hot pepper relish at Pam's Kitchen) throughout the Caribbean, generally based on the Scotch Bonnet and bird peppers as in jerk seasoning.

Scotch Bonnet Pepper

Called wiri wiri in Jamaica, the Scotch Bonnet is grown and used in the Caribbean (photo: hotsauceandsalsa). Like a lantern-shaped walnut in a rainbow of colors, and distinguished by its namesake wrinkled crown, the fiery hot Scotch Bonnet scorches the tongue, occupying the top of the pepper heat scale with the related, but distinct, Mexican habanero used in the Americas. See more here, especially on handling this pepper.

Seasonings. Locally called seasonings, bouquets of thyme, parsley and other herbs, together with trays of spices and other wonders are sold in open air markets throughout the Caribbean baskets. See more on Seasonings and their use here.

Also, packaged seasonings can be purchased from Sunny Caribbee's Road Town shop on Main Street.

Coriander or Cilantro. Known as coriander in the Spanish Caribbean and as Chinese parsley in Asia, cilantro is a widespread term for referring to its lacy green and heavily aromatic fresh leaves (which do not dry well). However, its seeds are often called coriander, their sweet musky fragrance conveying the herb's aroma, especially notable in Indian mixed spices such as curry powder.

MaverickSeaFareCover2.jpg (5690 bytes)Seasoned Salt. Salt is still harvested and sold at Salt Island in the BVI. Once an important stop for the British Royal Navy, salt-based curing (see salt fish) and seasoning is still practiced in the British and U.S Virgin Islands and elsewhere. Here is a recipe for seasoned salt from Maverick Sea Fare (see review).

Sauces. Along with seasonings and condiments, sauces impact the flavor of any food, and island sauces come in a blizzard of styles, from Spainish salsas to tropical fruit-based glazes to West Indian or Creole sauces.

Sauces may be differentiated based on mix or exclusion of stock (broth), flour, cream, rum, greens, okra, tomato and chile peppers as well as that whole separate flavoring agenda--fats and oils such as butter, bacon and peanut oil.

West Indian Sauce. One basic Creole or West Indian sauce may be made by "flavoring" butter or other cooking oil by sautéing onion, garlic, chile peppers and other items in it, then adding red and green bell peppers, tomatoes and seasonings, often adding homemade broth (see recipe). Sometimes everything is cooked at once, often with the main entree.

Stock (Broth). In professional hotel cooking, stock was made utilizing rigorous procedures in what was the basis of classical French sauces, and thereby the underpinnings of this magnificent cuisine.

Homemade Broth. Now more informally called broth, homemade stock is created in traditional island cooking, by boiling and simmering chicken, meat or fish bones (or crustacean shell), down to a lively, enveloping medium for a sauce or soup. Flavor is enhanced by adding a bouquet of seasonings as well as vegetables like celery and onion. See Mrs. Scatliffe's Coconut Chicken.

Salsa. In Caribbean cooking, sauce may be called salsa, the Spainish term, and may refer to condiments like a hot pepper sauce, often added as an ingredient, as well as an accompanying stage in the cooking, sometimes served as a separate dish (see recipes).

Salsa can refer to various sauces or, more strictly, that brightly decorative condiment based on colorful yellow and red bell peppers in lime juice or vinegar with onions, tomatoes, chile peppers and seasonings. Instead of tomatoes  or lettuce, island countries favor salsas (and salads) with tropical fruits, beans and avocados, whose "spices" paradoxically counteract the climate's heat and humidity.

Sofrito. In Puerto Rico, Sofrito is a condiment-like sauce used in many ways (sofrito grilled bread recipe-- using saffron for annatto), much like Creole sauce varied with coriander (cilantro) and other seasonings, to which salt pork and ham is traditionally added to make the full dish.

Fats & Oils. The cooking oil of choice in the Caribbean is coconut oil from the coconut palm. The less saturated peanut oil is also very popular here and in many parts of the world, notable also for its ability to hold up under high heat.

Annatto Oil. The coloring agent of cheddar cheese, annatto, also called achiote, seeds are used in the Caribbean to color cooking oils and rice as a bright yellow-orange substitute for saffron. See infused oils. Add chile peppers for some heat.

Folk Art Garnish. Stick the annatto oil in a plastic squeeze bottle, and garnish dishes coulis-like with its beautiful color and delicate flavor. Instead of decorating with  "cuisine" abstract patterns, squirt-draw some cooking folk art and drag a line through it to indicate motion  (see a Callaloo example). This also works well with fruit purees and condiments, especially chutneys.

Torch. Naturally, in an open-to-the-outdoor tropical climate, barbecuing is very popular, using charcoal and fires often made from local wood, which contributes its distinctive flavor. Instead of pimento wood, a wood from Anegada aptly called torch is used (for Smoked Parrotfish and Blue Marlin at the Bitter End's Clubhouse).

Fruits

The tropics are naturally bursting with an abundance of fruits.

Mango. This peach-like sticky sweet sensation is seen being sucked on throughout the islands when its leafy branches become heavy with this summer scented fruit. Mango appears as fruit, beverage, cocktail (Mango Bellini at Capriccio di Mare), desert (mango cheesecake, a specialty at Spaghetti Junction), entree (Mango Chicken at Fisher's Cove Restaurant) and chutney (Pam's Kitchen).

Coconut.  That trademark of the tropics, the coconut palm produces a young and green nut that can be tapped as a refreshing drink. The familiar brown appearance represents the mature and dry stage of the coconut when the flavor goes into the white meat on the inside of the shell and makes it sweeter.

Coconut water is made by squeezing through a cheesecloth a mixture of grated coconut meat and boiling water. Coconut cream results from letting the milk stand and separate.

One of the most versatile tropical fruits, coconut is widely used to make coconut chips, as a ingredient in baking, such as coconut bread (Cline's Bakery), as the cooking oil of choice for the Caribbean (and for U.S. theatre popcorn), in drinks such as pina coladas (Pusser's Porch Grill) and as a distinctive entree item, such as Chicken & Coconut (Mrs. Scatliffe's) or Coconut Shrimp (Deadman's Beach Bar & Grill).

Pineapple. We forget that the pineapple, now so usual, was once considered so exotic that sea captains would stick it on their front fences when back home in temperate climes as a decorative sign of hospitality. An indigenous fruit used by the Awawaks, delicious with avacado, papaya, and banana, pineapple is extensively used in everything from salads to deserts (pies at Cline's Bakery).

Bananas. A staple of Caribbean cuisine, these bunch fruits of the banana tree come in many varieties, from tiny finger bananas (figis) to large, black-skinned plantains. Usually regarded as a vegetable, the larger plantains are cooked green or ripe, as a starch and a traditional accompaniment to meats as well as fried to make plaintain chips.

The more familiar banana also is cooked green as a vegetable in many variations, and is often boiled for breakfast in Jamaica. The ripe banana is found in everything from bread and pastry, french toast (Peter Island), drinks (Jolly Roger), curried soup (Sugar Mill), chutney and jam, and deserts, most famously as flambee with rum (a favorite of Napolean Bonapate). In addition, the banana leaf is traditionally used to wrap food for cooking in the place of parchment paper or foil.

Limes. Brought to the Caribbean by Columbus, limes are inevitable as a flavoring, garnish, and, as ceviche, a method, in itself, of "cooking" or marinating seafood in lime juice, such as Conch "Souse" Salad (Bitter End Clubhouse).

Vegetables

Tamarind. This tropical tree looks like a locust treee with 3-6" long brown bulbous pods, whose date-like pulp is used to make tamarind nectar, a fruit-drink concentrate that makes a refreshing, tart drink and furnishes the principal ingredient of Worcestershire sauce.

Breadfruit. Brought to the Caribbean by the famous Captain Bligh from Tahiti, breadfruit is a cannonball shaped vegetable (see drawing) with the bland taste and versatile use of a potato (Char- Roasted Baked or Mashed recipe).

Eggplant. Available all year, the very tender Caribbean eggplant is a small lavender or white vegetable.

Christophene. Of a delicate flavor similar to light summer squash, Christophene, known as chayote in California, is a slightly prickly, pale green, pear-shaped vegetable (with Seared Red Snapper in a Creole Sauce at The Pavilion).

Roots

Ground Provisions. These gnarled denizens of the earth have a confused nomenclature to detract from their sex appeal, but nonetheless provide competition for the omnipresent potato, with its pommes frites or french fries conquering the world through the "fast food" and its notorious culinary companion, the "hamburger." But I digress. See ground provisions under Island Farming.

Cassava. An indigenous root used by the Arawaks, cassava has many uses. The delicious cassava (also called manioc and yuca) bread, with its slightly nutty taste, is the traditional bread of the Caribbean (Grilled Garlic Cassava Bread recipe), called pain de kassav (recipe) by French-speaking Haitians and pan de casabe by the Spanish Caribbean. Cassava is also used to make tapioca and Jamaican flatcakes, called bammie.

Tannia. Also known as malanga in Cuba and yautia in Puerto Rico, tannia is fabulous as fried tannia chips.

Peanuts. Eaten whole, sometimes roasted, as an appetiser, peanuts in the Caribbean often are ground to flavor everything from soups to deserts.

Deserts

As you might imagine, deserts abound in the Caribbean with the combination of tropical fruits and exotic spices. Shops carry sweets such as brown sugar fudges, candied tropical fruits, coconut- based sweets, and crystallized ginger.

Fruit "cheese," such as mango or guava , is a jellylike paste made form boiling down the fruit pulp with sugar and sometimes gelatin.

Chocolate. From cocoa beans brought to the Old World by Columbus, a chocolate craze swept Europe in the 17th century, when chocolate houses appeared, like coffee houses today, after the Spanish added sugar, cinnamon and vanilla to create an "ambrosial" drink.

Logs, rolls and bars of roasted and ground "bittersweet" chocolate appear in Caribbean markets.

Vanilla. A gift of the new world, this climbing orchid produces an fleshy, oily pod, 6-9" long, called the vanilla bean. Often split lengthwise, vanilla beans can be put in a bottle of rum as a Vanilla Rum flavoring agent.

Cookbook. This extraordinary cookbook is one of the primary resources for this article. See review of The Sugar Mill Caribbean Cookbook: Casual and Elegant Recipes Inspired by the Islands.

Basically, the Sugar Mill restaurant has created a tradition from many years of fusing the best of international cooking with exotic, tropical elements-- a process that has been going on in the Caribbean for a very long time-- in contrast to the short period of experimentation in contemporary cuisine.

Now. The difficult, undecipherable, fattening sauces of the old, predominately French, hotel and upscale restaurant cuisine have long since given way to the "nouvelle cuisine" with its emphasis on healthier food and fresh, local ingredients.

And Italian restaurants (Calamaya) stepped in to provide that cuisine with "provincial" dishes emphsizing fresh seafood, cafe style expresso drinks and especially delicious pastas as the modern starch of choice.

The trends have been anything but consistent. "Low carb" diets, such as South Beach (Miami), avoid starches such as pastas. And after the emphasis on minimally cooked vegetables, there has been a resurgence of  traditional "long simmered" stews, for instance.

Now there is an overall emphasis on international "ethnic" elements, such as Moroccan from the middle east or that ironically American regional variety of French exported provincial--Cajun.

Cajun's key technique, "blackened" fish is totally spice-driven, with the fish's coating of spices applied directly to a bare hot skillet to give the fish a "char" similar to certain barbecue styles.

Other regional foods such as from the southern and southwestern U.S. are now seen as "ethnic" and interesting on the world cooking stage.

International influences from the Far East especially, where that other major culinary tradition, the classic Chinese cuisine, similarly to the French, has been supplemented by first Indian and then Thai, Vietnamese and other national or ethnic foods.

So we see on Great Chefs of the World, from Tortola's Sugar Mill Restaurant, the appetiser Saltfish Spring Rolls--the vibrant Vietnamese replacement for the dowdy Chinese egg roll with a tropical twist.

Cuisine has gone international in the search for taste sensations and, literally, everything under the sun is tried, including long forgotten "greens" and wild plants.

In the islands, tropical fruits, roots, and a bewildering range of ingredients and techniques from around the world can help provide the basis for a new "classical" cuisine, that delights the taste buds in light, healthy combinations, such as pasta with conch sauce or curried banana soup, that only an international cultural crossroads like the Caribbean may engender with its long traditions in integrating the international and the exotic.