The Caribbean region may be noted for gorgeous beaches and a slow-paced lifestyle, but it’s food that really defines the culture. Nothing illustrates the signature Caribbean mix of cultural influences like the cheap and tasty morsels sold on street corners, at outdoor markets and at roadside stands. Popular street treats like savoury Trinidadian doubles dripping with channa (curried chickpeas) and addictive Puerto Rican/Cuban/Dominican chicharrones fried to crunchy pork rind perfection are part of daily Caribbean life.
Each island boasts its own street specialty, and I’ve narrowed it down to a concise list. So here is my list of five can’t-miss Caribbean street dishes:
1. Bake and Shark – Trinidad & Tobago
The luscious pairing of freshly caught shark, deep-fried on fried dough (ironically called a “bake”) supplies an unforgettable taste sensation. Sold throughout the twin island country, the typical 20 to 25-minute wait attests to the dish’s popularity. Besides fresh ingredients, the key to the flavour of Bake and Shark is the condiments. Roadside stands usually display sauces lined up for personalized selection, but the crucial picks include garlic sauce, pepper sauce, shadow bennie (a local herb similar to cilantro), tamarind chutney and pineapple.
2. Patties – Jamaica
Flaky and golden half-moon pastries hold the winning ingredients for the most satisfying snack in the Caribbean. Traditionally filled with seasoned ground beef, patties can also contain curried vegetables, chicken and sometimes seafood. A product of the English colonialist influence, the patty is the Jamaican take on the English turnover. Served with slices of thick coco bread, patties can even make a hardy meal.
3. Saltfish Cakes/Bacalaitos – Barbados, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic
Fried, salted cod makes an appearance in many dishes throughout the Caribbean, but the fritter version is the street food variation that’s munched at markets, festivals and beaches. Another British colonial influence, these are interpretations of the fried codfish in fish and chips. In Barbados, saltfish cakes are spiced up with hot pepper sauce, while in Puerto Rico, they are seasoned with garlic, cilantro and sometimes the spice mix of sofrito. In the Dominican Republic, they’re fried with cornmeal instead of flour, and sugar is added to the batter.
4. Conch Fritters – Bahamas
Conch is king in the Bahamian islands, and the shellfish is served a dozen different ways from burgers to salads—but the fritter version is the most popular, appearing everywhere from beach stands to street markets. Slightly chewy, conch fritters get chewier with the loss of freshnesss. This is one snack that is best enjoyed on the beach, for just-caught flavour.
5. Jerk Pork – Jamaica
Jerk has developed a global following in urban restaurants and bars, but nothing compares to the Jamaican original. But throwing spices and sauce on a piece of meat does not qualify as jerk—it’s more than seasoning. On Jamaican roadsides, grills are outfitted with pimento wood sticks and leaves for a slow-cooked flavour that can’t be replicated in an oven. Rubbed with native scotch bonnet peppers, allspice and a host of herbs, jerk pork is the ultimate Jamaican street food.