Caribbean food is a vast and varied cuisine, with historic influences from all over the globe. Eating in Crown Heights, you’ll find curries and roti drawn from Indian tradition and dishes like cou-cou with roots in Africa, alongside local specialities like fresh juices and jerk chicken. The dishes below are a great introduction to the food of the islands.
In the Jamaican culinary style known as jerk, meat is cooked in a hot spice mixture that is native to the Caribbean country. Jerk seasoning relies on two main ingredients, allspice and Scotch bonnet peppers, and also can include cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, garlic, and other spices; it’s used either as a dry rub, a semi-dry paste, or a wet marinade. Jerk chicken is most popular here in the U.S., but jerk pork is just as common in Jamaica.
The most popular method for jerking is to use old oil barrel halves, in which oil barrels are cut lengthwise and outfitted with hinges and several ventilation holes for the smoke. This method evolved over time as a portable alternative to pit fires. Some Jamaican and Caribbean restaurants in Crown Heights use wood-burning ovens or kitchen grills to create the smoky jerk flavor; fresh green wood is what’s used most frequently in Jamaica. —Patty Diez
Roti and doubles both have their origins in the daily fare of Indian indentured laborers sent to work on Caribbean plantations starting in the 19th century. While roti is also the name for a flatbread eaten throughout India and Southeast Asia, if you order roti at a West Indian cafe, it refers to a roti wrap, where the bread surrounds a filling of meat or vegetables. There’s also buss up shut, a paratha griddled, pulled apart by wooden paddles, and served in a heap, resembling a ripped “busted up shirt,” which gives it its name.
Doubles (always plural) are a preferred street food in Trinidad where they are popular at breakfast. True to their name, doubles consist of double stacks of an airy, fried bread called bara separated by a layer of saucy, curried chickpeas, or chana, and garnished with pepper sauce, tamarind chutney, or green mango pickle. By necessity, they come wrapped in foil or paper to help contain the mess. Other than the chana filling, the occasional use of lentil flour in the bread dough is another reminder of the Indian influence on Caribbean cuisine. —Tammie Teclemariam
The Indian influence embedded in Caribbean cuisine is evident in the popularity of curry powder, which shows up as a seasoning on almost every menu in the form of fillings and breads like roti, patties, and in the stews themselves. Although curry denotes different spice blends and dishes worldwide, it was probably Madras curry powder that made its way to the islands. Curry’s arrival in the Caribbean coincided with that of Indian indentured workers; the British, who maintained a successful spice trade from the Madras port in East India, brought both to the islands.
For the most part, laborers working on plantations ate inexpensive meals based on pulses seasoned with curry powder; these dishes soon became a part of the Caribbean food tradition. Between the imported spices and locally available ingredients like goat, allspice, and Scotch bonnet peppers, curry in the Caribbean has developed a unique identity and flavor profile, with individual islands maintaining their own recipes and styles. —Tammie Teclemariam
Bake, or fry bake, is a version of fried bread found throughout the Caribbean. Depending on the island, they’re also known as fried dumplings or johnny cake. These fried breads vary slightly in thickness, but are all eaten in similar ways. At their most essential, bakes are made using just flour, salt, leavening, and fat, and are much like the fried breads once eaten by Black slaves on plantations — valued for being filling, inexpensive, and long-lasting.
Today, some recipes are enriched with sugar or milk, and bakes are available in bakeries and street carts. They’re sold sliced and filled with saltfish or as an accompaniment to dishes like callaloo. One of the most popular ways to eat bake is in bake and shark, where a freshly fried bake is split in half and stacked with pieces of fried shark, cabbage, hot sauce, and chutney. It’s a popular sandwich across Trinidad and Tobago, though it’s considered a specialty of Maracas Bay, where the sharks are caught. —Tammie Teclemariam
The island of Barbados is known to many as “the land of the flying fish,” home to a family of fish that leaps out of the water with the help of wing-like fins. The national dish of this Caribbean island: cou-cou and flying fish. In a style similar to polenta and grits, cou-cou (a dish with African origins) is made of cornmeal and okra.
The flying fish is typically marinated in a seasoning made of onion, garlic, thyme, parsley, and other herbs before being steamed, or more commonly, fried. Traditionally, the dish is finished with a tomato and hot pepper sauce. Recent pollution and Bajan overfishing pushed the species closer to Tobago, about 150 miles southwest of Barbados. Still, cou-cou and flying fish remains a coveted delicacy in Bajan cuisine. —Patty Diez
With a bounty of fruits available thanks to the tropical climate, fresh juice is everywhere you find Caribbean food. It can be as simple as pressed sugarcane, orange juice, and the water from a young coconut. Or it might contain any number of ingredients, like the offerings at juice bars dotting the streets of Crown Heights. Most of these juice bars are informed by Ital, a set of dietary guidelines observed by Rastafarians extolling a largely vegan diet. Menus refer to juice blends by the health concern they are believed to address, though most people go purely for refreshment.
Ginger, whose flavor pairs well with spiced foods, finds its way into those juice blends but also shines solo in ginger beer or ale, both homemade and bottled. Sorrel, a sweetened infusion of hibiscus blossoms and spices, is a requisite around Christmas in Jamaica where it is served with fruitcake. In Brooklyn, it can be had year round, found refrigerated in plastic bottles at jerk chicken shops and Caribbean bakeries. Sorrel can be made with fresh or dry hibiscus, though dried is more available and less expensive. Another popular drink is mauby, made with bark from a tree in the buckthorn family along with sugar and spices such as cinnamon or anise. —Tammie Teclemariam