Caribbean Cuisines Merge and Evolve in Crown Heights

Every August, throughout a network of neighborhoods in Brooklyn referred to by locals as “Little Caribbean,” there are signals that Caribbean carnival season in New York City is upon us. The melodic sound of steel-pan drums floats through the streets, beginning around sunset and continuing throughout the night. Colorful costumes — designed with feathers, beads, rhinestones, and sequins, and drawing on the Caribbean’s Indian and African heritage — replace regular window displays in some stores, signaling to any passers-by that this is a mas camp, a place where soon-to-be carnival revelers gather to prepare for the parade. Flags wave proudly from cars, homes, and strollers. Everyone is getting ready for the West Indian American Day Parade, held each year on Labor Day, when the costumes and music of carnival serve as a backdrop to the annual culmination of hundreds of years of culinary tradition passed down through Caribbean food.

Dinner platters at Original Vegetarian & Seafood in Crown Heights.

The particular fusion of cultures found in Crown Heights and the surrounding neighborhoods is based on a history of survival. It’s also all in the nose: from the mouthwatering smell of jerk chicken escaping jerk pans to the tangy tamarind scent of the sauce that comes with a bag of savory pholourie fritters from Gloria’s or Trinidad Golden Place. Blending the pantries of India, China, Africa, colonial Europe, and the West Indies, the food of Crown Heights’ Caribbean community employs curry powder, turmeric, fiery peppers, allspice, nutmeg, thyme, and bay leaves. In endless combinations, they flavor dishes like corn soup, roti, panades, bake and shark, and pudding and souse.

Brooklyn’s Caribbean community has roots throughout the tropical region, identifying with the islands of the British West Indies and some of the Central and South American countries that surround the Caribbean Sea, including Guyana, Suriname, Belize, and French Guiana. Caribbean cuisine is varied, but most dishes found in Brooklyn map a history of migration, whether voluntary or because of brutal slavery or indentured servitude.

Caribbean food was born out of a necessity to survive in a new world and out of a fervent need to hold on to old traditions and culture. For over 200 years, England’s colonial rule of the British West Indies relied on slave labor. Britain abolished slavery in 1834, and the white Caribbean landowners sought a new source of labor for their plantations. Starting in the 1830s and continuing into the 1900s, approximately 400,000 indentured laborers were brought to British Guiana and the British West Indies from India. There were two main waves of Chinese migration, the first starting in the 1850s, and the second beginning in 1910. These workers brought with them their customs and traditions — and also their seeds, like the yardlong bean known as bora in Guyana and bodi in Trinidad, which flourished in the Caribbean climate.

Guyanese flag outside of Joy & Snook Restaurant & Bakery and Dominican frio frio vendor on Nostrand Avenue.

The ingredients, techniques, and recipes flowed and intermingled. Chow mein in a Caribbean home or restaurant is akin to what you might find at a Chinatown restaurant, but with the addition of Scotch bonnet peppers. Dhalpuri, one of two common types of West Indian roti, is made with flour and ground yellow split peas, and is used to wrap up varied combinations of curried meat and potatoes, pumpkin, chickpeas, and spinach. The former slaves and indentured servants of the Caribbean adapted each other’s influences and those of the indigenous people into their own culinary traditions, and brought them along when they left the West Indies for new homes elsewhere.

West Indians had been immigrating to America from the time of British abolition — there was a wave of immigration around World War I, and by 1930, one quarter of the population of Harlem, NY, was of West Indian descent. According to lore, it was around this time that Jessie Waddell Compton, a Harlem resident, began hosting annual costume parties to coincide with the carnival of her native Trinidad, held each year to mark the beginning of Lent. The annual parties grew, and carnival — now held in August in capitulation to the local climate — in New York City was born.

New York saw another wave of Caribbean immigration in the 1940s, as the restrictive immigration policy of 1924 — that sought to limit the number of nonwhites entering the U.S. — was loosened to address the labor shortage caused by World War II. Fifty thousand new residents came to the U.S. from the Caribbean through the decade, though when the war was over, new acts were passed that again restricted immigration on racial grounds. By the end of the decade, the West Indian population in New York was relatively small.

But the community boomed again in the 1960s, thanks to a confluence of major events around the globe. Many Caribbean islands and regions threw off their colonial governments and became independent nations. President Lyndon Johnson signed the Hart-Celler Act (The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965), reversing over 50 years of discriminatory immigration policy. At the same time, England — where many West Indian emigrants had fled in earlier decades due to its open visa policies — enacted an opposite act, restricting immigration from their former colonial states. Suddenly, the U.S. was rich in Caribbean immigrants, with the largest communities springing up in Brooklyn: Flatbush, East Flatbush, and Crown Heights. As always, they brought their deep-rooted culture, including their food, with them.

The homes best known for their delicious cooking often became de facto community centers, places for people to meet and discuss everything from politics to music to sports to food from back in the West Indies. The mood — and the table — was communal: People brought baked goods to share, or peppers or vegetables they were growing in gardens. These at-home gatherings were the beginnings of Brooklyn’s Caribbean culinary traditions.

Assorted produce for sale at Song’s Fruit and Vegetable on Nostrand Avenue in Crown Heights.

Today, in Crown Heights, there is a group of restaurants on Nostrand Avenue that collectively represent the quintessential record of Caribbean cultural influence on food in Brooklyn. Christian, the grandson of Gloria and Allan Smith, who opened Allan’s bakery in 1961 in Bedford Stuyvesant, tells stories similar to those told of Gloria Wilson by her grandson Bryan Cumberbatch — stories of Wilson’s arrival in Brooklyn in the 1960s and the opening of her restaurant Gloria’s in 1973. Winston Lewis arrived in Brooklyn in 1966 and opened Culpeppers in 1998; his former baker Emmerson opened Bajan Cafe in 2007, Winston’s cousin Nick owned an eponymous Crown Heights Caribbean staple which recently closed after decades of service. Ryan Wazzo also arrived in the 1960s and started a Caribbean food truck in front of the United Nations; in 1997 he opened Trinidad Golden Place.

The Brooklyn culinary journeys of these interconnected families all began in the 1960s, and together their legacies can be traced to at least 40 Caribbean restaurants or shops along Nostrand Avenue, spanning the blended borders of Crown Heights, Flatbush, and East Flatbush, and serving all manner of Caribbean cuisine, from Ital food — healthy, natural, mostly vegetarian dishes prepared in accordance to Rastafarian dietary guidelines — to indulgent baked goods and desserts.

Nostrand Avenue food culture.

There are now approximately four million immigrants from Caribbean nations in the U.S., three quarters of whom arrived between 1980 and 1999, adding their voices and cultures to the Caribbean communities established generations before. This third wave of Caribbean food carries forward the spirit of its predecessors, who maintained the soul of their traditions, but adapted to the climate and culture of their new home: It’s not traditional to use chocolate in your currant rolls, but Allan’s Bakery does; you’ll find panko-crusted salmon at Crown Heights restaurant The Food Sermon and tofu roti at Gloria’s. Kitchens use cilantro instead of culantro, oregano instead of broad leaf thyme.

Still, anyone walking down Nostrand Avenue today can get a feel for the heavy Caribbean influence in its shops and restaurants. The cuisine is a part of the neighborhood — its origins may be traced to the islands, but its presence is woven into the fabric of Brooklyn.