Everything you need to know about vegan Caribbean cuisine

Every June, the country celebrates Caribbean Heritage Month. In all transparency, when we discussed how best to recognize this celebration of culture, we decided that now was not the time to shop around for recipes. We had to ask the experts, and we did. Denai “Dee” Moore, food blogger and pop-up queen Dee’s Table and Taymer Mason, food scientist and author of Caribbean vegan, agreed to offer their perspective on Caribbean food traditions. We hope you enjoy delving into this rich history and learning more about Caribbean (vegan) cuisine.

@dees_table/Instagram

It’s a region, not a country.

For those of us unfamiliar with the Caribbean, the name probably conjures up a remote vacation destination with sandy beaches, but can you mark it on a map? The Caribbean consists of a collection of islands located in the Caribbean Sea, located southeast of Florida and northeast of South America. There are approximately 7,000 islands, 13 countries and more than a dozen territories. All this to say that while there are similarities, there are also differences between the island nations. Mason claimed, “If you have no previous knowledge of the Caribbean, you would think it’s a big place where everyone talks the same way and eats the same kind of food. Each island is unique and this must be respected. Eating Jamaican food – while it’s Caribbean – for us in Barbados is like eating food from a totally different country.

Kitchen breakdown

Moore described the region’s cuisine as “fusion cuisine,” and Mason’s detailed explanation supports that definition. “Each island has a different historical background,” she began. “Islands that were colonized by France have more French-influenced dishes. In France, they make a lot of vegetable stuffing like peppers and tomatoes and this is caribéized in the French West Indies. In Barbados, some African dishes come across as mash or pounded yam – even Cou Cou (okra polenta made from cornmeal) has African roots. Immigration and ethnicity also play an important role in food culture. For example, in Trinidad and Tobago, there are more people of Indian descent, so there are more vegetarian and curry dishes. Caribbean cuisine is full of flavors and ultimately a melting pot of cultures like indigenous, African, Asian and even European.

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@dees_table/Instagram

A food sample

What amazing dishes come from such a mix of international influences? In Barbados, Mason said British-style puddings are popular, as well as a seemingly American mac and cheese called macaroni pie. She calls it “the quintessence of the Caribbean” because of its distinct spices and flavors. Looking at the region as a whole, each nation seems to have its own version of a patty, although Jamaican patties have crossed the seas and popped up all over the world. Moore added that plantains are a staple in her kitchen and specific ingredients such as Scotch bonnets, scallions, thyme, nutmeg and chili peppers help her recreate the taste of Jamaica. Finally, Moore grew up eating rice and peas in coconut milk. “A cultural thing is to make a big batch on Sunday and serve as a side dish [throughout the week],” she explained.

Good culinary memories

Mason and Moore both described eating memories of fresh fruit in early childhood. For Mason, his childhood in Barbados was marked by golden apples (called plums in Jamaica) sprinkled with salt. “The salt helped amp up the taste of the sweet fruit and it always made me want more,” she explained. She also thought back to her father’s holiday baking tradition, when he baked coconut bread, a dense bread with “almond and vanilla notes”. Asked about her Jamaican upbringing, Moore cited days as a child anxiously waiting for mangoes to ripen. It is a process of patience that she practices to this day.

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@dees_table/Instagram

Foods you need to eat now

We asked both women about their favorite foods and we started salivating. Moore describes Stew Peas as his “all-time favorite Jamaican dish”. She swaps the traditional salted pork for smoked dried mushrooms to veganize this “cosy and hearty” dish. On the sweet side, the vegan rum and raisin ice cream is her favorite. Mason cited Barbados’ national dish – Cou Cou and flying fish. She veganizes the dish by replacing the fish with soursop (a fruit that takes on the texture of fish when cooked). She also listed a St. Lucia fried bread made with flour, water, salt and baking powder.

Assumptions you are probably wrong about

Although there are a few authentic vegan and Caribbean Caribbean restaurants in the United States, the cuisine is still not represented and not well understood. Not all dishes are spicy, and pineapple is much less popular than you might think. Additionally, jerk seasoning is uniquely Jamaican – it is not part of the food culture of all Caribbean nations. Finally, it can be veganized. Just scroll through Moore’s tantalizing Instagram account, cook with Mason on her Gourmet Islands Love YouTube channel, or follow the Paratha Roti recipe in Caribbean Vegan. Caribbean cuisine is everyday cuisine. It’s comforting, nutritious and satisfying, and it deserves to be enjoyed every month of the year.

For more vegan Caribbean dishes, read:
Fried Vegan Caribbean Jackfruit Fritters
Jamaican vegan curry with creamy coconut milk
Iconic New York chain Golden Krust debuts beyond Jamaican beef patties

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Michael M. Tomlin