Although the Lowcountry’s Caribbean connection runs deep — Charleston was largely founded by settlers from Barbados — it’s not always easy to find Caribbean food. First off, you have to know what you’re looking for. Taken as a whole, mix 500 years of cultures and food from Europe, Africa, the Americas, and Asia and you get an idea of what makes Caribbean cuisine what it is — a giant food mélange focused through the lens of a tropical climate. European colonization combined with native tribes like the Caribs, Arawak, and Taino, millions of African slaves, and later workers from China and India — all contribute to modern Caribbean cuisine. On every island you will find the results of what happens when these cultures commingle.
Jerk is what most people think of when they think of Caribbean food. A highly spiced marinated pork, chicken, or goat meat, laced with allspice and fiery scotch bonnet peppers, jerk is traditionally smoked over a pimento wood fire in a split 50-gallon drum. It’s thought to have been created by escaped African slaves, known as the Maroons, along with Taino natives that preserved meat by smoking it with traditional spices. Like jerk, most Caribbean meats are roasted or grilled instead of fried. There are many, like food writer Robert Moss, who believes the Taino barbacoa tradition was the start of what we call barbecue. “Philologists point to the Caribbean, and they generally agree that the word itself originated among the Taino Indians, whose term for that frame of green sticks [that meat was cooked on] was baribicu, which became barbacoa in Spanish and barbecue in English,” Moss writes in Barbecue Lover’s the Carolinas.
African cuisine is still the bedrock on which many Caribbean dishes are set. Many of the core ingredients in African cuisine, like casava, yams, black-eyed peas, okra, callalo, sesame, rice, and spices are found across the islands. The ubiquitous rice and peas has roots in Ghana and other West African countries, as do black-bean fritters called akkra (not to be confused with the also-present Guyanese rooted Trinidadian fried salt fish cakes, Accra). Ackee, a lychee fruit, came to the islands from Ghana early in its history and is common on menus served along saltfish with rice and peas. The Spanish introduced fruit trees like oranges, dates, figs, ginger, and coconuts, along with the ever-present plantains, and the cash crop of sugar cane. The vinegary Jamaican escovitch fish, on the other hand, is a direct descendent from the Spanish Jewish dish escabeche, and it’s still extremely popular. The Jamaican patty is one of the island’s most famous dishes. Similar to a Spanish empanada or Cornish pasty, the patty is a flaky turmeric-colored pastry filled with meat or vegetables and Indian-influenced spices. Cuban food is heavily influenced by Spain, its main colonizer. The Canary Islands, a former Spanish colony and one from which many Cubans can trace their roots, lends a lot of its dishes to Cuba like ropa vieja (rich shredded braised beef stew) and the omnipresent mojo sauce. The Americas provided corn, potatoes, squash, papaya, avocado, and chilies. The bittersweet cassereep-flavored pepper pot in Cuba can be traced to Guyana.
But back to those Barbadian roots. Paul Yellin, a Barbados transplant and owner of soon-to-open rum bar Cane, says that his home island’s traditional dish of flying fish and cornmeal may have been the precursor to one of the Lowcountry’s signature dishes. “I’m pretty confident that the world famous Charleston shrimp and grits is a take on the cou cou, cornmeal and okra porridge, of Barbados. Cornmeal and breadfruit that was brought in by Captain Bligh — of Mutiny on the Bounty — and it was a staple used to provide inexpensive nourishment for the slaves and supplemented with small bits of meat or chicken or seafood that could be caught in the tidal pools and creeks of the area. As time has passed, the dish has morphed into a risotto-style wet-grain dish that the city has become known for.”
After Great Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807 and slavery itself in 1833, indentured and later free Asian labor (mainly Indian and to a lesser extent Chinese) came to the Caribbean to work in the sugar cane fields to fill the labor vacuum from the loss of African slave labor; fleeing famine or having been tricked. The majority of these workers were male, and with the lack of Chinese and Indian women (some estimates put four women to every 100 men), intermarriage was a common occurrence between the Asian laborers and African, Portuguese, and other ethnic groups. These marriages helped form the fusion of culture and food. You can see their influences in dishes and ingredients like curried goat, saltfish, rice, and mustard.
The list of foreign influences on Caribbean food is too long to suss out in a small article like this, but the term “melting pot,” while overused, fits. We don’t have every island or dish represented in Charleston, but we have a few places you can try curried goat, jerk pork, a Cuban coffee, or handcrafted rum.
3309 Rivers Ave.
Ambrose Campbell spent time in Charleston in the ’90s while in the Navy and returned in 2014 for work as an engineer for Google before opening Caribbean Delight in January on Rivers Avenue with the goal of serving authentic Caribbean food, — he’s succeeding. Campbell’s mildly spiced jerk chicken is his most popular dish, while the escovitch fish a close second. Call ahead because he says he sells out of the escovitch frequently. Campbell will soon offer fresh juices like cucumber, carrot, and pumpkin.
4226 Rivers Ave.
One of the longer-established Caribbean restaurants in town, Jamaican native Devon Henderson’s place is in a small strip mall on Rivers. Reggae Grill’s jerk chicken is its specialty — it’s not overly hot but well spiced and extremely tender. Daily specials include curry goat, pineapple chicken, ackee, saltfish, and stewed turkey wings. The oxtails, made with rich sauce and served with a generous portions of cabbage, plantains, and rice and peas, are terrific.
616 Meeting St.
Cortaditos opened last year in the building at the base of the Ravenel Bridge on Meeting promising “a Latin taste in Charleston.” You’ll be able to fill your Cubano-sandwich needs with their house-roasted pork on crusty bread, charge your batteries with the restaurant’s namesake Cuban coffee topped with steamed milk, or start the day with a number of Latin pastries. Their traditional sandwich list hits on the classics. The Elena Ruiz is a sandwich named after a wealthy Havana socialite in the 1920s who always requested the odd combination of cream cheese, strawberry jam, and roast turkey from the El Carmelo restaurant. Eventually tired of having to explain her request every time, the socialite asked them to add it to the menu. They did. If that combo isn’t your speed, the Pan con Lechon filled with Cuban pulled pork, onions, and mojo might be. Cortaditos also has fresh smoothies, empanadas, and Cuban classics like puerca asado (slow-roasted pork topped with a mojo sauce) and ropa vieja.
Cane Rhum Bar & Caribbean Kitchen
251 E Bay St.
Rum fans are counting the days until Cane opens in the old Big John’s Tavern space on East Bay. Owner Paul Yellin describes his rum list as a “reflection of the Caribbean and its influences, so there are English styles (dark and strong made from Molasses), Spanish styles (gold and light, also made from molasses except Cacahca which is made from juice), and French styles or agricoles (clear and strong, made from sugar cane juice).” Expect classic rum cocktails like the Dark and Stormy and Painkiller and smaller Caribbean plates including Jamaican patties, Stamp and Go (salted codfish fritters), a Hatian fried pork dish called griot, jerk chicken, drunken pork, and a catch-of-the-day feature.
Caribbean Creole Food Truck
Chef Frisco Thumbtzen, who previously operated the Cajun Kountry Café, now runs his award-winning Caribbean Creole truck serving up Cajun Creole, Cuban, Jamaican, and other Caribbean standards. From the Afro-Cuban ropa vieja to conch fritters, curry goat, or smoked gator po’ boys, the Caribbean Creole food truck should cover your island lunch needs. Like most food trucks, his schedule is ever-changing so check out the website for a calendar.