Among the 7,000 islands stretching over 2,500 square miles, there are dozens of island countries in the Caribbean.  Each has its unique style of cooking techniques, using many of the same ingredients found throughout the Caribbean, such as chili peppers (Scotch Bonnet being one of the most popular), bread fruit, conch (a large sea snail), corn, grouper, red snapper, guava, mango, coconuts, rum, passion fruit, pigeon peas, peanuts, plantains, rice and yams.

Many of the signature dishes -- such as red snapper stew, goat curry, peanut chicken stew, peas and rice, Caribbean potato salad, fried okra and rice, and rum cake -- are also called Creole cuisine. The cooking techniques and ingredients used to make these dishes were influenced by the Ciboney (the earliest inhabitants of the Caribbean islands), West African slaves, and Europeans and Far Eastern settlers, including the British, Spanish, Dutch, French, Indian and Chinese.

Street Food
Street food is very popular throughout the Caribbean. Conch fritters (made of fresh, finely chopped conch, mixed with hot and sweet peppers, celery, onions, eggs, flour, salt -- deep fried in oil), barbecued jerk chicken, sweet potato chips, roti (a fried flat bread, filled with cooked curry chicken, conch or goat meat), can be found on any downtown corner of a Caribbean city or town. Jerk cooking is open-fire pit barbecuing, practiced throughout the Caribbean and in some South American countries. Although Jamaicans claimed to be the creators of Jerk cooking, it is as diverse as Creole cooking. Chicken, beef, pork, seafood, goat or vegetables can be used to make jerk barbecue. The jerk seasoning is a dry rub or marinate made of chilies, Jamaican allspice, thyme, onion powder, salt and sugar.

Traditionally, jerk foods are made hot and spicy. However, several manufacturers have formulated milder versions of jerk foods, marinades, rubs and sauces, which can be found in grocery stores, across America. An example is Supervalu grocery chain, whose Jamaican-Style Jerk Marinade & Cooking Sauce, is sold under its premium Culinary Circle line. The sauce is packaged in 12oz bottles, made of water, sugar, orange juice concentrate, salt, lime juice, vinegar, spices, canola oil, salt, lime and molasses. Also attached is a tag of two recipes, showing consumers how to use the product:  Grilled Jerk Shrimp with a pineapple salsa and cilantro-line rice, and Jerk Chicken & Sausage with black beans & rice. Supervalu’s Culinary Circle line is a chef-inspired cuisine that mirrors today’s most popular restaurants around the world.

Soul Sisters Foods of Paterson, N.J., recently introduced a line of frozen global flavored rolls. One of them, Jerk Chicken Ja-Roll, 3oz roll made of spicy Jamaican jerk marinate chicken, collard greens, sharp cheddar cheese, onions, green peppers, tomatoes, wrapped in a crispy flavored tortilla.

ConAgra Foods launched a frozen spicy Caribbean Chicken and black beans entrée under its Healthy Choice line. This 8.5oz entrée is made of chicken tenderloin, brown rice, pineapple, black beans, corn, tomato paste, brown sugar, scallions, red peppers, vinegar, molasses, garlic, orange juice concentrate, lemon juice concentrate, spices, extra virgin olive oil, salt, flavoring and parsley flakes.

Something Sweet
Each country in the Caribbean has at least one manufacturer maker of rum. As many of the locals say, not much goes on in the Caribbean without rum. Many signature desserts use rum as a main ingredient, such as Caribbean fruit and rum cake, coconut and rum ice cream, fried bananas with sugar and rum, Caribbean spiced rice pudding, and bread pudding with rum sauce. Of course, there are hundreds of versions of rum punch recipes circulating throughout the Caribbean. A classical version is made with mixture of fresh lime juice, superfine sugar, dark rum, water, ice cubes, and orange slices for garnishing).

Another staple ingredient used in lots of Caribbean desserts is coconut. Recently, the company Brent & Sam’s from North Little Rock, Ark., launched a line of premium gourmet cookies. One of the flavors is called Caribbean Crunch (with chocolate, almonds and coconut). According to the makers, the Caribbean “crunch” comes from the almonds, coconut and oats ingredients.

Be sure to check local PBS listings in 2011 for Wilbert Jones' A Taste of Africa: Cultural and Cuisine from Casablanca to Cape Town. For more information, call 312-335-0031 or e-mail:

From the November 22, 2010, Prepared Foods E-dition