Want to learn about Barbados's cuisine and Bajan food? Take a virtual trip to this Caribbean island with David Carter, chef and founder of Smokestak in London. Check out this recipe for Bajan chicken here, then try our best ever Caribbean food recipes and guide to Cuban-American cuisine.
Smokestak’s homage to US-style barbecue has attracted a dedicated following, with diners flocking to the Shoreditch restaurant for dishes such as crispy ox cheek with anchovy mayo, and cult brisket buns. Founder David Carter’s roots, however, lie in Barbados, where the likes of rum shops and fish-frys, pepper sauce and salt fish cakes define the island’s food scene.
1) Grilled mahi mahi
The best is at Oistins – a local fish market by day, fish-fry/grill by night. It has fast become one of the islands most famed hot spots, especially on a Friday night. Locals and tourist alike converge in masses to take in the atmosphere. Expect big open grills, picnic trestle tables, open-air market vibes, and hearty portions. Beyond the food, there are street hawkers selling local crafts, steel-pan drums and karaoke. Mahi mahi, known locally as dolphin, is a local meaty white fish. It takes to the grills particularly well. Undeniably, my death row meal.
2) Rum shops
A rum shop to Barbados is what a pub is to England, but a very dressed-down version. It’s part of our culture. There is no beer on tap, only bottled. There is no 25ml pour of spirit, nor 50ml. There are no pours, period. Bottles of liquor only. A rum shop is a glorified off licence with picnic tables out front covered by rusting corrugated sheets. You buy your bottle of liquor, buy a mixer (if you choose), politely ask for a bucket of ice, are given a cup and on your way you go. More established rum shops tend to extend and build on kitchens. These are not restaurants but aunties and grannies cooking straight from the heart. One of the more famed rum shops of our time is Lemon Arbour located in St John. Soul food at its best, it attracts people of every age and from all walks of life. It would not be uncommon to see the prime minister sitting alongside toilers of the land shooting the breeze. Expect fried chicken, baked pork, stewed oxtail, grilled fish, rice and peas, macaroni pie, plantain, barbecue pigtails and breadfruit among the many menu delights.
3) Crop Over Festival/Kadooment
Our local carnival. Historically, it is a celebration to mark the end of the sugarcane harvest and season, hence the name Crop Over. It is celebrated on the first Monday in August where we take to the streets to masquerade and conga-line in full-blown costume right through Bridgetown ending up on Spring Garden highway. Streets are lined with food hawkers and the island comes alive. I still hold many a fond memory of eating pickled seacat (octopus) and roast breadfruit roadside.
4) Pudding and souse
A traditional Saturday staple lunch for many a local. It’s a dish with roots back to slavery when the offcuts and less favourable parts of the pig were given to the slaves. Taking ingredients from the land, they used local sweet potato (the flesh is whiter in colour and it is much starchier than orange sweet potato) and made a blood pudding of sorts. The sweet potato is mixed with pig blood, scotch bonnet chillies, chives, thyme, marjoram, cloves and other spices, before being stuffed into pig intestines and steamed. The souse is pickled pork off-cuts, essentially – pig ear, tail, trotters, snout. The pork is boiled and mixed with more scotch bonnet chillies, lime and finely chopped cucumber. In recent years the dish has become gentrified, substituting a brown colouring for pig’s blood and it is seldom seen stuffed in intestine. More commonly, and much less labour-intensively, it is seen in a mash format and the souse now uses any cut of pork, including prime cuts.
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5) Fish cutter
A pan-fried piece of swordfish, heavily marinated in bajan seasoning and served in salt bread (a local bap). Made fresh and served hot – I could live on this. The best on the island is from Cuzz – a fish stand/shack located on Pebbles Beach. It’s a national treasure serving one dish, a fish ‘cutter’.
6) Bajan pepper sauce
Scotch bonnet, the key ingredient here, is my favourite hot chilli pepper because it adds a fruitiness and sweetness versus just heat. The local version is balanced with mustard and vinegar along with aromatics such as onion, garlic and turmeric.
7) Rum punch
Our national drink. And if it isn’t, it should be. The rhyme goes: one of sour (fresh lime juice), two of sweet (sugar), three of strong (dark rum), four of weak (water). Once upon a time, the main industry in Barbados was sugar cane. Tourism has since taken over but much of the arable land is still used for sugar cane production. The two most common derivatives are brown sugar and rum. The precise measurements on the above recipe are varied as are the precise ingredients when it comes to rum punch. Four of weak is generally made up in part water, part crushed ice – year-round temperatures of 30C generally melt the latter rather quickly. The selection of dark rums used is vast. While demerara sugar is mostly used, sugar syrup, falernum and dark brown sugar are not uncommon. The final punch can be spiked with Angostura bitters, shaved nutmeg and any number of local juices. Every mum thinks hers is the best and well, quite frankly, my mum’s is the best. Top tip: make the punch in advance and store it in the freezer for an icy-slushy finish. Serve with plenty of ice.
8) Winter sun
This season is the most celebrated time of year to visit the island. A welcome escape from dark, dreary UK winters, it is the polar opposite in weather. Expect bright sunshine and mild temperatures of 25-30C with a cool breeze. It is ever so slightly cooler than summer, which can be sweltering. Conversely, autumn is regarded as the wet/hurricane season, even though Barbados has been very blessed without major incident since 1955. Still, the weather can be wetter than normal. And any tropical storm activity in the Caribbean region can draw all the breeze out of the atmosphere making it hot, humid and sticky.
9) Bajan seasoning
Delicate, refined flavours are not the reason you visit Barbados. A piece of a lightly seasoned fish, caught straight off the boat, will never make it on the grill on its own. A cardinal sin by many international chef standards, who celebrate and champion
a single ingredient. In Barbados, it has to be ‘seasoned’ (which means marinated in the UK) or ‘juked’ where incisions are made in the fish or meat and bajan seasoning is stuffed inside, especially on larger cuts like whole chickens or legs of pork. Much like rum punch, the recipes are varied, but the common denominator is that you use ingredients of the land and ones which are local to Barbados. The flavours are bold and pungent but equally delicious. Fish, chicken and pork alike get this treatment, even beef and lamb. It’s a religion.
10) Salt fish cakes
Croquettes, essentially. Salted cod was first brought here from the British Isles. Pungent in its own right, it is blended with flour, scotch bonnet chillies and local herbs to balance out the salted fish before being deep-fried. The resulting salt fish cakes should be golden crispy on the outside, pillowy soft inside.