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Do you travel to eat? Are you the type to eat your way through a city? Through a country?
Travellers can practically find a burger anywhere these days, but authentic tostones or gallo pinto are best found where they were originally perfected. In the Caribbean and Central America, hundreds of years of Spanish, African and European influence meet native flavours; the fusion offers foodies an exciting culinary adventure. While many of the dishes have travelled across borders, each country has their own distinct twist. For Canadian travellers eating their way through the region, here's what you would be remiss to not sample.
Advice for travelling foodies
While the Caribbean and Central America has a lot of must-try cuisine, the quality of the food is affected by who is serving it. Picking the right restaurant is key, and knowing how to pick one is essential for travelling foodies. It's a careful balancing act between culinary pursuits and getting sick - which can leave you overly acquainted with your hotel bathroom. (No thanks!) Here are 6 golden rules for dining on the road:
Eat where the locals eat. The locals grew up on local food, and they know the restaurants that make their favourite dishes best.
Avoid tourist traps. The main street is lined with restaurants which have made their food more appearling to tourists. Don't dilute your dining experience, go locally authentic.
Don't rely on the internet. In more remote places, Yelp or TripAdvisor won't mean much anyway. You'd be hard pressed to find a review for a food stand or small cantina. Highly rated places may be packed with everyone but anyone local to boot.
Know which foods are high risk. Avoid uncooked foods, especially shellfish or salads
- Stick to bottled water
Look for lines. Trust us, this is a circumstance when queueing is a good thing. When it comes to picking street food from a mass of stalls, choosing a vendor is a lot like choosing a food truck back home; look for the longest lines.
Read up on the local dishes. You won't know what dish will haunt your fondest food dreams back home. You might also not be able to tell a regional specialty from a labourer's belly-filler if you don't at least do some research beforehand. (If you're reading this, good job!) Don't just remember the English word for the meal either.
Tamales were originally created by the Aztecs, as a meal that warriors could eat while travelling to the next battle. Since then they have become ingrained in Latin cuisine. They're popular throughout Central and South America, but nowhere is it more beloved than where it was first created: Mexico.
Made with hominy dough called masa, Tamales are stuffed with sweet or savoury fillings, and steamed in a corn husk. It's a food eaten any time of the day; it's also beloved as a comfort food. This simple dish is found everywhere from high-end restaurants to street stalls, and each region has their own unique recipe. That makes the tamale worth sampling from Baja California all the way to the Yucatan Peninsula.
Travellers who have eaten Tamales in Mexico:
Like the omelette, chilaquiles rojos is the "kitchen sink" recipe of Mexican breakfasts. Created to use up leftover tortillas and salsa from the day before, chilaquiles rojos is comprised of salsa and other ingredients poured over lightly fried tortilla squares. They're then simmered until the tortillas soften. Toppings often include refried beans, eggs, onions, and a variety of meats. While each region has its own version of the dish, it is only truly chilaquiles rojos if it uses red salsa. Other varieties utilize green salsa, mole sauce, or - in the state of Sinaloa - a spicy white cream sauce.
Travellers who have eaten chilaquiles rojos in Mexico:
The introduction of pork to Mexico by Spanish conquistadores would spark culinary innovation in the state of Michoacán. You can thank them for the emblematic and mouth-watering dish of carnitas.
Traditional carnitas involve slowly roasting pork shoulder in a copper pot with a number of herbs until tender. This is not unlike pulled pork of Southern-style barbecue in the United States. Once the meat can easily be pulled apart, the heat is turned up and the pork it crisped for a deeper flavour. While wonderful on its own, carnitas is oftentimes heaped into tamales, tacos, and burritos.
Pie de Coco (Coconut pies)
Don't be confused by the occasional whipped topping, pie de coco isn't anything like coconut cream pie. Made using a dense batter and ample flaked coconut, the traditional pie de coco is one that makes its own crust. Delightfully, it remains fluffy and light on the inside. With its light texture and subtle sweetness a pie perfectly rounds out a boldly flavoured Cuban meal.
Fricasse de Carnero
Goats and sheep have thrived on Cuba since they were left on the island by the Spanish. However, because the meat can take on a 'unique' flavour (compared to more popular livestock), it must be cooked with great care. Cooking carnero in a fricasse not only makes the meat flavourful, but it imparts a juicy tenderness combined with a crisp texture. Like its French influences, fricasse de carnero uses a tomato base with red or white wine. However, many Cuban cooks add allspice to cover the gamey flavour of the meat. It also adds some quintessential Cuban zest to the dish.
Gallo pinto is the staple dish of a hearty Central American breakfast. You'll find it served well across Central America and the Caribbean. Just as 'a rose by any other name, still smells sweet', you'll find it referred to by many different names. It is most beloved in Nicaragua and Costa Rica, and both nations claim to be the country of origin. Although there are many variations, gallo pinto is made by cooking rice and beans together. It's this speckled appearance which lends its name, "spotted rooster" in Spanish. Primarily served as a side dish in morning meals, in recent years it has become a favourite filling in empanadas.
Travellers who have eaten gallo pinto in Nicaragua:
One wouldn't think that a drink made of sweetened cornmeal and cacao mixed into water or milk would be so good, but it is. Despite its gritty texture, pinolillo is found widely throughout Nicaragua. Visitors to the country often see locals gulp it down with every meal. While pinolillo is traditionally served in a gourd made from the shell of the jicaro fruit, most have moved onto using modern glasses.
When visiting a local household in Nicaragua, vigarón is likely one of the dishes to be served if they decide you look a bit peckish. They're made with a chili pepper and vinegar-marinated cabbage salad called curtido, chicharrones, and boiled yucca. The combination is then steamed in a banana leaf. Vigarón is often served to guests because it is quickly made and easily eaten with the hands.
Travellers who have eaten vigarón in Nicaragua:
Although eaten widely throughout the Caribbean and Central America, tostones are a beloved staple in Puerto Rico. Tostones, or fried plantains, are the Puerto Rica equivalent of potato chips or French fries. Often eaten as a simple snack or as an appetizer, tostones are frequently accompanied by a garlic dipping sauce called mojo.
Travellers who have eaten tostones in Puerto Rico:
Papa rellenas consists of mashed potatoes flattened and rolled around a spiced ground beef filling before being deep fried. They are widely consumed throughout the Caribbean, particularly in countries with a strong French influence. This Latin version of the croquette is most popular in Puerto Rico, where cheese and picadillo are often added to the ground beef mixture for extra flavour. As a highly portable food, papa rellenas are popular fare for street food lunches. You can also expect to find them on the typical list of fried festival fare.
On its own, the porridge of boiled, mashed green plantains isn't much to look at. Jazz it up with red onions sautéed in apple cider vinegar, and fried cheese, salami, and egg to become and it becomes the Dominican Republic breakfast staple. The origins of this beloved dish can trace its roots back to African slaves brought over from the Congo. Legend has it the name "mangu" stems from a U.S. marine trying the dish and exclaiming "Man, good!" during the United States invasion of the Dominican Republic.
Beloved by all Latin countries and parts of Asia, the Spanish empanada can trace its origins back to Portuguese colonies in Goa. They adapted the local Indian samosa dish into their own Latin specialty. Traditionally, empanadas stuff savoury fillings like spiced meat, cheese, onions, or olives into bread dough before being folded and deep fried. In more recent times sweet incarnations have been catching on. As the pinnacle of portable meals, empanadas are found in street food stalls through the Dominican Republic.
Travellers who have eaten empanadas in Dominican Republic:
While Trinidad shares the same European, African, and Spanish influences as the rest of the Caribbean, it's got another unique influence. Indian flavours from migrants who indentured themselves to work British plantations on the island are found throughout local cuisine. Pholourie is one of India's greatest contributions to Trinidad. This favourite snack food consists of flour and chickpea dough seasoned with spices like turmeric, saffron, cumin, and garlic. It's then fried up and served with a sweet chutney of tamarind or mango. While enjoyed from street food stands daily, travellers will find them everywhere during the Holi festival celebrated by Trinidadian Hindus.
Travellers who have eaten pholourie in Trinidad:
Doubles are yet another contribution from Trinidad's Indian migrants. However, the dish has been heavily influenced by the other cultural influences, transforming it into a wholly unique dish. They're generally eaten as a quick to-go breakfast food. So what are doubles? They're a sandwich made from fried flat bread seasoned with turmeric (based on the Indian naan bread) and filled with ingredients like curried chick peas with pepper sauce, mango, cucumber, coconut, or tamarind.
Travellers who have eaten doubles in Trinidad:
After the Spanish enslaved and left with the entire native population in Barbados, the island was left to be claimed and repopulated by the British. They arrived with European settlers and African slaves. Present day Barbados is a nod to both cultures, showcased by the island's favourite comfort food: saltfish cakes.
Salted cod had become a staple in the diet of African slaves. At the time, it was a cheap source of protein. It was primarily prepared in stews until European settlers developed a taste for it as well. They then blended it with native spices to form small fish cakes. Although salted cod is no longer as cheap as it was back then, saltfish cakes remain a favourite on the island.
Of all Haitian dishes, griot is easily the most popular. Not only with locals, but with travellers as well. The word "griot" has its origins in West Africa where it referred to the storyteller of a village. The dish is made of succulent pieces of fried pork melded with native spices. Sour orange juice, Jamaican pepper, green pepper, and chives are all boil down together before the meat is removed and fried. Griot is typically served with a side of fried plantains.
With 700 islands and twice as many coral reefs, the bulk of Bahamian cuisine comes from the sea. While mahi-mahi and rock lobster are popular, conch is the national food of The Bahamas. It's also the island's specialty. With a chewy texture comparable to calamari, conch is usually served steamed or fried. On the islands, conch fritters stand as the best appetizers in town. These bite-sized balls combine diced chili peppers, onions, and conch meat. All in a deep-fried morsel that packs a spicy punch, made even hotter with traditional spicy dipping sauce.
Travellers who have eaten conch fritters in the Bahamas:
Believed to have been created by British colonists in the 17th century, fish chowder to risen to lofty heights in Bermuda. In fact, it's the national dish. Made with a fish stock and tomato puree base, Bermuda fish chowder is thinner than traditional cream-base chowders. It is given thickened with chucks of white fish (cod, rock fish, sea bass, or snapper) and the French mirepoix trifecta of celery, onion, and carrot. What makes Bermuda fish chowder stand out are the seasonings. Worcestershire sauce, black rum and spicy sherry pepper sauce all combine to create one of the most unique (and spicy) fish chowders in the world.
Travellers who have eaten fish chowder in Bermuda:
Jerk Pork & Chicken
If there is one taste that is quintessentially Jamaican, it is Jamaican jerk. As the most widely available meats in Jamaica, jerk chicken and jerk pork rule the menu. While the protein may vary, the jerk style of cooking consistently involves marinating meat in a mix of allspice (known as pimento) and scotch bonnet peppers. It's then slowly smoked over the allspice wood. This method of cooking is thought to have originated from the island's original inhabitants: the Arawak natives, who used similar methods to prepare and store meat. Today, jerk shacks populate Jamaica from rural roadsides to packed city street corners. Travellers need only follow their nose to find one.
Travellers who have eaten jerk chicken/pork in Jamaica:
Ackee & Saltfish
The ackee fruit was imported to Jamaica from Ghana in 1725 and somewhere along the line, African slaves combined the fruit with their staple of saltfish. Ackee and saltfish is prepared by boiling ackee and salted cod together with onions, scotch bonnet peppers and tomatoes. It's then seasoned with local spices like allspice and black pepper. After the flavours have melded together and the ingredients softened, the dish is served alongside breadfruit, hard bread, dumplings, or plantains. As portions of the ackee plant are toxic, its export is restricted. This is likely one dish that travellers can only try while in Jamacia.
Travellers who have eaten ackee and saltfish in Jamaica:
When it comes to closing out a meal in Guatemala, the country's favourite dessert comes in the form of rellenitos. This unique dish features two of the most widely used foods in Latin America. Ones which don't sound appealing when combined, but have been fashioned into an unforgettable sweet treat. Rellenitos combine a tortilla wrap made of mashed ripe plantains which is then filled with refried black beans, mixed with chocolate and cinnamon. After sealing in the ingredients inside the mashed plantain, it is fried and topped with honey and powdered sugar. It's not unlike a crepe, but one whose filling has reached a depth of flavour that chocolate alone could never achieve.
Travellers who have eaten rellenitos in Guatemala:
Pupusas are the national dish of El Salvador and are also popular in Guatemala. A pupusa is made from a thick, handmade corn tortilla filled with a blend of cheese, chicharonnes, and refried beans. It's then sealed and fried. These flat little meat pies are excellent for eating on the go, making them a staple of street food vendors. When enjoyed in homes or proper restaurants, travellers will often find pupusas served with curtido, a cabbage salad that has been mixed with vinegar and red chillies.
Travellers who have eaten pupusas in El Salvador:
Ah, casado - there has been some debate on how this iconic Costa Rican dish got it's unique name. Casado translates to "married man" in English. Whether travellers hold with it being the kind of meal a married man eats at home, or that rice and beans are eternally married to one other, there is no denying it is one of the most delicious dishes in the country. Casado combines rice, black beans, plantains, salad, and a tortilla all on one plate for a hearty and healthy meal. While some options may include meat, casado is often lauded as one most vegetarian and vegan-friendly plates in Costa Rica. After all, the country its reputed for its meat-heavy cuisine.
Travellers who have eaten casado in Costa Rica:
Like the dish entails in Nicaragua, gallo pinto is made up of the simple staples of rice and beans. However, foodies wandering between Nicaragua and Costa Rica will note that gallo pinto has two very distinct tastes. The Costa Rican version adds onion, peppers, coriander and Worchester sauce which makes it a perfect dish as a side or all on its own.
Travellers who have eaten gallo pinto in Costa Rica:
Often confused with pancakes, most travellers only realize Johnny cakes are different once they sample one. Johnny cakes are fluffier and crisper due to the use of soda bread dough rather than a batter. While Johnny cakes originated in Trinidad & Tobago and are consumed throughout the Caribbean, they remain a perennial favourite in Curacao. This small island nation favours the cakes for their ease of transport and preservation. Any number of extra ingredients can be piled atop a Johnny cake. However, Curacao locals prefer topping them with sautéed saltfish, but more traditional toppings of jam, butter, or cheese are still common.
When a country has an abundance of coconuts and fresh fish, their culinary union is inevitable. In Belize, falmaau is usually made with grouper (fish). It's simmered with coconut milk to add a distinctive flavour to the seafood. This dish is often paired with hodut, dumplings made of mashed, fried plantains. The hodut are used to sop up the excess coconut milk in the falmaau.
Are you heading to the Caribbean or Central America any time soon?
What are you keen to try?
What dishes would you pass on?
Let us know - comment below!
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