St. Lucian Cuisine: A Historical Look
Given the myriad of diverse peoples which, over the past 500 years, melded into today’s Saint Lucia, it is not surprising that what has resulted is a unique and very interesting culture. As would be expected, these influences are readily seen in the foods and cooking styles used in Saint Lucian cuisine. Some of the island’s traditional fruits and vegetables are indigenous, but most were brought in from South America by the early Amerindians or by Europeans and Africans in colonial days.
The significant influx of East Indians to Saint Lucia in the 19th century also dramatically influenced local cooking styles and seasoning, an influence that is readily recognizable to this day. Interestingly, this evolutionary process is presently continuing as local tastes are being influenced by the arrival of Chinese immigrants over the past decade; their authentic restaurants are very popular with the local population.
It should be noted that many restaurants use the term ‘Creole’ to describe Saint Lucia’s local style of food. This name originated from the influences of the French in Saint Lucia’s history; the local patois language is called ‘Creole’. The term, as used to describe the island’s local cuisine, is not synonymous with the Louisiana or New Orleans Creole food.
Cooking techniques and methods too reflect Saint Lucia’s cultural heritage. Many Lucians still rely on the small clay cooking pots that were used by the Amerindians; known today as ‘coal pots’, they are still produced in rural communities by the ancestors of island’s first inhabitants. Fueled by locally produced charcoal, coal pots are an integral element in producing local Creole favorites. Coal pots can be seen in action at any of the island’s weekend street parties or at local establishments cooking authentic Creole fare.
Interestingly, early Caribbean Amerindians made grates of thin wood strips on which they would slowly cook meats; in the process, the meats would take on the flavors of the woods. These grates were called barbacoa which is the origin of word barbeque.
Early fruits and vegetables eaten by the Amerindians included yams, dasheene, papaw, guavas, and cassava. Cassava, also known as yucca or manioc, was for centuries a dietary basic in the Caribbean. It can be boiled, baked or fried or can be grated and made into a bread or tapioca.
Fish, of course, was a staple as was Iguana and a few other more exotic animals. It was the Amerindians too that used pepper sauces and lemon and lime juices to enhance the flavors of meats and fish. One of their most popular dishes was a stew made by combining anything they had available; these ‘pepper pots’, as they were called, remain a popular food today.
The region can thank the early Spanish explorers who brought oranges, limes, sugar cane, tamarinds, coconuts, cocoa and much more to the Caribbean. The British also contributed by bringing in breadfruit from islands of the south Pacific.
It was the Africans who brought in foods such as mangoes, coffee, callaloo, okra, ackee, souse and sausage-like ‘pudding’. They also popularized other imports such as sweet potatoes, yams, plantain, bananas and corn meal. Corn made its way from North America along with squash, potatoes, tomatoes and many varieties of beans.
The East Indians contributed curry powder which is perhaps the most popular seasoning in today’s local foods. Indian cooking styles and dishes are also well integrated in nearly every Saint Lucian’s diet.
Today’s Saint Lucian Cuisine
Given the amazing array of influences it’s not surprising that there is not ‘a single cuisine’ that can be called Saint Lucian. But most visitors – along with the people who live on the island – find enjoyment in the variety offered here. With the growth of tourism over the past three decades has come a staggering number of new influences from restaurateurs and chefs arriving from all over the world increasing the variety even more. Visitors coming to Saint Lucia today are treated to a surprising selection of fare to choose from.
In the past decade as well there has been a concerted effort within Saint Lucia’s agriculture sector to improve the quality and variety of produce grown on island. Organic fruits and vegetables of excellent quality are a common feature on the island’s menus providing the taste and freshness discerning tourists demand.
If you come to visit Saint Lucia why not give a few local dishes a try? Try a traditional Lucian breakfast of coco tea and bakes. Coco tea is essentially hot chocolate made with our local cocoa, which is said to be among the richest in the world. A bake (a bit of a misnomer) is a fried dough product with a hearty flavor and texture which stands well on its own.
For lunch, try Saint Lucia’s national dish of green figs and salt fish. Green figs are boiled green (unripe) bananas. Salt fish is dried salted cod which is rinsed well before cooking, usually by boiling. Both of these versatile foods are served in many other ways. One favorite is green fig salad which is similar to a traditional potato salad but made with green figs.
Interestingly, green figs and salt fish was traditionally a very inexpensive meal but with today’s worldwide shortage of cod, its price is beginning to make it somewhat of a delicacy.