I’ve always had a weakness for Barbados. It was the first Caribbean island that I ever visited, in those halcyon pre-children, pre-mortgage days when a quick getaway was easy. Barbados has really defined the Caribbean for me ever since.
In fact, my husband and I liked it so much that we went back the next winter, when I was seven months pregnant. On that visit, I had a memorable walk on a beach in St. James parish, which to my mind has some of the loveliest beaches in the Caribbean. I was waddling through the surf, looking much like a ship in full sail in my maternity bathing suit, when I glanced casually up at one of the villas that line the beach. There, splayed out on two adjacent loungers, were Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck.
That was a long time ago – the son I was carrying has two degrees after his name now, - and these men were in their prime and utterly gorgeous. I, on the other hand, was utterly elephantine.
The contrast struck me as humourous, and the moment has stayed in my memory. In a way, the encounter was very Barbadian, perhaps even a snapshot of the island in microcosm.
Barbados is an island of unexpected contrast, beloved of celebrities, possessing great natural beauty, and in continual good humour. Best of all, for a food lover like myself, it is considered by many to be the culinary capital of the Caribbean. While the island is beautiful, the people polite and friendly, and the culture layered, it’s the food that keeps drawing me back.
Barbados restaurants are numerous and highly varied. Whether you are looking for fine dining or casual fare, there’s a restaurant or beach bar that will serve you perfectly.
Barbadian, or Bajan, food is a hybrid, combining the spices and peppers of African cooking with English, Spanish, French, Chinese, Indian and American influences. It’s complex and fascinating.
Chef Michael Moore was the perfect guide to the world of Bajan cuisine. He is both a well known chef and a Barbadian. As the executive chef at Turtle Beach Resort on the South Coast, he is committed to showcasing the cuisine of the island.
“There are similar culinary elements throughout the Caribbean, but each island’s cuisine is different. Barbados has a distinctive character in its food that reflects our history and our climate.”
“Prominent in our cooking is the herb spice mix that we use. It is always a blend of fresh herbs, usually a mixture of thyme, marjoram, green onions, garlic, parsley, basil and scotch bonnet peppers , combined with spices such as clove, black pepper, paprika and salt. Most chefs, and most home cooks in Barbados, make their own version of Bajan seasoning, but you can buy commercially prepared ones. We use it in almost everything, to season fish, to flavour vegetables, to enrich soups or stews, or as a rub for pork or chicken.”
Another characteristic of the island’s cuisine is the prominence of the excellent local produce. Moore showed me a small hard vegetable, about the size and colour of a Granny Smith apple. “This is christophene, and I use it often in the Bajan dishes I feature. It’s very versatile and attractive on the plate.” A type of squash, usually sold in Canada as chayote squash, its mild flavour when steamed or baked pairs nicely with seafood.
Papaya, soursop, coconut, yams, breadfruit and the Barbados cherry, a bright red and juicy fruit that makes excellent sauces and jellies, are prominent in the indigenous dishes.
The quality and variety of fresh fish is an obvious component of the local cooking. Flying fish is available everywhere on the island, from a grilled flying fish sandwich sold on the beach to the menus of the best restaurants. Local fishermen supply the island’s tables with tuna, barracuda, turtle, mahi-mahi, lamprey, mackerel and dolphin. The dolphin is not the one we recognize, but an unrelated and quite delicious fish.
Coo-coo is another local favourite, a reflection of the African flavours brought to the island in colonial times. It is a corn meal dish similar to the Italian polenta, except cooked Bajan style with okra, onions and garlic, and often served with flying fish or a stew. Falernum is an island made sugar based liqueur that Chef Moore uses in a sauce for duck. Of course there is also Barbadian rum, used to flavour many dishes, and the centerpiece of punches and mixed drinks.
Indian-Caribbean influences show up in the delicious rotis, usually a chicken or beef and potato curry in a wrap. They’re available everywhere in little roti shops on the island, and they’re inexpensive and delicious, especially with a cold glass of local beer, like a Banks or a Legend.
Chef Moore’s passion for his island’s cuisine is evident in the Waterfront, one of Turtle Beach’s most interesting dining rooms. It’s an open air restaurant with a beachside position and casual style that features authentic local dishes. Moore has taken the Bajan flavours and ingredients and incorporated them into many of the dishes on the Waterfront’s menu.
“Macaroni pie is a Bajan favourite, but it can be very starchy and high in calories. I developed a lighter version for the restaurant, by adding chopped sweet peppers and onions and using a blend of three cheeses, emmenthal, gruyere and cheddar.” He also features conch fritters, callaloo soup and Rasta Pasta, a vegetarian pasta dish of mixed vegetables featuring the Rasta colours, red, yellow and green.
Perhaps as a result of the strong British background on the island, there are many elegant and formal dining rooms in Barbados, where the charm of the beach and the surf are combined with white linen and candles to create romantic dining. One of the prettiest is The Cliff Restaurant on the West Coast.
All of the tables have a view of the sea, and candles and torches add a twinkle to the night. Chef Paul Owen serves inventive food, a blend of the classics and local dishes. Sample the spicy tuna tartare, with Asian vinaigrette, wasabi yogurt sauce, chilli oil and tobikko, (flying fish roe). The desserts here are sinful, like the banana scented panacotta with caramelized bananas, tuile biscuit and toffee sauce, or the rich dark chocolate terrine with hazelnut praline and orange creme anglaise.
Another surfside restaurant with great charm is Daphne’s Restaurant on Payne’s Bay. This is a branch of the sophisticated London restaurant of the same name, and chef Marco Festini has created a blend of Italian Mediterranean cooking with the local flavours. Dishes like the seared tuna salad with pickled cucumber and sweet mustard dressing, designed by the London restaurant’s executive chef Mark Hix, are especially good with the added freshness of locally caught tuna. The grilled Mahi-Mahi with Peperonata and Grilled Zucchini, and the lamb dishes are also local and fresh.
La Mer, in the stylish Port St. Charles area, is a restaurant where the view is almost as good as the food.
The best tables are on the covered veranda with a view of the boats and the harbour. The Sunday buffet at La Mer is legendary, especially the appetizer table, with smoked salmon, jumbo shrimp, oysters, several pates and sushi, and the extensive dessert bar with temptations like pecan pie, cream profiteroles, and blueberry tart.
I was glad that I was able to enjoy the tender and delicious local black belly lamb at Olives Restaurant in Holetown before I caught sight of one of the cute little lambs that seem to be on every roadside in the rural parts of the island. As it was, I was able to enjoy the lamb, tasty and moist with a dark wine sauce, without guilt. The Banana Creme Brulle on Olives’ dessert menu made a decadent conclusion to the meal. If you dine here, don’t miss having a drink in the upstairs bar. The exposed white washed ceilings, slow moving fans and airy verandah make this the perfect tropical watering hole to try a Planter’s Punch.
In the St. Lawrence Gap on the South Coast, the more relaxed, party-loving area of Barbados, is Josef’s, a fine restaurant with tables in the garden close to the ocean. Seafood and lamb dishes are excellent here. After dinner, try out the bar scene. The Gap is one of the liveliest places on the island for live music, outdoor dance floors, and the occasional street party.
If you head away from the beaches and sample some of the inland attractions, like a tour of the board and shingle chattel houses, or Whispers Gallery at Horse Hill which specializes in new Afro-Caribbean artists, or Orchid World, an eye-popping collection of over 2000 orchids, plan to have lunch at Naniki Restaurant. Owner Tom Hinds has created a restaurant with one of the finest views on the island. Perched high above the Atlantic, Naniki has large windows, sliding doors and a wide veranda that allows diners to see the surrounding hills, forests and the ocean in the distance. The menu is geared toward healthy eating, and features many Bajan specialties. The Sunday “Taste of the Caribbean” buffet is a good time to try some exotic dishes, like buljol, a tomato, flaked salt codfish and pepper salad, stewed lambie (conch) or pepperpot. The Naniki bananas on the dessert menu are simple but delicious. Mr. Hinds also raises anthuriums, supplying many of the hotels on the island with these oversized extravagant flowers, and the tables in the restaurant are often decorated with them. Take a peak inside his greenhouse before you leave, to see these beautiful flowers massed together. It’s breathtaking.
The Fish Pot Restaurant, at Little Good Harbour, the hotel that has been labelled “the best bolt-hole in the Caribbean”, is an inviting, cool oasis on the water, where chef Stephen Belgrave serves up seafood specialties like a saffron and black olive crepe filled with seafood and napped with a lemon aioli.
No culinary tour of Barbados would be complete without a visit to Oistins Village for the fish fry on Friday and Saturday nights. The small fishing village is the place where many fishermen bring their catch to be cleaned and sold. On the weekends, colourful stalls serve fresh fish, curries, coo-coo and fish cakes
Oistins fish fry is another memory clip of Barbados: sitting at a picnic bench, enjoying the classic simplicity of super fresh grilled marlin with a lime and butter sauce from Crystal’s Place, paired with a cold Banks beer.
Around us, the moist Barbadian night and the sound of steel bands.
Almost as good as Tom and Engelbert.
© Barbara Ramsay Orr
Create a bit of Barbados at home with these Bajan style recipes.
Barbados Rum Punch
Start with a classic rum punch. There is an old rhyme that contains the basic recipe - One of Sour ( lime juice)Two of Sweet( sugar syrup) Three of Strong (rum) And Four of Weak (water). Translated into a recipe for drinks for four, it should go something like this:
3 oz fresh lime juice
6 oz simple syrup
9 oz rum
12 oz water
(optional : grated nutmeg , of Angostura bitters)
Stir these ingredients together with lots of ice, sprinkle with some grated nutmeg and a dash of angostura bitters, if desired, and serve with little paper umbrellas. You’ll be able to feel the ocean breezes.
SEARED TUNA SALAD WITH PICKLED CUCUMBER AND SWEET MUSTARD DRESSING
Daphne’s Restaurant, Barbados
Originally created by Chef Mark Hix
250g. Tuna loin cut into 1 inch cubes
1 large cucumber
100g. baby spinach
50ml. mustard dressing
Pickle for the cucumber
50ml.white wine vinegar
20g. fennel seeds
200ml. white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon American mustard
600ml. Olive oil
· Boil the ingredients for the pickle and allow to cool. Slice the cucumber lengthwise and soak them in the pickle.
· Make the dressing by gently adding the vinegar to the mustard and then slowly adding the olive oil.
· Trim the tuna into 1 inch cube , season it with rock salt and cracked black pepper. Sear it for 30 seconds on all four sides in a very hot pan , then allow to cool.
· Pick and wash the spinach.
Assemble the salad
· Slice the seared tuna into 5-6 slices
· Mix the spinach leaves with mustard dressing and place in the middle of the plate
· Place a slice of tuna and a slice of pickled cucumber alternatively , forming a round on the spinach .
· Season and add more dressing around the sides
This seasoning is the secret to the success of many mouth-watering Barbadian dishes. It is found in almost every home and comes in several variations. I’ve adjusted the heat in this one by removing the seeds from the scotch bonnet peppers, but you can turn up the heat by adding the seeds or by increasing the number of peppers used. Remember that these peppers are very hot.
1 bunch green onions, chopped (about 1 1/2 cups)
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1/4 cup coarsely chopped fresh parsley
1 tablespoon fresh thyme
1 tablespoon fresh marjoram
1 tablespoon fresh chives
2 cloves garlic
1 scotch bonnet pepper, halved and seeds removed
1 teaspoon paprika
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/8 teaspoon salt
Combine all the ingredients except the water in a food processor and puree, adding water until a thick paste consistency is reached. Many versions recommend that the paste should be kept in the refrigerator for a week before using. Rub on pork, fish or chicken before grilling, or add to soups or stews for a punch of Barbadian flavour.
Yield: 3/4 cup
Restaurants all over the island make a version of this dessert. You can dress it up many ways, or even flambé the bananas with a tablespoon or two of warm brandy after they are caramelized.
4 bananas, not overly ripe, peeled and split lengthwise
¾ cup of white sugar
Sprinkle the banana lengths liberally with the sugar. Place bananas in a low fireproof dish under the broiler until the sugar is melted and nicely caramelized. ( or use a culinary torch). Serve warm with a topping of your choice – chopped walnuts, chocolate curls, a sprinkling of edible gold, or some whipped cream and a few ripe raspberries. (or all of the above!)
The Cliff Restaurant
Derricks, St. James, Barbados, West Indies
Tel: 246 432 0980
Chef: Paul Owen
The Waterfront Restaurant
Turtle Beach Resort,
Dover, Barbados, West Indies
Tel: 246 428 7131
Chef: Michael Moore
St. Lawrence Gap, Dover, Christ Church, Barbados
Tel: 246 435 8245
Chef: Charmaine Maynard
St. Joseph, Barbados
Tel: 246 433 1300
Chef: Roland Drakes
Paynes Bay, St. James, On the West Coast
Tel: 246 432 2731
Chef: Marco Festini
La Mer Restaurant
Port St. Charles Condo and Marina complex, Speightstown, St. Peter, On the West Coast
Tel: 246 419 2000
Chef: - Nick King and Lennox Hunte
Olives Bar & Bistro
Tel: 246 432 2112
Chef: Lynn Watts
The Fish Pot Restaurant
Little Good Harbour
Shermans, St. Peter
Barbados, West Indies
Tel: 246 439 3000
Chef: Stephen Belgrave
The Whispers Art Gallery
Bonwell Road, Horse Hill, St. Joseph
Tel: 246 433 5269
Barbados, West Indies
Tel: 246 4330306