When you think about Caribbean food, the last thing that might come to mind is a Chinese influence. But, it’s there and it’s most notable on the islands that utilized indentured servitude. By the mid-1800s, slavery was abolished throughout the islands. Familiar with the poor working conditions and abuse, newly freed slaves were reluctant to accept employment with their former proprietors. Plantation owners needed a new source of cheap labor and turned to importing indentured servants from China and India. These unfortunate souls brought their food traditions, cooking techniques, and ingredients with them, which, over time, have become part of the vibrant cuisine of the Caribbean.
The Chinese Arrive in the Caribbean
You may ask yourself why anyone would risk death and disease and willingly allow themselves to be pressed into servitude in a faraway land. The answer isn’t all that surprising. Most of the immigrants were from China’s southern provinces, Fujian and Guangdong. They were from poor families on the verge of starvation and suffering from trade wars. For them, servitude was an opportunity. The first indentured people from China arrived in Cuba in 1847 and then two more ships arrived in 1854. The majority of people went to the sugar-producing islands of Jamaica, Trinidad, Cuba, and Guyana. A few were brought to some of the smaller islands. The Chinese were fewer in number than the Indian indentured servants arriving around the same time frame and the African slaves who came before them. They were isolated by their language and customs.
The Early Years of Servitude
There were only four Chinese women for every 100 Chinese men in servitude. Therefore the men cooked for themselves in former slave quarters, which had cramped kitchens, inadequate ventilation, and contained only the necessary equipment: a wok, cleaver, spatula, and cutting board. Provisions and rations that the Chinese were used to weren’t available during the early years. Only a few ingredients that could survive the long ship voyage, such as dried noodles, soy sauce, and spices could be found. Even rice was sporadic. Most essential ingredients weren’t readily available until the twentieth century.
The lack of basic ingredients to prepare their recipes may be the reason why the Chinese didn’t make a significant impact on Caribbean cuisine at first. The men were reluctant to adapt to their new life and change their tastes to available ingredients on the islands. However, there were two exceptions. They accepted the use of rum to marinate meats and they preferred the simplicity of the African coal pot. It made meal preparation easy and quick after a long day in the sugarcane fields.
The Mid to Later Years of Servitude
As the Chinese immigrants settled into their new life, some were allowed to keep garden plots. The variety of vegetables permitted them to make pickles. They were allowed to sell their excess at the market along with foraged watercress from local streams and oysters from the mangroves. On some of the islands, the Chinese were allowed to live in settlements where they could reunite with family, communicate in their own language, and keep their agricultural and food preparation traditions that included growing yams and rice, and raising livestock. Another ingredient that became increasingly available was honey as the apiary industry established itself in the Caribbean.
Indentured servitude came to an end around 1917 when the British government prohibited the transportation of debtors from India as servants. Many of the Chinese immigrants did not return to China because they were not entitled to a free return passage or any assistance. They remained on the islands and slowly mainstreamed, breaking into the retail trade and owning small businesses.
One important festival in Trinidad is a Chinese legacy. Double Ten Day is a national holiday on the tenth day of the tenth month, which is celebrated with the preparation of southern Chinese-style red meats from duck to shrimp. The holiday commemorates the Wuchang Uprising in China on October 10, 1911. This rebellion ended the Qing Dynasty rule and established the Republic of China. After the revolution, Chinese immigrants who were mostly merchants and traders came willingly to Trinidad and Tobago and the commemoration remains a part of the culture.
Chow Mein is a well-known and well-liked dish in the Caribbean. It became popular early on because the two basic ingredients, noodles and stock, were easily attainable. Noodles were the primary carbohydrate in the Chinese immigrant population on the islands and simple to make. Stocks were made from chicken and pork bones and occasionally herbs that simmered all day.
Another common Chinese influenced dish is bow. It's a small dumpling traditionally made with a pork filling, but these days the filling can be chicken, vegetables, or something sweet. These tasty dumplings are labor intensive and take time to make, which suggests they weren’t everyday fare. They were probably reserved for special occasions.