Introduction to Latin Caribbean Culinary Tastes

Sofrito in a wooden bowl

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Tropical Tastes, Exciting Flavors, Fresh Ingredients

Latin Caribbean cuisine is an amazing blend of tropical tastes and multicultural influences. It is a celebration of aromatic, sweet and tart, piquant and mild citrus flavors. To understand and appreciate it, it's important to understand the history behind the food.

Latin Caribbean food is a mixture of cultural influences. Each island has a similar heritage.

  • They were inhabited by Indigenous groups.
  • Then the islands were battled over and colonized by several European countries. Spain eventually settled Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic.
  • Next, came the enslaved Africans and indentured servants.
  • Then came immigrants from East India and China.

Each island cuisine uniquely evolved with the borrowing and blending of foods and cooking styles from all of these different locations. Consequently, you’ll find common products, produce, and cooking styles throughout the islands, but with tweaks here and there that make them unique.

If you are new to Latin Caribbean cooking, keep in mind that the food is always evolving due to the many cultural influences on the islands and the need to import products to sustain the population.

Before Columbus

The Arawaks and Caribs, two Indigenous peoples, originally occupied the Spanish influenced islands of the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Puerto Rico. It is thought the Caribs began the tradition of spicing food with chili peppers. The Arawaks were among the first to use barbecue techniques by building grills with green sticks. They called it barbacot. The Spanish word barbacoa is a variation of barbacot as is the English word barbecue. Many of these native techniques and foods are still prepared today.

After Columbus

Christopher Columbus arrived in the area in 1492 and introduced sugarcane and Spanish culinary techniques. It didn’t take long to discover that rum could be made from fermented cane juice. Bacardi rum is a standard ingredient in many tropical drinks and dishes, such as rum-soaked fruit salad and rum cake. Other Europeans followed Spain in colonizing the islands and brought with them their culinary trademarks.

Other Culinary Influences

  • It is not uncommon to find Mexican and South American ingredients included in Latin Caribbean cooking. The close proximity encouraged trade among the Indigenous groups.
  • Beginning in the early 1600s, enslaved people brought foods from West Africa to the islands.
  • After the abolishment of slavery, people from India and China became the primary source of labor out on the fields, adding two more very different culinary influences to the list, though not considerable on the Spanish influenced islands.

For hundreds of years, food has been a means through which people have expressed themselves. ​Latin Caribbean cuisine is a combination of local and imported ingredients and culinary methods that meld cultural traditions and heritage.