Fearless Foreign Foods: Cayman Islands

This essay includes: Culinary traditions, Unusual ingredients, Classic dishes, For the meek,  For the bold, and For the digestively challenged.

A word to the wise: Your digestive system may not be accustomed to foreign microbes. If you want to try local fruits or vegetables, prudence suggests that you make sure you wash them thoroughly or buy them at an upscale restaurant that’s used to catering to the delicate constitutions of tourists.

Culinary traditions

The Cayman islands are slightly larger than Washington, D.C., and less than 5% of their 100 square miles is arable land. Most food must be imported, and most water is produced by desalination.

The local specialty is the conch. Green sea turtles, once common, are now protected. The Turtle Farm does produce some for local consumption. Also common in local waters are tuna, eel, mackerel, dorado (known in the islands as dolphin), crab, and swordfish.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, settlers arrived at the Cayman Islands from British-controlled Jamaica, bringing a fondness for jerk, curry, Scotch bonnet peppers, and coconut milk. (See Fearless Foreign Foods: Jamaica.) Cooks in the Caymans traditionally used a single iron pot, often heated over a “caboose” – a wooden box filled with sand in which firewood was placed.

Unusual ingredients

Conch: the giant mollusk in whose shell you can hear the sea. The rather tough flesh has to be beaten, ground, or tenderized by soaking in lime juice.

Hell sauce: combination of very hot Scotch Bonnet peppers, tomatoes, vinegar and onions.

Scotch bonnet pepper: small, very hot pepper related to the habanero; can be green, red, yellow or orange. The spiciness of a dish with these in it depends on whether they were chopped and added into it, cooked in the water, etc.

scotchbonnetpepper_wik_Secretlondon

Scotch bonnet peppers (Wikipedia / SecretLondon)

Classic dishes

Cayman-style seafood: cooked with tomatoes, peppers and onions.

Conch chowder: finely chopped conch with leeks, carrots, potatoes, garlic, heavy cream, fish stock, white wine; a few drops of Scotch bonnet pepper sauce optional.

Conch fritters: ground conch meat with carrots, onions, mild or hot spices (chef’s choice), formed into a batter with flour, rolled into balls and fried.

Fish ‘n’ fritters (or flitters): seasoned fish fried in coconut oil with fried dough balls.

Jerk: pork, chicken or fish marinated with some combination of ginger, pimento, cinnamon, nutmeg, pepper, Scotch bonnet peppers, scallion, and thyme. This is the most popular dish in Jamaica and one of the earliest known; Columbus described it being made by the Tainos Indians ca. 1500.

Rum cake: traditional recipe, soaked with Tortuga rum.

For the meek

Any of the Classic Dishes, if the restaurant staff says they’re not spicy.

For the bold

Hell sauce

For the digestively challenged

Low carb or diabetic: Cayman-style seafood, Conch fritters

Low fat: fish ‘n’ fritters

Vegetarians: be warned that produce is in short supply unless imported.