Photo: Cooking in the Caribbean

Jamaican grill masters slowly char dry-rubbed meat to achieve intense jerk heat.

Photograph by Michael Melford

By Charles Kulander

Had your fill of limin’ on de beach and keen to dive into some lip-smacking Caribbean cuisine? Then make a beeline to any outdoor food joint or festivity where locals have gathered. From a ramshackle rum bar to a fish fry on the beach, these are the places where the dishes—or paper-wrapped sandwiches—are inseparable from the surroundings, where you’re buying more than a meal: You’re snagging a cultural experience, a taste of island life served in heaping portions.

Anse-La-Raye Fish Fry, St. Lucia

Stumble into the brine-scented St. Lucia fishing village of Anse-la-Raye on Friday night—any Friday night—and you’ll be pulled into what has to be the most feel-good community fish fry anywhere. This always hopping cookout cum party celebrates the sea’s bounty. Lobster, conch, red snapper, crab backs, and salt cod fritters sizzle to perfection on blackened oil-drum grills before being served on paper plates. Add in calypso and soca music, and you have a recipe for success week after week … and year after year; the event dates to 2000.

Jemma’s Treehouse, Speyside, Tobago

For those who loved hanging out in trees as kids, Jemma’s Treehouse restaurant, a legendary eatery on Tobago’s east coast, feels fantastical. Not only is the setting extraordinary—perched in an almond tree fronted by a beach feathered with aquamarine surf; so is the cooking, featuring some of the most authentic Caribbean-Creole fusion you may ever taste. Locals advise: Don’t ask for menus—there are none; instead go with the day’s suggestions. Don’t come on Friday night or Saturday; Jemma (yes, she exists) closes the place. If you want beer or wine, B.Y.O. (the establishment never got a liquor license). And prepare to be buzzed by copper-rumped hummingbirds, which dart through windows poled open to catch the soft trade winds.

La Ruta del Lechón, Guavate, Puerto Rico

Spit-roasted suckling pig is to Puerto Rico what barbecue is to Kansas City, and no place showcases it better than the Ruta del Lechón—Route of Pork—which winds its way south along Route 184 in Puerto Rico’s forested Sierra de Cayey range. Pork central, many contend, is the rambling town of Guavate, where a lineup of open-air grills, called lechoneras, turns out the Caribbean’s tastiest lechón asado—roasted pig. Six to eight hours of spinning over coals slowly cooks the white meat while lacquering the skin to a caramel-colored crisp. (Ask your machete-wielding chef for a slice of this prized delicacy’s skin, called cuerita.) Traditional side orders include one of Puerto Rico’s national dishes, arroz con gandulas—rice with pigeon peas—and blood sausages known as morcilla. Come the weekend, salsa and merengue bands turn the place into one big street fiesta.

Spice Market, Fort-de-France, Martinique

The slanting metal eaves of a pavilion opened in 1901 in Martinique’s capital shelter a trove of herbs, powders, seeds, roots, and barks—the secret essences of Caribbean-Creole cuisine. The marketplace, liveliest in morning, offers an aromatic reminder of colonial days, when Caribbean spices were prized akin to gold. (Some still are presented that way, so bargain smartly.) Set your sights on island-grown ginger, cumin, nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, allspice, and vanilla, and you’re sure to emerge with a renewed appreciation for these island treats.

Scotchies Jerk Centre, Montego Bay, Jamaica

Where can you find meat “jerked” according to traditional recipes handed down by the 17th-century Jamaican runaway slaves known as Maroons, who adapted a recipe of the pre-Columbian Tainos? At this Mo’bay landmark (one of three outposts in Jamaica), breasts of chicken and slabs of pork are dry-rubbed with pimento berries, scallions, thyme, and a few secret ingredients, then slowly charred atop pimento-tree sticks to jerk divinity. The tangy flavoring hits you with its smoldering intensity before yielding to the meat’s slow-cooked moistness. It also may leave you with beesting lips if you’re not careful with those hot hot hot Scotch bonnet peppers.

Mt. Pellier Hut Domino Club, St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands

Deep in St. Croix’s rain forest sits a bamboo-walled hut known for Norma’s spiced-rum love potion called Mama Wanna—and a clutch of beer-drinking pigs. The tusked 600-pound hogs stick to O’Doul’s nonalcoholic beer, cans of which they gnash open in a spray of foam. (Two bucks a can; shake for maximum effect.) But that show is for the tourists. You’re here to order the island’s best ribs and cornmeal johnnycakes while slammin’ dom’ (slamming down dominoes) with the locals. They’ll be happy to teach you the game—especially if you buy a round of Norma’s heady Mama Wanna.

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