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Could Caribbean Cuisine be The Next Mediterranean Diet?

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Multiple trend spotters, including the National Restaurant Association, believe Caribbean food will be the next big thing.

Perhaps this new trend represents our pent-up desire from the pandemic to escape to a tranquil island, or the memories of a long-ago vacation sipping rum punch under a palm tree. Either way, there’s no doubt that it’s time for the tropical foods and flavors of the Caribbean to shine.

Could Caribbean Cuisine be The Next Mediterranean Diet?

Restaurant menus are flooded with tastes from the Caribbean – from Jamaican jerk chicken, oxtail and seafood ceviche to habanero aioli, plantains and tropical fruits. Cuban food in particular is having a moment. The term “Havana” is one of the most popular locations identified on restaurant menus, with use of this term up 53% during the last four years, according to Datassential.

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What Is Caribbean Cuisine?

Caribbean cuisine is a melting pot of Latin American and African foods with a layer of European influence, including Dutch, British and French. It also includes the cultural traditions of the indigenous populations of the islands.

I recently traveled to two Caribbean islands: Bonaire in the south and Turks and Caicos in the north. Bonaire is part of the Dutch Caribbean’s ABC Islands, with Aruba and Curacao, that are located near the coast of Venezuela. The island boasts more pink flamingos than people and is one of the best places to experience offshore diving and snorkeling.

Turks and Caicos is a British Overseas Territory that’s known for its exquisite turquoise waters and powdery white sand beaches. The country’s 40 islands and cays (low banks or reefs) are situated on a marine shelf leading to the Atlantic Ocean.

Both experiences were completely different, but I came away with similar thoughts on how I want to bring back some of the island vibes to my life in Chicago.

If you’re not packing your bags anytime soon for the Caribbean, here’s how I recommend you learn from some of the cultural ways of the Caribbean to benefit your health, protect the planet and expand your palate back at home.

Vary Your Fruit Routine

We love our apples and bananas here in the U.S., but you can broaden your usual fruit selections with tropical fruits, including mango, papaya, passion fruit, guava and prickly pear – which are all available in most supermarkets.

Look for pitaya or dragon fruit, a bright pink spiny fruit that has become the fastest growing fruit on restaurant menus – up 124% during the last four years. These tropical fruits have also become a favorite of beverage makers and mixologists due to their sunny shades and paradise-evoking qualities.

Beyond eating more whole fruit, look for ways to infuse foods with fruit like I experienced in the Caribbean, such as citrus-glazed red snapper, papaya salsa with shrimp tacos or salad studded with chunks of mango. Also consider fruit for dessert, such as Caribbean roasted pineapple with cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice.

Cooking With Tubers

Tubers share some traits with root vegetables, like carrots and beets, but they’re not the same. While tubers, like potatoes, sweet potatoes and yams, are grown underground, they differ because they’re actually enlarged parts of the stem that help nourish the plants. That’s why tubers contain even more starch than root vegetables. Unfortunately, many carb-conscious eaters turn away from tubers. Yet these nutrient-packed vegetables should be embraced.

Tubers play a dominant role in Caribbean diets, including vegetables you may be less familiar with like cassava, yuca, manioc, taro, malanga, dasheen, boniato and Jerusalem artichoke or sunchoke.

In the Caribbean, tubers are referred to as “ground provisions” (starchy vegetables grown in the ground) and are considered staples, typically accompanying meats on the plate. One memorable dish I enjoyed while on Bonaire was guinea fowl with black truffle sauce and malanga chips at the restaurant CHEFS at the Bamboo Bonaire resort.

Some Caribbean tubers are available in well-stocked U.S. grocery stores, or you may need to check out Latin or Asian markets to find them. These Caribbean tubers can be prepared similarly to a potato or sweet potato. They can be roasted whole or cubed, sliced as fries or chips and cooked in an air-fryer, or added to soups and stews. What you can’t do is eat them raw, since many tubers contain compounds that could make you sick if not cooked.

Seek Out Seafood

Similar to the Mediterranean diet, Caribbean cuisine is centered around fresh wild-caught seafood from local waters, and I certainly enjoyed it daily while on Bonaire and Turks and Caicos. Unfortunately, nearly 90% of Americans do not eat seafood twice a week, which is the amount recommended by dietary guidelines.

Once you’re in the habit of eating more seafood, you want to keep it up. I know I did. I also left the islands with a new appreciation for sustainable fishing, which was consistently reinforced on every menu.

I was lucky to be on Turks and Caicos during lobster season, which is strictly monitored to prevent overfishing. The Caribbean spiny lobster lacks the large front claws that you’ll find with Maine lobster. So, it’s all about the large, luscious tail meat.

I enjoyed Caribbean lobster in multiple ways, expertly prepared by chef Andrew Mirosch, culinary director at the elegant Wymara Resort and Villas. This variety of preparation styles included butter poached lobster tail with chili and lime, grilled lobster tail with pineapple fried rice, lobster spring rolls and lobster tacos.

To bring this Caribbean specialty into your home, look for frozen lobster tails in your supermarket. It’s a convenient and delicious option to help you eat more seafood.

While care is taken to protect overfishing of Caribbean lobster, sometimes the sustainable option means purposely trying to overfish. That’s the case for lionfish, an invasive species that is wreaking havoc on Caribbean reefs. The flashy lionfish – with its red stripes and venomous spikey fins that resemble a flamboyant lion’s mane – may be a showstopper in home aquariums, but it’s a serious threat in the Caribbean Sea.

That’s why there’s a concerted effort in Bonaire to spear hunt lionfish to help eradicate these voracious predators. Happily, lionfish is delicious to eat. One of the biggest champions of lionfish in Bonaire is the Cactus Blue food truck, which has become famous for its lionfish burgers and wraps.

Increasingly, restaurants in the U.S. are beginning to serve lionfish. That’s the goal of the “Eat Lionfish” campaign launched by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to help control the overpopulation of this pesky invader. So next time you see lionfish on a menu, order it. You’re making a sustainable choice that helps preserve coral reefs.

Eating Sustainably

Sometimes it takes spending time on an island to truly appreciate the urgency to protect the environment. When you’re surrounded by water, you quickly become aware of how connected you are to nature. It’s why Caribbean locals are fiercely overprotective of the ocean and the land.

Bonaire’s tagline is “It’s in our Nature,” and it was evident how committed they are to nature conservation. The small Dutch island was the first Blue Destination in the world and encourages all visitors to sign the Bonaire Bond, pledging to respect the island’s natural ecology both on the land and under the sea.

Bonaire is a leader in reef conservation, and we were reminded when swimming, snorkeling and kayaking to only use reef-safe biodegradable sunscreen. Bonaire has also banned single-use plastic grocery bags, straws, stirrers and cutlery.

When you see how committed island dwellers are to sustainability, you can’t help but be inspired to make more changes at home.

Brighten Dishes With Added Flavor

Because of the Caribbean’s varied demographics and multicultural history, the cuisine is endlessly diverse. Yet it is united by the use of bold flavor – from spicy marinades and fiery barbecues to piquant citrus and warm, savory spices.

Coconut, molasses, tamarind, ginger, allspice (pimento), scotch bonnet peppers, habanero and other chili peppers are common flavors in the Caribbean. You’ll also find a lot of floral and fruity flavors.

On Bonaire, I discovered vadouvan, a French-style curry powder that blends cumin, cardamon, coriander, cloves, turmeric, mustard seeds, shallots, garlic and fenugreek. It’s inspired me to experiment with this blend at home. A quick online search turned up DIY recipes for vadouvan and ready-to-use spice bottles of the mix.

The sunny flavors of the Caribbean may be a plane ride away, but most of the ingredients are widely available in the United States to give you a taste of authentic island flavor at home. Dialing up the flavor helps make healthy foods more appealing and turns simple dishes into unique experiences.

Caribbean vs. Mediterranean Diet

While Caribbean cuisine may be trending from a culinary perspective, it’s not fully equivalent to the Mediterranean style of eating. The emphasis on seafood is similar, but the traditional Caribbean diet is much higher in meat, including curried goat, stewed pork and beef dishes. Olive oil is scarce. Sweets and fried foods are more prevalent.

Caribbean islanders tend to have increased risk of obesity and diet-related diseases, so they don’t enjoy the same health advantages as people living in the Mediterranean region. However, multiple education efforts are underway to help address health concerns in the Caribbean. Some experts blame the western influx of fast-food restaurants and imported processed foods for these increased health risks.

Groups like the Caribbean Food and Nutrition Institute are encouraging the return of Caribbean cultural foodways with these renewed public health initiatives.

The foundation of the traditional Caribbean diet is based on plant-based ingredients. Staples include ground provisions or tubers, rice, corn, grains, fruits, vegetables and legumes, such as local pigeon peas that I spotted on several menus in the Caribbean. Learning more about the foods and flavors of the Caribbean can help you put a delicious island twist on the Mediterranean diet.

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Bernard Greenhall
Bernard Greenhall

Bernard is a sports and physical education expert with years of experience. He's passionate about promoting health and wellness through physical activity, and he's worked with athletes and non-athletes alike to help them achieve their fitness goals. Bernard holds a degree in Physical Education and is dedicated to staying up-to-date with the latest trends and research in his field.

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