JUMP IN. AND SAVOR.
I came to Barbados for the flying fish sandwiches.
Not that this small island at the easternmost edge of the Caribbean doesn’t offer other attractions. Like perfect weather. And beaches that come in two flavors -- Caribbean, which has a sea that is turquoise and tranquil, and into which the sun sets spectacularly every evening, and Atlantic, where the coastline is rocky and the sand is the color and consistency of cake flour.
Then there are the Barbadians themselves, people who are the very definition of friendly locals. And the fact that 300 years of British rule have left the island with some interesting Anglo-Caribbean quirks, including stone churches straight out of “Jane Eyre” and cricket players with dreadlocks.
Still for me, it was the flying fish sandwiches. And the macaroni pie. And the pepper sauce. Definitely the pepper sauce.
Because in my mind, the most compelling reason to travel anyplace is food. And Zagat -- holy book of the foodie traveler -- has proclaimed Barbados the Culinary Capital of the Caribbean. What I wasn’t counting on was that eating one’s way through Barbados would turn out to be as much a cultural tour as a culinary one. On Barbados, a healthy (or even obsessive) curiosity about sweet potato mash, coconut water and pig intestines is enough to gain entry into every one of the island’s different worlds, from that of well-heeled tourist to the British expat to the born-and-bred Barbadian, or Bajan, as they’re also known.
Here, then, are some simple instructions on doing Barbados by food.
Every Friday night, the little seaside town of Oistins turns itself into one big barbecue. The food stands raise their awnings, long tables are set up near the beach, and the air fills with over-amplified reggae and the tangy scent of fish marinated in something spicy and slightly vinegary.
Oistins Friday Night Fish Fry is one of those rare events that attracts as many locals as visitors, probably because it’s cheap, fun and seriously delicious. Just find a stand where the food looks appetizing, ask a waitperson to seat you at one of the long tables, and order whatever is on the grill.
When you’re finished eating, stroll down to Lexie’s bar and watch middle-aged Barbadian couples dipping and swirling on the open-air dance floor. (Ballroom dancing is big on Barbados.) Or wander to the opposite end of the street and get a firsthand look at the surprisingly competitive world of Barbadian dominoes. Just follow the sound of slamming tiles.
Tucked on a side street and up a flight of stairs, Mustor’s in Bridgetown is the kind of locals’ restaurant you always hope to find. It is no more than a big, airy room where the only thing approaching decor is the orangey bottle of pepper sauce on every table. And, really, you don’t need anything else.
Place your order with the cashier: flying fish steamed or fried (I recommend fried) or chicken fried or stewed (go with stewed). It comes with macaroni pie (the Bajan version of mac and cheese) and mounds of yams, and rice with pigeon peas, those pale, nut-flavored peas that are a staple of Caribbean cooking. Wash everything down with a local Banks beer or a glass of Bajan-style limeade, which is almost magically sweet and tart at the same time.
If you’re looking to up your Bajan cuisine game, try Sweet Potatoes at the entrance of bustling St. Lawrence Gap, the milelong stretch of road crowded with nightclubs and restaurants that cater to tourists. Take a seat under the icicle lights on the open-air porch, and order some examples of what Sweet Potatoes’ owners refer to as Good Old Bajan Cooking. Try Mullins Bay bol jol, an insanely good spread of marinated codfish seasoned with herbs and onions. Or Pot Belly Flying Fish, rolled and fried and served in a red pepper sauce. And don’t forget cou cou, a Bajan-style polenta made with okra.
If you decide you can’t live without some Good Old Bajan Cooking at your house, you can come back for one of the restaurant’s cooking classes. (See “If You Go” box.)
Want to see what an expat British chef with locavore sensibilities cooks on Barbados? Dine at the Terrace at Cobbler’s Cove (a small hotel on the northwest coast of Barbados). Bryan Porteus, the chef at the Terrace, is committed to using as many local ingredients as possible. He has planted an herb and lettuce garden across from the hotel and visits the fish market in Bridgetown every day. (Sometimes he even takes guests with him.)
The Cove also employs its own fisherman -- a one-named celebrity called Barker -- whose morning catch turns up on the dinner menu every evening. The result is an entree list that includes bonito with plantain fritters, sesame tempura of Caribbean vegetables, and rack of black belly lamb (a local animal that resembles a sheep and a goat).
If you want to be a true Barbadian locavore, you must drink rum. Barbadians have been making rum -- distilled from local sugar cane -- since 1630. And Mount Gay has been making its version nearly as long. It’s worth driving a couple of miles north of Bridgetown to take the Mount Gay Rum Factory Tour just for the “blow and breathe” session, which involves sticking your face into a fish bowl of partly distilled rum. This is guaranteed to keep your sinuses open.
Jason Zeddo, Mount Gay’s tasting room bartender, says the proper way to taste rum is to first cover the top of the glass with your free hand and “take that fine rum and toss it around.” This releases aromas (almond, vanilla, oak) that you can then savor before draining the glass.
If you want to drink rum the way Bajans do, mix it with Coke, which in Barbados is still made with cane sugar (instead of high-fructose corn syrup).
It’s a Sunday tradition in Barbados for locals on their way home from church to stop at a roadside coconut vendor and pick up a half-gallon of coconut water to have with Sunday dinner. Coconut water is light and refreshing and only slightly sweet, and Bajans consider it a health drink. (It also mixes beautifully with rum.)
Drive along any major roadway around noontime on a Sunday, and you’ll see vendors hacking off the tops of coconuts with machetes. (You will also wonder how they manage to keep all their fingers.) Pick up some coconut water, and while you’re there, have the vendor cut open a coconut so you can sample the jelly inside. (It’s like eating the liquefied center of a Mounds bar.)
Shop for it
Early every Saturday morning, ex-pats and tourists turn up at the Brighton Farmers Market in St. George to eat fish cakes for breakfast and drink what might be the only great coffee on this tea-centric island. Brighton is the place for locally grown produce and a diversity of prepared foods: curried chicken rotis (Bajan sandwiches), Thai egg rolls and freshly baked bread. It’s also the place to sit under an enormous tree, watch the kids run around and socialize.
Saturday morning is the best time to visit the Cheapside Public Market in Bridgetown. Whereas Brighton is mostly ex-pats and tourists, Cheapside is locals. Under the arches of its open-roofed building, you’ll find plenty of Bajan staples: black fist-shaped yams, green scaly skinned breadfruit, baskets overflowing with incendiary Scotch bonnet peppers (which Bajans pop like candy).
Express any amount of ignorance about how to prepare your purchase, and next thing you know a Barbadian grandmother will be hacking at your breadfruit with a large knife and explaining how long to boil it.
Cook it yourself
Seemingly all Barbadians are willing to teach visitors how to cook Bajan-style. Drop into the kitchen of Sweet Potatoes restaurant for one of its one-, two- or three-day classes, and you’ll leave with a bottle of Bajan spices and a recipe for (among other traditional dishes) Souse and Pudding, grated sweet potato stuffed into pig intestine and topped with meat from the pig’s head and feet.
It tastes better than it sounds.
Anne-Marie Whittaker is a one-woman evangelical movement for Caribbean cooking. Her company, Native Treasures, makes a variety of items -- pina colada jam and Captain Rasta’s Revenge pepper sauce -- and she’s the author of “Treasures of My Caribbean Kitchen” cookbook.
She also runs custom cooking classes for small groups. If you can’t arrange to take one of her classes, you can still make her Bajan pepper sauce at home (without burning your fingers slicing all those Scotch bonnets) by picking up one of her hot pepper sauce kits (just add water and vinegar).
If you’re staying at the Crane, a residential hotel on the Atlantic side, you’ll probably have a better kitchen in your suite than you do at home. The bonus of this, besides being able to try out your newly acquired breadfruit recipe, is that you can arrange to have Executive Chef Michael Hinds drop by and give you a private cooking class. Hinds, a native Barbadian, studied at the Culinary Institute of America, which gives his Bajan cooking an international slant. In his hands, locally caught reef grouper and peppers and onions from Cheapside Market turn into ceviche. And his recipe for breadfruit calls for slicing it paper thin and deep-frying it until you’re left with a stack of crispy (and totally addictive) chips.
At super-swank Sandy Lane hotel on the Caribbean side, Chef Timothy Walker elevates local flying fish to Cordon Bleu status by slathering it with a chiffonade of sweet peppers and onions, coating it with panko flavored with lemon zest and lightly frying it.
Walker’s flying fish is a completely different aquatic animal from the flying fish at Mustor’s. Which is not to say that they’re not equally delicious. The real point is, it’s difficult not to love a country that’s willing to fry up its national symbol and serve it drenched in pepper sauce.
BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX
If you go
THE BEST WAY
From LAX, connecting service (change of planes) to Bridgetown, Barbados, is offered on American and JetBlue. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $418.
WHEN TO GO
High season in Barbados is November through April, but the weather is beautiful any time of year. Summer is the best time to find bargain rates.
WHERE TO STAY
The Crane, St. Philip; (246) 423-6220, www.thecrane.com. On a high rocky cliff overlooking the Atlantic. The Crane is also the oldest hotel on Barbados (it opened in 1887), and a few of the original stone buildings still perch on the bluffs. Rates for one-bedroom suites begin around $350 a night.
Cobbler’s Cove, Speightstown, (246) 422-2291, www.cobblerscove.com. Rooms open onto wide porches shaded by hurricane shutters, the public rooms have lots of flowery upholstery, and every afternoon at 4 p.m., they serve tea (complete with scones). No TVs. Rates begin around $515 a night.
WHERE TO EAT
Oistins Friday Night Fish Fry, Oistins. The grilling and music start about 6 p.m. Plates of grilled fish, macaroni pie, rice and peas go for around $10 each.
Mustor’s, McGregor Street, Bridgetown, (246) 426-5175. Plates piled high with Bajan specialties will average $10 or less.
Sweet Potatoes, St. Lawrence Gap, (246) 420-7668. Let the server order for you. I would have never ordered bol jol, and it turned out to be my favorite dish on the island. Dinner here will run about $25 to $35 a person.
The Terrace at Cobbler’s Cove, Speightstown, (246) 422-2291. Reservations recommended. An appetizer and an entree will average $55 a person.
WHERE TO DRINK
Mount Gay Rum Factory, Bridgetown, (246) 425-8757, www.mountgayrum.com. Mount Gay runs 45-minute tours weekdays. $6 a person
WHERE TO LEARN TO COOK BARBADIAN
Sweet Potatoes, St. Lawrence Gap, (246) 420-7668. Call ahead to book.
Anne-Marie Whittaker, (246) 228-5837, www.native-treasures.com. She’ll design a custom cooking class for as few as two people.
The Crane, St. Philip (see above). You can make arrangements with the hotel for private cooking classes in your suite with Chef Michael Hinds. Cost is $150.
TO LEARN MORE
Barbados Tourism Authority, www.barbados.org.