Eating and Drinking Well in the Virgin Islands
Take a mix of indigenous and imported ingredients—everything from papaya to salt cod. Blend this with the cooking styles of people like the ancient Amerindians, Africans, Europeans, East Indians, and Asians, and you have the melting pot that is traditional Virgin Islands cuisine.
Despite its American-flag status and the abundant fast-food and Continental-style restaurants that dominate the islands, the traditional cuisine of the Virgin Islands still maintains a foothold here. The best places to sample the authentic flavors of the islands are local restaurants, bakeries, and mobile food vans, as well as the many food fairs and fish fries that take place throughout the year. When you order an entrée—a "plate of food" as a meal is called—it will often be accompanied by a green salad and a choice of three starchy side dishes. It's no wonder that a favorite saying is, "Better belly bus' than good food waste."—Carol Bareuther
Be sure to try the popular Caribbean pate(pah-teh), a triangular fried pastry stuffed with spicy ground beef, conch, or salted fish. And nothing beats mango-ade,passion fruit punch, or soursop juice to tame the heat (pates often boast a touch of fiery Scotch bonnet peppers among their ingredients). For a tamer snack, look for johnnycakes (fried cornmeal cakes) or hush puppy–like conch fritters. Another tasty refresher is coconut water, the nectar of freshly cracked coconuts. Dundersloe, the Virgin Islands version of peanut brittle, is often sold by vendors outside of shopping centers.
Tropical fruits are abundant throughout the islands. Make sure to sample juicy, sweet mangoes, floral-scented papaya (great with a squeeze of lime), tart star fruit (bite into it or slice it up), and finger-long fig bananas, which are sweeter than stateside varieties. Other favorites include soursop, passion fruit, coconuts (both young and mature), guava, and pineapple.
Common vegetables include okra, spinach and other greens, sweet potatoes, eggplants, green plantains, and gnarly root vegetables like tannia, cassava, and boniato. Kallaloo is a popular soupy vegetable stew made with spinach and okra, seasoned with fresh herbs, and further flavored with crab, fish, or ham.
Popular fish varieties include snapper, grouper, yellowtail, mahimahi, and wahoo, which are often fried or grilled and served whole. Lobster and conch also are prevalent, the latter appearing in everything from ceviche salads to soups. The unofficial national dish for the Virgin Islands is "fish and fungi," simmered fish with okra-studded cornmeal mush.
Meat plays a prominent role in soups on the islands. Goat water (mutton stew) and souse (pig-foot stew) make hearty meals, and are typically served with dumplings or bread. Curried goat is a classic dish worth a taste. For something less spicy, try simply prepared chicken and rice.
Don't be thrown off by unexpected naming conventions. For example, "peas and rice" may be made with red beans, kidney beans, or black beans (no peas). Potato stuffing, a mix of mashed white potatoes, tomato sauce, and seasonings, isn't used to stuff anything. And "fungi" (fun-gee) is not mushrooms, but a polenta-like dish of African origin made from cornmeal studded with chopped okra. More straightforward are the fried plantains, and boiled sweet potatoes, yams, and tannia.
Rum, made from sugarcane, has a significant history in the Virgin Islands, dating back to the rise of sugarcane plantations in the mid-1700s. Rum is still produced here, and it’s available in numerous styles (and flavors). For a lower-proof sipper, try mauby, a somewhat bitter, root beer–like drink traditionally used as folk medicine that is made from the bark of the mauby tree, which is steeped with sugar and spices and served ice-cold. For a morning eye-opener, some islanders recommend "bush tea," an herbal infusion of native plants.
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