October 2021 Issue
West Indian Plant Foods
By Sharon Palmer, MSFS, RDN
Vol. 23, No. 8, P. 26
Learn about the abundant supply that’s a key part of the rich traditions in Caribbean foodways.
The Caribbean (aka the West Indies) may conjure up visions of sugar sand beaches, brilliant turquoise waters, pleasant trade winds, and sunny days. And while those images are in fact real, those elements also nourish the diverse array of plant foods cultivated in the Caribbean islands. These beloved foods, including starchy foods, fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts, and spices—grown both wild and cultivated in the natural environment of volcanic-rich soils, rainfall, and sunshine—are essential parts of the traditional diets of the Caribbean.
If you’ve been fortunate enough to spend time in the Caribbean, you’ll observe a variety of these plant foods at roadside stands, food shops, and local restaurants. You’ll find fruit and nut trees growing in forests, on beaches, and at homes; patchwork vegetable farms dotting the islands; and cheerful backyard home gardens filled with vegetable beds and fruit trees. Some of these foods you may recognize, such as squash, mango, papayas, and bananas; however, other produce may seem curious, from hairy-brown tubers to exotic tree fruit. Each island may have its own unique name for produce, such as taro, which is also known as dasheen, kalo, marope, magogoya, patra, and godere, depending on which island you visit strive to learn about food cultures and celebrate them with clients, they’ll discover that diving into the beautiful plant foods and culinary traditions of the West Indies is a worthy endeavor.
In this article, Today’s Dietitian asks three RDs who were raised in the Caribbean to provide insight into its beautiful produce and foodways. Celine Heskey, DrPH, MS, RD, a nutrition professor at Loma Linda University School of Public Health, grew up in several Caribbean islands, including Antigua and Barbuda. Sylvia Melendez Klinger, DBA, MS, RDN, founder of Hispanic Food Communications, based in Chicago, was born in Puerto Rico. Lesley Ann Foster-Nicholas, DrPH, RDN, an assistant professor in the School of Allied Health Professions at Loma Linda University, worked as a dietitian in Trinidad and Tobago for 13 years.
Caribbean Food History
To understand the traditional style of eating in the West Indies, one must first appreciate the unique history in this region of the world. Countries in the West Indies include Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands, Anguilla, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Antigua and Barbuda, Montserrat, Guadeloupe, Dominica, Martinique, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Barbados, Grenada, The Bahamas, Turks and Caicos Islands, Trinidad and Tobago, Aruba, Curacao, and Bonaire.
“The islands of the Caribbean were once colonized by Spain, France, and England, and these European countries brought slaves from Africa and indentured laborers from East India to the islands to work on their plantations,” Foster-Nicholas says. “This resulted in islands with different cultural and language influences, and there are differences in the names given to the same fruits and vegetables. Each group brought its own cuisine and dietary habits, which evolved over time and has taken on a Caribbean flavor of its own,” she says.
Heskey says that in the English-speaking Caribbean, for example, where there are a few influences from the United Kingdom, most of the influences are from those of African and/or East Asian descent. Other influences come from the Middle East and China. “We have a ‘melting pot’ of dishes throughout the region. Those who were brought or came to this ‘new world’ brought their food traditions with them, and these were blended with the native traditions,” Heskey says. Foster-Nicholas notes that Trinidad and Tobago, for instance, has a multicultural population with an array of traditional dishes influenced by African and East Indian diets.
These evolving shifts in food culture can be seen in time-honored recipes. “The food culture in many Caribbean countries includes an entrée item that’s traditionally steamed in banana leaves,” Heskey says. “In Antigua, we may make it with sweet potato, dry coconut, sugar, and flour, but I know of variations of the same dish that include corn meal in place of the potato in other islands,” Heskey continues. “When you do some deeper investigation, there are similar dishes spanning several countries in Western Africa, and with small variations between countries, communities, and tribes. So, you start to understand that many of these food traditions are from Africa and survived the devastating impact of slavery.”
The Spanish-speaking islands, such as Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic, have their own unique forms of culinary expression. Klinger notes that the different explorers, merchants, natives, and religious groups heavily influenced the Caribbean islands, and each left a culinary mark in the region. Heskey adds, “Some individuals may be adherent to a dietary pattern that’s low in or absent of meat, including those who are adherent to Rastafarianism, and some members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.”
Another factor that contributes to the differences in traditional diets is the type of plants that were brought from African or Indian countries. For example, Saint Vincent has an abundance of breadfruit trees, thus breadfruit is one of its national dishes. The food traditions are also shaped by the environment and the need to make a living, while gaining access to food; most of the countries within the Caribbean are islands with many coastal villages, Heskey explains. “My paternal grandfather was a fisherman and a farmer, and like many, had for decades caught seafood and harvested produce that were sold in a large market in the capital city of Antigua and Barbuda,” she says. In addition, it isn’t uncommon for individuals to have their own small garden at home which includes fruit trees, root vegetables, green leafy vegetables, and peppers, which are some of the most popular items to plant for one’s own use. “Gardening is a point of pride in some communities and a practice that some have maintained when they have emigrated to the United States,” Heskey says.
Traditional Caribbean Diet Patterns
Traditional Caribbean diets are based on the Caribbean six food groups: staples, vegetables, fruits, animal foods, legumes and nuts, and fats and oils, Foster-Nicholas says. “Staples form the main portion of the meal and consist of rice dishes or root vegetables, also referred to as ground provision,” she adds. These rice dishes often are accompanied by peas and legumes, such as red beans, pigeon peas, or black-eyed peas; or vegetables, such as bhagi (spinach) or ochroes (okra), eggplant, or pumpkin. Klinger says the foundation of the cuisine is based on white rice, seasoned beans, and an abundance of root vegetables and tropical fruits. You also can find traditional soups that are important to the diet—these are typically hearty and include many local starchy root vegetables.
Coconut, both milk and fresh coconut, is one of the most predominantly used fats in Caribbean cooking in savory and sweet dishes. Sweet buns, butter breads, and various baked goods such as currant rolls and coconut tarts also are popular.
Another feature of Caribbean diets is the use of spices to create bold flavorful dishes. Klinger reminds us that the spices are perhaps one of the biggest differences in the various Caribbean eating patterns. “Puerto Ricans use cilantro, bell peppers, onions, and garlic to make sofrito, a seasoning used to add flavor to everything from rice, beans, meats, fish, and stews called guisos, while the Cubans add more tomatoes and blood oranges to their sauces. Adobo, a combination of cumin, salt, pepper, paprika, oregano, and onion powder, is a seasoning used extensively by Caribbeans,” Klinger says.
Caribbean Plant Foods Up Close
There are too many treasured plant foods to mention in this article, but our experts weigh in on many of the most significant and less well-known plant foods in traditional Caribbean diet patterns.
Starches/Staples (aka Ground Provisions)
• Breadfruit. This large, green, lumpy tree fruit (Artocarpus altilis) is a versatile staple high in carbohydrates, fiber, B vitamins, magnesium, potassium, and carotenoids. It can be baked or boiled like a potato, and it’s often roasted on its own or used to make chips, rolls, salad, and oil in Trinidad and Saint Vincent, as well as pies, pancakes, cakes, cookies, and wine in other parts of the Caribbean.
• Cassava/Yuca. This starchy tuberous root (Manihot esculenta) has white flesh and a brown peel. It’s a good source of thiamine and carbohydrates and can be boiled, fried, and used in soups or salads. The national dish of Grenada is cassava bread. Cassava also is used in biscuits and pone (pudding). Yuca masa is used to make Puerto Rican pasteles for the holidays.
• Dasheen/Taro. Known for its corm (an underground food storage organ consisting of a swollen rounded stem base in some plants), this starchy root vegetable (Colocasia esculenta) is believed to be one of the earliest cultivated plants. With light-colored flesh speckled with purple and a brown skin, dasheen is carbohydrate rich and a good source of fiber, potassium, copper, manganese, magnesium, and vitamins B6, E, and C. It’s used in soups and salads, or can be boiled and fried. The leaves are used to make callaloo, which includes onion, garlic, ochroes/okra, pumpkin, and coconut milk.
• Edo/Eddo/Eddoe. Resembling a striped potato, this starchy, high-carbohydrate staple (Colocasia antiquorum) has a corm similar to that of dasheen and may be cooked in soups.
• Plantains/Green Bananas. In the genus Musa, carbohydrate-rich plantains (green bananas) are the starchy equivalent of sweet bananas and are a good source of fiber, potassium, magnesium, folate, and vitamins A, B6, and C. Enjoyed cooked in various ways, plantains are part of the favorite Puerto Rican dish mofongo (mashed fried plantains seasoned with garlic and olive oil), maduritos (fried ripe plantains), and pastelon (a lasagna-like dish). Ripe plantains are boiled or fried, and green plantains are used in soups or to make plantain chips. Roasted plantain is a popular street food in Dominica and often is served with the Trinidad dish saltfish buljol. Boiled green bananas served with stewed saltfish is the national dish of St. Lucia. Green bananas also are used to make porridge or the vegetarian version of souse (pickled meat in broth).
• Yams/Sweet Potatoes/Boniato. These purple-skinned lumpy tubers with white flesh (Ipomoea batatas)—different from those in the United States—are high in carbohydrates and good sources of fiber. Ducuna, a popular dish in many islands, comprises sweet potatoes boiled in a banana or grape leaf with raisins and spices. It’s also popular mashed with butter and in batidos (milkshakes) with condensed milk.
• Cashew Apple/Cashew Maw. The tree (Anacardium occidentale) that produces the cashew nut also bears the cashew apple, an accessory, pseudo-fruit for the nut. A fleshy, pear-shaped fruit with wavy yellow or red skin and an astringent yellow flesh, it contains fiber, carbohydrates, vitamins A and C, and B vitamins. They’re eaten fresh or preserved in syrup.
• Green Leafy Vegetables. Green leafy vegetables are used in many ways, such as in rice, and steamed with onions, garlic, and peppers. Dasheen leaves and bhagi/spinach leaves provide a good source of folate, potassium, iron, zinc, and vitamins A, C, E, and B6. Dasheen leaves are used to make callaloo, the national dish of Trinidad and Tobago, as well as bhagi (spinach often prepared with coconut cream) and saheena (spinach fritters), popular Indian street foods found in Trinidad and Tobago. Green leafy vegetables also are used in Antiguan pepper pot, a stew that includes eggplant, edo leaf, and okra.
• Ochro/Okra. A widely used, versatile vegetable in the Caribbean, ochro (Abelmoschus esculentus) is rich in fiber, folate, magnesium, and vitamin C. It’s included in many traditional dishes, such as callaloo, ochro rice, soups, and cou cou (made with corn meal and okra), the national dish of Antigua and Barbuda and Barbados (called fungi or fungee in Antigua).
• Sea Moss. This type of seaweed (Chondrus crispus) is found in tidepools and inlets, providing good sources of B vitamins, vitamin C, zinc, phosphorus, and calcium. It’s used to make beverages, such as a punch blended with nutmeg and condensed milk.
• Ackee. In the same family as lychee, this pear-shaped tree fruit (Blighia sapida) is the national fruit of Jamaica. It has three lobes in bright red to yellow-orange flesh that split open when ripe, revealing three large black seeds which have a nut-like flavor. Rich in carbohydrates, vitamin C, and fiber, the fruit is cooked with salted water or milk, fried in butter, cooked with codfish and vegetables, or added to curries and soups.
• Cherimoya/Custard Apple. This high-carbohydrate creamy tree fruit (Annona cherimola) covered with a lumpy green skin is a good source of fiber, vitamins C and B6, magnesium, and potassium. It can be eaten raw but often is used to make punches and ice cream.
• Golden Apple/Ambarella. A tree fruit (Spondias dulcis), it has a crunchy, slightly sour, golden flesh, containing vitamins A and C, carbohydrates, fiber, and iron. Golden apple may be eaten with salt, made into a drink, or cooked in a curry with spices.
• Jujube/Dunks/Dumps. An oval green tree fruit in the genus Ziziphus, this fruit resembles a date when it has matured, with wrinkled brownish skin. It contains carbohydrates, fiber, vitamin C, and potassium, and can be eaten fresh or dried or used in jams.
• Noni. A yellowish-green fruit (Morinda citrifolia) in the coffee family, noni has a strong, vomitlike odor and bitter taste, and was considered a “starvation fruit” used by Indigenous peoples during famine. Containing carbohydrates, vitamin C, and B vitamins, it can be eaten raw with salt, made into a beverage, or cooked in a curry.
• Papaya/Pawpaw. This orange tree fruit (Carica papaya) known for its sweet custardlike flavor and texture is rich in carbohydrates and a good source of vitamins A and C, B vitamins, and fiber. It’s eaten raw and used in chutneys, or green salads, and curry dishes.
• Sapodilla. Produced from a slow, tall evergreen tree, this soft, sweet, juicy orange-brownish fruit (Manilkara zapota) with a pear-like taste is a good source of carbohydrates, fiber, vitamin C, iron, and potassium. It can be enjoyed fresh out of hand or used to make drinks and frozen desserts.
• Sapote/Mamey/Mammee Apple. This soft tree fruit (Pouteria sapota) in white, yellow-orange, black, and red varieties covered with a green or brownish peel, contains a good source of fiber, magnesium, potassium, and vitamins A, B6, and C. It can be eaten raw but often is used to make beverages, sauces, shakes, fruit bars, and frozen desserts.
• Sorrel/Hibiscus. A species of hibiscus (Hibiscus sabdariffa), this plant contains carbohydrates, vitamin C, calcium, and potassium. It’s used to make a popular chilled beverage called Sorrel Drink in many of the Caribbean Islands.
• Soursop. With a sweet creamy white flesh and green spiky peel, this tree fruit (Annona muricata), which has a pineapple aroma and strawberry-banana taste, offers a good source of fiber, vitamins B6 and C, iron, magnesium, and potassium. It can be eaten fresh and often is used to make drinks, ice cream, or sorbet. The fruit is also called graviola, guyabano, and in Hispanic America, guanábana.
• Starfruit/Carambola. This tree fruit (Averrhoa carambola) has ridges running down its sides, revealing a star shape when it’s cut horizontally. Both the yellow-orange peel and yellow fruit may be consumed, offering a crisp, slightly sweet taste. Containing carbohydrates, fiber, and vitamin C, the fruit is used to make beverages, relishes, and preserves.
• Tamarind. The beanlike pod filled with seeds that grows on trees (Tamarindus indica) becomes pastelike as it matures, providing a sweet-sour taste that makes it a useful addition to savory dishes, confections, and beverages. It’s also rich in nutrients, providing carbohydrates, fiber, vitamin C, and potassium.
Legumes and Nuts
• Cashew Nuts. The seed of the evergreen, tropical cashew tree, these nuts are eaten raw, roasted, or fried as a snack food. They provide a significant source of protein, heart-healthy fats, fiber, copper, and magnesium. They’re also enjoyed as a treat during the holidays.
• Pigeon Peas/Gandules. This legume (Cajanus cajan), which grows widely in tropical regions, is an important source of protein, fiber, potassium, carbohydrates, iron, magnesium, calcium, and B vitamins. Pigeon peas typically are cooked with rice.
• Coconut. A member of the palm tree family, coconut (Cocos nucifera) is an important part of the diet, providing both flesh from the mature seed and coconut milk. When fresh, coconut water is used as a beverage; when dry, it can be added as an ingredient to savory and sweet dishes. With its high fat content, coconut is grouped with fats and oils in the Caribbean six food groups. It also contains fiber, manganese, copper, selenium, magnesium, iron, and potassium. Coconut milk is used to prepare rice dishes, stews, oil down (a stew of fish, pork, breadfruit, and taro from Grenada), callaloo, and cou cou. Coconut milk also is used to make ice cream and cakes, and the coconut husk is employed in desserts, such as coconut tarts, sweet breads, sugar cakes, cookies (besitos de coco), coconut custard (tembleque), manpostial (candy in Puerto Rico), coconut flan, and toolum (a chewy treat from Trinidad).
Spices, Herbs, Seasonings
• Ginger. A tropical flowering plant (Zingiber officinale), the root or rhizome is used as a flavorful spice. Of ginger’s more than 400 compounds, gingerol is the primary subject of interest for its health benefits. Many popular Caribbean foods are made with ginger, including ginger beer, tea, and ice cream, as well as many savory dishes.
• Peppers. While sweet bell peppers are used in the classic sofrito sauce, spicy scotch bonnet (Capsicum chinense), also known as bonney peppers or Caribbean red peppers, is a variety of chili peppers known for their resemblance of a tam o’ shanter hat. It’s a very hot pepper used in seasoning, though some sweeter varieties are grown in the Caribbean. High in vitamins A and C, this pepper gives jerk and many Caribbean dishes their characteristic spicy flavor in recipes such as rice and beans, sauces, and pepper jelly.
Recommendations for Dietitians
When working with clients from Caribbean countries, the experts interviewed stress that RDs should learn more about their culture before counseling them. “When preparing a meal plan or providing nutrition counseling, dietitians should find ways to incorporate cultural foods into dietary recommendations,” Foster-Nicholas says.
“Food is usually a very important part of our cultural identity, and interventions that do not incorporate these foods are unlikely to be effective for some patients,” Heskey says. “Ask an RDN who has Caribbean heritage for help with understanding the foods and food culture.”
— Sharon Palmer, MSFS, RDN, The Plant-Powered Dietitian, is an expert in plant-based, sustainable nutrition, an enthusiastic traveler who celebrates traditional diets, and author of the new book California Vegan.
• Food Composition Tables for Use in the English-Speaking Caribbean: bit.ly/3CnzQhY
• Healthy Caribbean Coalition: healthycaribbean.org
• Food-Based Dietary Guidelines, Jamaica, FAO: fao.org/nutrition/education/food-dietary-guidelines/regions/countries/Jamaica/en
• Food-Based Dietary Guidelines, Barbados, FAO: fao.org/3/I9680EN/i9680en.pdf