Delicious. Sumptuous. Savory, Delightful’. You will fall short of words to describe the absolutely great food, as you taste your way through The Great Barbados Food, Wine and Rum Festival. There’s a lot of variety and some very distinctly Barbadian food.
Popularly considered the culinary capital of the Caribbean, Brabados hosts one of the most popular food festivals on the planet – The Barbados Food and Rum Festival, that is sure to tantalize and seduce your taste buds with some of the most outrageously delicious culinary and beverage experience on offer. And it’s not just the food and wine, Barabados knows how to party!!!
Street Food in Barbados
It is said that street food is where the essence of a culture can be found. For Barbados, with its longstanding reputation for fine white sand beaches, days of abundant sunshine and friendly people, it is fast proving to be the new drawing card luring the visitor to the reality of a true Barbadian cultural experience.
With the introduction of the Food, Wine and Rum Festival five years ago, the island is slowly emerging as the holiday destination of choice for those with a keen appetite for indigenous food. Barbados now lays claim to the title ‘culinary capital of the Caribbean. Those who travel the world in search of a unique culinary experience have been zeroing in on the festival and the numbers making the “pilgrimage” every year are growing.
These foodies have discovered that along with the increasing number of upscale restaurants offering exquisite fare across the island, outside on the street in specially equipped food vans, wayside makeshift kitchens or food carts, a new culinary experience always beckons.
Here the food is strictly Bajan, and in most instances, an example of what is cooked daily in many a Barbadian kitchen, from recipes handed down from generation to generation. And the menu is not limited to the quick-bites expected from the typical wayside cart. All over the island, a three-course meal of peas and rice, salad and meat or fish served in one take-away container is a staple on most street vendors’ menus.
Eating on the street provides the opportunity to meet Bajans on their level, to rub shoulders and have friendly exchanges conversing with the local population who find fast-food convenient because of the ready availability.
The pace of life and early start to the work day in many instances, force many to “pick up some food” on the way to or from work. When lunchtime arrives, so too do the mobile food carts – from the more sophisticated to the simple – rolling on to work sites; taking up parking positions outside office buildings. It is the scene repeated across Barbados almost every work day of the week, as workers gather to “buy lunch”.
Some vendors step up the accommodation with wayside seating, while the small village grocers and the Bajan rum shop cashes in, offering menu selections of cooked food along with the beverage of choice – be it a spirited cocktail of fine Barbados rum, a cold locally-brewed beer, or a locally-made soda.
For many Barbadians, lunch is preferably a heavy meal with a
selection of dishes. Bajan peas and rice tends to be the main dish, with
the choice of peas ranging from split peas to red beans, lentils,
black-eyed peas and dried or green pigeon peas. This is more often than
not served with a spicy stew of beef or pork, or baked turkey wings
(imported) which is now another popular feature on the Bajan dining
For a lighter choice, there is the “cutter” – a Barbadian sandwich made with a loaf of salt bread into which is inserted any selection of fillings, be it a steak of highly-seasoned fish, a slice of cheese or whatever else the fancy takes, sitting on a bed of lettuce and onion rings coated with salad dressing spiked with a sprinkle of hot Bajan pepper sauce.
Bajan fish cakes (small deep fried fritters made from a spicy salted cod fish batter) are also in demand as a highly favoured item among local street food offerings. The local specialty of flying fish (once a familiar Barbadian emblem), seasoned with a blend of local herbs and spices, deep fried or steamed and served alongside cou cou, (a dish made from cornmeal steamed with okras), is a staple at many street food outlets. Once the popular Saturday dish in most Bajan homes, it is now available on any weekday.
THE BARBADOS RUM PHENOMENON
Barbados is known globally as the home of pop-singer Rihanna, outstanding cricketer Sir Garfield Sobers, and the birthplace of the best rums on the planet.
The French will tell you that you haven’t gone to Paris until you tasted their wines and, similarly you cannot visit Barbados without experiencing the island’s great variety of rums and tasty foods.
Barbadians, like most of our Caribbean neighbours, place a high priority on the enjoyment of food and drinks, and rum has grown over time to be an important part of the country’s culture, pride and industry.
As much as savouring the taste of fine rum is one of the island’s social traditions, evidenced by the fact that many Barbadians sit down for a chat with “a bottle of brown or silver” on the table, rum has also been a multi-million-dollar export industry for the island.
Over the past 400 years, rum has undergone an evolution from a raw spirit concocted for slaves and enjoyed by masters to a beverage savoured by connoisseurs. It has medicinal, spiritual, psychological and social value, which has been widely documented as well as extolled in a variety of calypso and folk songs over many years.
This was certainly reinforced during the recent 2014 Crop Over season as local singer Omar “Gorg” Sobers, reputed for his rum songs over the past 10 years, emerged Party Monarch and the most popular calypsonian in Barbados this year with a tune which also praised the virtue of rum as a faithful friend and consoler after a failed relationship.
“My woman left me… but I got my rum”, he sang.
Historical accounts trace the early production of rum in Barbados back to the second half of the 17th century after sugar cane was introduced to the island in the 1630’s.
British colonists, who settled the island in 1627, soon began to cultivate sugar cane in the decades that followed and this made the island’s leading plantation owners and planters spectacularly rich.
Barbados quickly emerged as one of the most precious colonial possessions of the British Empire by the 18th century. This was mainly due to its easterly geographical location, which made it a prime stop for ships from Europe and Africa, and the rapid growth of its sugar-based economy.
Sugar cane and rum production flourished side by side over centuries, as the rum was made from the sugar-cane by-product of molasses, and the island established a rich heritage as the birthplace of some of the world’s best known and best loved rums.
Since the 17th Century, Barbados rum has held great value and appeal and was enjoyed by even kings and queens. Legendary writer Charles Dickens was said to savour it in punch; Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States, mixed it into omelets; and Queen Victoria of England sipped it in navy grog.
The first President of the United States, George Washington, after visiting Barbados in 1751 and being exposed to liquor like none other, was said to have insisted on a barrel of Barbados rum at his 1789 inauguration.
Today, there are four distilleries in Barbados, and the island has retained the global reputation for its high quality rums through superior skills and major advances in the distillation process that has made the island famous for over 350 years.
Mount Gay, which began production in the northern part of Barbados in 1703, is both the world’s oldest commercial distillery and branded rum, but other Bajan brands such as Cockspur Fine Rum, Doorly’s XO, Stades and ESA Fields are also internationally recognised.
Not surprisingly, the small island of Barbados boasts an estimated 1,000 rum shops across its 166 square-miles, underscoring the reality that you are never far from a good drink.
Barbados Hidden Hotspots
Our adventure starts with acclaimed international chef Marcus Samuelsson who has helped put Barbados’ street food on the map, having left his award-winning Harlem restaurant Red Rooster behind for few days every year, to participate in the Food, Wine and Rum Festival. There is no mistaking that Samuelsson is sold on Barbados’ street food.
This year, he will once again kick off the festival’s activities at what is perhaps the island’s best known street food venue, the Oistins Bay Garden. In this quaint fishing village, the array of tiny food booths come alive when the sun goes down, offering a rich selection from the day’s catch.
The activity at Oistins is typical of weekend nights when barbecue grills sizzle outside private homes, in villages and on street corners. A brisk business is done with barbecued salted pigtails, fish, spare ribs, chicken, pork while alongside the grill deep-frying iron pots may sit on a wood fire or gas range, the hot oil bubbling over the distinctly Bajan version of fried chicken and pork chops, their inviting aroma from home-made marinades and seasonings, filling the night air.
Samuelsson has put his stamp of approval on some of the island’s best street food places such as Cuz’s Fish Shack, a popular beachside eatery located a stone’s throw from the Hilton and next door to the Radisson hotel. Supported by the strength of Samuelsson’s reputation and with endorsement by countless patrons from across the globe, this small food stand has managed to win a Trip Advisor rating of 5/5, is ranked among the ten best street food locations in the world, and has been recommended by Newsweek Magazine among the world’s 101 best places to eat.
Those travelers in search of an authentic Barbadian dining experience like Cuz’s Fish Shack, there are similar local village and neighbourhood establishments that offer food and beverage unique to the island. All along the way, in whichever direction from Bridgetown, the travelers can venture into neighbourhoods in the north where John Moore’s Bar and Moon Town are located, to the Country Bar in the island’s central parish of St. George, or Hoody’s Bar at Six Roads in the parish of St. Philip, and other locations in St. Michael and Christ Church. Along the way, other tempting spots may even be discovered.
In St. John, there are two neighbourhood-style restaurants with rustic settings and breathtaking views of the Atlantic, where the menu favourite is pork prepared in several different ways. There’s no denying that while at The Village Bar at Lemon Arbor or The Souse Factory, the foodie cannot help but be swayed to embark on a new dining adventure. At these two spots, pudding and souse – grated savoury steamed sweet potato either in sausage form or a scooped ball on a plate, served along with pork steeped in a delicious pickle of cucumbers, onions, finely-chopped green and ripe chilies and lime juice – tops the list of the most sought-after dishes.
The adventurous setting out on a food trail in search of more than one street food eatery could find themselves in watering holes long discovered and patronised by Barbadians and leave with treasured satisfaction at the experience.