The rich, warm and historic culture of Caribbean cuisine is experiencing a resurgence among diners. Currently in the U.S., Caribbean and Cuban restaurants continue to pop up in large urban areas, said Kara Nielsen, food trend analyst from the San Francisco Bay area.
“The trend — ripe for revisiting now for food service — begins where there is a population of people from the islands,” she explained.
Specifically, Caribbean establishments in New York, Miami and pockets along the Eastern Seaboard. Such Michelin-recommended restaurants as Kingston 11 in Oakland, Calif., have established loyal followings and sometimes provide a newer and more upscale take on the foods, she said.
Plantains, Jamaican patties, goat, jerk chicken and rum cocktails combined with the creamy coolness of flavors such as mango, pineapple and coconut remain mainstays of the “movement,” but with the recent opening up of relations with Cuba and the U.S., Cuban food has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity that dates back to nearly a century ago.
While tropical fruit flavors like mango are already prevalent in mainstream America, Chicago-based research firm Technomic reported that “menu mentions” of Caribbean flavors overall grew about 15% in the last five years. Island beef flavors rose approximately 17%, while Caribbean-flavored adult beverages grew by 3%.
The research firm’s 2016 “Generational consumer trend report” also noted that millennials over-indexed against overall consumers for Caribbean, Cuban and other derivations of Spanish-inspired fare. Twenty-seven per cent of consumers and 31% of millennials would order Caribbean cuisine at a restaurant, and 24% of consumers and 29% of Gen Y diners would order Cuban, according to the report.
Ryan Schmidtberger, executive chef of Cuban restaurant/bar BlackTail in New York, sees the trend firsthand in a city with the largest Cuban population after Miami.
“The (restaurant) concept takes its inspiration in the cocktails, food and décor from American bars that flourished in Havana during this time period,” he said.
BlackTail’s menu focuses on modern, sophisticated flavor profiles.
“Our chicken ‘lollipops’ are by far our most popular menu item,” Mr. Schmidtberger said. “They are essentially boneless ‘buffalo wings’ but with a different twist. BlackTail blends ancho and chipotle peppers with caramel and citrus juice to a finished glaze that provides layers of heat that pair with cocktails.”
BlackTail’s sugarcane shrimp combines a tropical wave of sweet, tart and spicy.
“We skewer the shrimp with sugarcane so it slightly caramelizes when grilled, adding to the sweetness of the shrimp,” Mr. Schmidtberger said. “It’s paired with tart pineapple in the winter and sweet watermelon and serrano peppers in the summertime.”
BlackTail serves more than 40 cocktails with names such as Rattlesnake and Toreador that reflect a sweeter flavor profile due to the Cuban theme and ingredients, Mr. Schmidtberger said.
“But sweet is complemented by spicy and bold, intense flavors,” he noted.
Caribbean street eats
At the other end of town, Guyanese-born chef Raymond Mohan opened LoLo’s Seafood Shack in Harlem in 2014 with his wife, whose father was born in Belize.
“We both worked in fine dining environs before and wanted to bring the acumen of balanced flavor profiles to the cuisine,” Mr. Mohan said. “We focused on seafood because it’s synonymous with the Caribbean and it’s a cravable item that many people are intimidated to prepare.”
LoLo’s makes frequent use of coconut in more than its signature drink.
“Coconut milk is in a number of our Caribbean dishes, from ‘durty’ rice to stews to curry,” he explained. “When people migrated to the Caribbean, it was one of the most versatile things they had to work with, and nothing goes to waste with a coconut. It has so many uses from sweet to savory.”
Sabrina HoSang Jordan, chief executive officer of Caribbean Food Delights, likes to say, “Take a vacation from ordinary food.”
The Tappan, N.Y.-based company is a manufacturer of frozen Jamaican style patties, pastries and jerk chicken wings for retail and food service, and Ms. HoSang Jordan — whose family also operates JerkQ’zine Caribbean Grille restaurant in Mount Vernon, N.Y. — said Caribbean-style foods are popular because of their tropical flavors and unique spices and herbs.
Those classic spices range from jerk, ginger, oxtail, allspice and calypso to maybe a pinch of Scotch bonnet pepper to provide a sweet, spicy and simmering savoriness that’s central to the lore of the islands. Many of these ingredients are steeped in centuries-old cultures with each island having its own favorites that, in some cases, are globally influenced from travelers around the world.
Though Jamaican ambassadors like Olympic champion runner Usain Bolt have helped put its cuisine in the spotlight, Ms. HoSang Jordan said, “Jamaican food is popular because it’s economical, convenient and delicious.”