Aug 01, 2023

Caribbean Barbecue

The roots and evolution of this culinary tradition are celebrated over wisps of smoke and hours by the fire.

In the Caribbean, low-and-slow cooking rooted in the expansive power of smoke is the hallmark of really good barbecue.

That’s according to Ramin Ganeshram, journalist, chef, and author of the cookbook Sweet Hands: Island Cooking from Trinidad & Tobago. Smoke carries the aromas of cooking meat and the earthy, warming flavors of allspice. It interlaces with the bright flavors and tender bite of vinegar-marinated escovitch fish; it wraps its arms around friends and families gathering by a fire. The Caribbean is the keeper of one of the world’s oldest barbecuing traditions, and smoke has always been at the heart of it.

Most food scholars say that the Taino, an Indigenous people who inhabited various Caribbean islands, including Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic, were responsible for creating the first documented examples of the cooking technique we now call barbecue. The Taino people had a system: They’d dig a firepit and make a grate of green wood lashed with fibers, says Ganeshram. They started a slow fire in the firepit, placed the meat to be cooked on the wood frame above a slow fire, and called the process barabicu, which means “sacred pit.” European colonizers were the first to document some of these traditions, observing Indigenous people slowly cooking fish, vegetables, and iguanas (a delicacy) on raised platforms above smoldering fires. The Taino word barabicu gave rise to the Spanish term barbacoa, which eventually made its way into English as barbecue.

The word barbecue traveled to the continental United States, where it was applied to pit-cooking techniques used by Native Americans on the mainland, where, in places like Virginia, whole or large pieces of animals — held in place with sticks poked in their sides — were cooked over a trench filled with hardwood or burning coals. Although the word barbecue was applied to both, the style of cooking that emerged from the Caribbean was different, notes food scholar Adrian Miller, author of Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue. “The first observance of barbecue was a raised platform over a slow fire, which is very different from the pit method that developed out of the American South,” he says.

Greg Dupree / Food Styling by Chelsea Zimmer and Melissa Gray / Prop Styling by Audrey Taylor

In the Caribbean, Indigenous and African communities intermingled with European colonizers who brought with them to the islands new ingredients and cooking techniques. Caribbean barbecue styles developed and evolved variously across the region, in countries like Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Jamaica.

“In the Caribbean, our food tells the story of the Atlantic slave trade; it tells of how people were stolen from one side of the world and forcibly brought to the other side of the world,” says Ganeshram. “What traveled with people were herbs and spices, cooking methodologies, and the ability to forcibly adapt with the native people who were there and create something new.” For example, wild game was originally the most popular meat, but after Europeans introduced poultry and pigs to the region in the 16th and 17th centuries, chicken and pork became the dominant choices.

But many essential components of Caribbean cuisine have remained steadfast over time. Jerk, perhaps the region’s most iconic barbecuing technique, where meat is marinated or dry-rubbed in jerk seasoning, can also be traced back to the Taino people, who used allspice (the berries of the pimento tree) to make a paste for meat and plants that were then cooked over pimento wood. Chiles, both sweet and hot, have also been on regional menus for centuries. And through it all, smoke has remained incredibly important, acting as both a preservation agent and a flavoring component.

Shirley Hottier

Today, the flavors of the Caribbean, anchored in history, also happen to be driving some of the most exciting cooking around. They are now taking on new dimensions in the hands of the people like Dayana Joseph, who is based in Atlanta but was born in Haiti. She blends traditional cooking methods and ingredients from across the Afro-Caribbean diaspora with fine dining techniques and presentation. To add sweetness and complexity to barbecued vegetables, meats, and seafood, Joseph develops fruity glazes, and for her Lobster Tails with Scotch Bonnet–Honey Glaze, she also brings in Scotch bonnet chiles. “Scotch bonnets are popular in most island traditions,” she notes. “Haitians and Jamaicans use them the most. Jamaicans will use them in their jerk, and Haitians use them in almost everything else, right?” Joseph combines the chiles with honey, lemon juice, and Dijon mustard to make a glaze that gets blended into an olive oil emulsion for the lobster tails.

In New York City, chef Osei Blackett calls back to barbecue he enjoyed as a child in Trinidad and Tobago. “I miss seeing that anywhere,” Blackett says. Recapturing those memories of smoke and meat was the goal of his Trini-Style BBQ Lamb.

Riffs and reinterpretations abound. In San Juan, Puerto Rico, chef Jose Enrique reimagines fish escabeche as a grilled creation. And in London, Melissa Thompson draws on her identity as a British Jamaican chef to put jerk’s smoky, fruity, and slightly sweet flavors to new use in a meaty turkey leg smoked over branches from the bay trees that grow in England. Dominican American chef Nelson German shares a family recipe that deliciously marries tropical guava fruit with sticky glazed spareribs.

But what makes Caribbean barbecue so distinctive goes beyond the plate. The secret ingredient is the community behind it. As Boston University professor of gastronomy Megan J. Elias, a culinary historian who studies food history in the United States, puts it: “You can’t just set it in the pit and then go away; you have to have someone there making sure that everything is continuing, that the coals are continuing to burn. It’s a very convivial way to cook. I think that’s part of the magic of barbecue.”

For Ganeshram, the magic of Caribbean barbecue is also rooted in perseverance. “Our barbecue, just like all of our food, is not only the continued story of the Atlantic slave trade and what we have gone through and what we have survived in every bite,” she says. “It’s also this beautiful story of people who came together under the worst circumstances and created something new and lasting.”

Five ingredients are especially essential to Caribbean barbecue; chefs shared how they fit into their cooking traditions.

Greg Dupree / Food Styling by Chelsea Zimmer and Melissa Gray / Prop Styling by Audrey Taylor

When chef Nelson German needed to create a glaze for a sparerib dish, he turned to memories of guava, which he recalls enjoying regularly in both sweet and savory dishes in his Dominican household.

Guava and other sweet ingredients are part of an enduring tradition in Caribbean food. In the Dominican Republic and beyond, barbecue maestros use tropical fruits like passion fruit, guava, and pineapple to add a layer of fruitiness and sweetness to their barbecue, especially in their sauces.

For German, capturing the right glaze meant channeling memories of his childhood and his travels. The chef first experienced barbecuing on a family lake trip in New Jersey, when his dad grilled ribs for the family to enjoy alongside plates of Dominican spaghetti. Since then, German has enjoyed barbecue all over the world, including in Cuba, when a dish of pork ribs with a rum–passion fruit glaze sparked inspiration.

German’s recipe for his Rum-and-Guava-Glazed Spareribs also speaks directly to traditions established long ago in the island region. The barbecue sauce is rooted in guava, native to the region. The sauce is brightened by rum, which derives from Caribbean sugarcane cultivation and rum distilling, and is then amplified by hints of dill pickle, mustard, and Maggi seasoning.

“It’s a way to give tribute to our past or people who paved the way for us,” says German. “Thinking about the ancestors is really important for me, and it’s more intentional to [prepare] these dishes that bring back memories.”

Greg Dupree / Food Styling by Chelsea Zimmer and Melissa Gray / Prop Styling by Audrey Taylor

No other style of cooking is as closely identified with the Caribbean as jerk. Jerk is omnipresent in Jamaica, as is allspice, which gives jerk its sweet, rich flavor.

Allspice is actually a berry from the pimento tree, which is ubiquitous across the island. The spice has comforting notes of clove, cinnamon, and nutmeg (the multitude of aromas is what led to it being dubbed “allspice”), which are interwoven with Caribbean barbecue traditions, particularly in Jamaica.

During the 17th century, a group of people of African descent sought refuge from English and Spanish slavers in Jamaica’s mountainous interior. They became known as the Maroons, and they intermingled with the Indigenous Taino people who already lived there, exchanging ideas and developing new traditions. One was jerk, a form of cooking where meat is seasoned, smoked, and grilled.

The Taino people taught the Maroons how to preserve their meat with spices and leaves, along with an underground cooking method. (Cooking with an open flame could tip off slave owners.) Eventually, jerk seasoning — a blend including Scotch bonnet chiles, garlic, thyme, and allspice — became synonymous with the cooking style itself. Jerk in Jamaica is now cooked over pimento wood, inextricably linking jerk and allspice flavors in Caribbean barbecue.

“​​It’s all about nuance,” says British Jamaican chef Melissa Thompson. “To have those different elements just makes something more exciting — it makes it tastier.” Thompson grew up surrounded by the scents of nutmeg and cinnamon embedded in allspice, and she uses allspice berries in her own barbecue, as with her recipe for Jerk Turkey Legs. She likes to serve the dish during the holidays or for a Sunday roast, matching it with simple sides like rice and peas or potatoes and allowing the tender, jerk-seasoned turkey to do the talking. Instead of importing pimento wood, Thompson reaches for a tree local to England: bay. “I love using bay because it takes that story and allows it to kind of evolve,” she says. “Because resourcefulness is at the heart of Jamaican cuisine.”

Greg Dupree / Food Styling by Chelsea Zimmer and Melissa Gray / Prop Styling by Audrey Taylor

“If you drive around the coast of Puerto Rico, you’re bound to run into this dish.”

That’s the first thing chef Jose Enrique, chef and owner of his eponymous restaurant in San Juan, says about Kingfish Escabeche, a pickled and marinated fish dish served throughout the island. Vinegar is no stranger to any barbecue tradition, and in the Caribbean, it can work as both a preservation agent and a flavoring technique. Fish escabeche (also called escovitch fish in parts of the region) came to the Caribbean through Spain centuries ago; featuring fish that’s first cooked and then pickled in vinegar, it is beloved throughout the region.

Enrique has put his own spin on the dish, opting for a barbecue-ready version that calls for kingfish steaks that have been cooked over coals rather than fried fish (as is more typical). The smokiness from his Kingfish Escabeche is the perfect pairing for the tangy, tart vinegar he uses.

Enrique’s escabeche sauce leans heavily on rice vinegar and honey to preserve, sweeten, and break down the fat of the juicy kingfish steaks. The chef will often prepare a batch of the fish, pull them out ahead of a beach trip, and enjoy them hot or cold, an experience he describes as “very Puerto Rican.”

Greg Dupree / Food Styling by Chelsea Zimmer and Melissa Gray / Prop Styling by Audrey Taylor

Barbecue takes many forms in the Caribbean today, encompassing an array of grilling techniques, such as cooking directly or indirectly over a heat source, and incorporating the influences of many cultures. Central to all styles of barbecue, however, is the smoke.

Today, chefs carrying on the tradition of Caribbean barbecue embrace different woods for the flavor they add; wood from the tonka tree, for example, gives off a vanilla note, and pimento wood is prized for the distinctive spice it gives to jerk.

Chef Osei Blackett remembers the impact of a smoky barbecued lamb dish he enjoyed as a child in the busy, vibrant streets of his youth in Trinidad and Tobago. Trinidad and Tobago are home to a sizable Syrian community — some recent arrivals, others descendents of immigrants who arrived in the early 20th century — and Blackett recalls a group of Muslim men who sold barbecued lamb that had been deeply seasoned and grilled over an open fire. They served the meat with french fries or a dinner roll and a garlicky aioli or chadon beni sauce, which derives from the green culantro plant integral to Trinidad and Tobago foodways. Blackett would ask for money from his parents to purchase a plate of the meat drizzled in the aromatic sauces.

Today, the chef re-creates a version of this enduring childhood memory with a personal take. His Trini-Style BBQ Lamb has penetrating notes of fresh lime juice, ginger, and thyme, while a sweet, beer-based sauce adds a perfectly complementary layer of flavor. For a smoky profile that stands up to the gamey flavor of the lamb meat, Blackett uses oak wood chunks. The smoking step in this recipe takes time but adds an undeniably evocative element to the dish that Blackett says makes it a worthy tribute to the street food of his childhood. “It’s probably one of the most recognized barbecue items in Trinidad,” Blackett says. “And something that’s also close to my heart.”

Greg Dupree / Food Styling by Chelsea Zimmer and Melissa Gray / Prop Styling by Audrey Taylor

Scotch bonnet chiles are nuanced. They range in color and flavor (yellow and red chiles tend to be spicier, and green ones more herbaceous), but most have a crisp, fresh, herbal flavor that makes them essential to Caribbean cuisine in general — and to the region’s barbecue in particular.

As a child, Haitian chef Dayana Joseph watched her mother use Scotch bonnets to add heat and fruity notes to fish, chicken, and rice and peas. “In Haiti, we love to build bites,” she notes. “We do it in a way that slowly builds as you eat, and using Scotch bonnet chiles is the best way to do that.” In Atlanta, where she now lives, Joseph finds seafood to be the perfect template for ongoing peppery experimentation.

Joseph remains true to lessons from her Haitian upbringing: You catch what you eat, and in her view, seafood deserves as much a place in the barbecue canon as does pork, lamb, or chicken. Her Lobster Tails with Scotch Bonnet–Honey Glaze make an exceptional case for including the fruits of the sea on the barbecue grill.

For this recipe, Joseph channels memories of boukannen, a Haitian style of barbecue in which fish or a piece of meat is smoked over an open fire, allowing it to develop a slight char. The lobster is spread with a shallot-garlic-butter mixture that takes inspiration from traditional Haitian epis, a green blend of herbs, spices, and aromatics. But the true star of the show in Joseph’s recipe is the sweet and spicy Scotch bonnet–honey glaze, a mixture of mustard, honey, and olive oil, enlivened with a bit of lime and stemmed Scotch bonnet chiles. Each bite of the glazed lobster starts sweet and delightfully sticky and ends with a spicy touch.