St. Croix, like many Caribbean islands, is a cultural melting pot. One of the many great things about this mix of ethnic groups and cultures is that it results in some amazingly diverse local cuisine. As you taste your way around the island, you will experience a multitude of influences and fusions including Caribbean, African, Indian, Latin American, European and American. There is also a huge diversity of ingredients available on the island, from locally caught seafood and locally raised meat, to the diverse fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices the rainforest and farm belt have to offer. In order to truly experience St. Croix, you must sample the local fare!
The most obvious influence in the local cuisine is that of the Caribbean and West Indian islands, which are themselves a mixture of cultural influences. Like the history and diversity of the island itself, many countries have left their mark on what is considered ‘local’ food on St. Croix. Here, the cuisine relies heavily on the use of herbs and spices to marinate meats, flavor soups and sauces, and season rices and beans. You will often taste herbs and spices like bay leaf, lemongrass, curry, basil, cinnamon, culantro (similar in flavor to cilantro), cumin, pepper, ginger, jerk seasoning, and spicy scotch bonnet peppers. In fact, you will find a plethora of delicious locally made hot sauces in restaurants, at farmers markets and grocery stores, and for sale at local events. While these sauces are all made from different recipes and vary in heat intensity, they are often made from a base of fruit (such as mangoes or bananas) blended with vinegar and habaneros or scotch bonnet peppers.
The Caribbean cuisine also takes advantage of the great local seafood such as conch, wahoo, mahi mahi, kingfish, ‘pot fish’ (or small reef fish), and lobster. Some of the more well-known Caribbean dishes you will find here on St. Croix are saltfish, conch in butter sauce, kallaloo, and fried kingfish steaks. Saltfish is fresh fish that has been salt-cured and dried until all the moisture has been extracted. To prepare saltfish for cooking it needs to be re-hydrated and most of the salt removed through a process of overnight soaking in hot water or milk and subsequent boiling. Saltfish is an essential part of a traditional Crucian breakfast, which consists of the saltfish, boiled eggs, johnny cakes or dumb bread, and cooked greens. Another popular dish you will see is kallaloo – a delicious, green soupy stew gets its roots from West Africa. While this soup was originally based on the use of taro leaves (sometimes called callaloo), a number of variations on the kallaloo recipe have since evolved. On St. Croix, spinach is most often used as the base for kallaloo, and the soup generally includes onions, green onion, celery, thyme, parsley, and okra. Depending on the variation, ingredients may also include taro root or pumpkin, as well as fresh fish, crabs, conch, lobster, ham, smoked pork, or even tofu cubes.
In addition to seafood, Crucians also enjoy some ‘exotic’ meats, like goat and the local breed of beef cattle called Senepol. Stewed or curried goat, and goat roti are popular dishes here on the island. Roti is an Indian flat bread made from stone-ground wholemeal flour, that is filled with a curried meat, potato and chickpea filling and then folded up (kind of like an Indian burrito). You can also get conch, chicken, beef, or vegetarian roti. Pate is also a must here on St. Croix if you get a chance to try it. Pate is a well seasoned, meat-filled pastry, often made for special events and available from local street food vendors. Like many other countries, Crucians also utilize most parts of the animal in cooking, hence dishes like stewed oxtail, bull foot soup and souse. Souse is a soupy broth consisting primarily of pickled pork culled the head, feet, and tail.
St. Croix’s local cuisine is heavy on starches, which include breads, rice and beans, as well as breadfruit, yucca, cassava, potatoes, yams, sweet potatoes, plantains and pumpkin. You will often find ‘provisions’ as a local side dish, which is a mixture of boiled starches which usually includes breadfruit, yucca, cassava, and/or white potatoes. ‘Crucian stuffing’ (a sweet, souffle-like potato dish with raisins), fried or stewed plantains, red beans and rice, seasoned rice with pigeon peas, and good old baked macaroni and cheese are hugely popular side dishes as well. Johnny cakes are a must-try here on St. Croix. These delicious fried breads are slightly sweet and are served as a side, or by themselves. Fungi (pronounced foon-ji) is a cooked cornmeal paste, similar to the more well known Italian polenta, that is usually served in the bottom of a bowl of kallaloo, or with saltfish cooked with onions, tomatoes and peppers.
If you have a sweet tooth, there are plenty of cakes and treats to choose from. You can find fresh, locally made coconut or ginger candies at the local farmers markets, as well as many homemade jams and preserves including tamarind stew or gooseberry stew, which is often served over vanilla ice cream. At buffets, bakeries and farmers markets across the island you can find delicious miniature fruit tarts filled with coconut, pineapple, or guava filling. For a true taste of Caribbean tradition at Christmas time, black cake is a must. Black cake is a traditional Caribbean fruitcake made by soaking a mixture of fruit for months in rum and brandy, and then blending it up and mixing it into a delicious cake. Of course, you can also always find delicious rum cakes made with rum distilled right here on St. Croix.
Last, but not least, don’t forget to sample the locally made beverages if you get a chance. Bush tea, is a mix of local leaves, and herbs that is steeped like herbal tea. My personal favorite is a mix you can find at the farmers markets which includes lime leaves, mint, lemongrass, and moringa. Sorrel tea is another popular drink made by steeping the bright fuchsia sorrel flowers. You can also find ginger beer made from fresh ginger, or try some hydrating locally harvested coconut water. Coquito is a hugely popular rum based drink made with cream, vanilla and cinnamon, usually enjoyed around Christmas time. Coquito is often made from family recipes passed down through the generations, and it is so popular that there are coquito festivals held each year to celebrate this drink and see who makes the best coquito on St. Croix.
There is a fantastic variety of local cuisine to feast on while you are here on St. Croix, so try something new. Stop at the farmers markets to sample and shop for locally made preserves, hot sauces, seasonings, and fresh produce. Take time to visit some local festivals, events, or jump ups to try traditional dishes like kallaloo, conch in butter, and johnny cakes. If you find a food truck or street vendor, try some of the popular street foods like roti or pates. Or, support the local restaurants while you try the fresh seafood and local fusion cuisine. However you choose to indulge, make sure you savor the flavor of St. Croix!
– Jennie Ogden, Editor