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Published: Tuesday, 10/19/2004

Island foods influenced by occupying countries


Although the foods of Caribbean islands have similarities, the cuisines can be divided by language, says Viviana Carballo, a native of Cuba and a Miami-based food consultant.

Ms. Carballo, who has lived in the United States for 40 years, says each island's cuisine is based on that of its occupying country.

The influences of the Spanish, French, Dutch, and English are apparent in the foods of the islands, she said at the Association of Food Journalists conference this month in San Juan, Puerto Rico. "Fifteen million African slaves were a major influence," she said.

The native Indians taught the explorers "what was edible and how to cook a rich and healthy cuisine. Barbecue started here. First it was fish with herbs and peppers between the skin and flesh and cooked."

Puerto Rican cuisine is a blend of Spanish, African, and Taino Indian cooking. Cocina criolla or creole cuisine (unlike the New Orleans cooking of the same name) began with the indigenous people of Puerto Rico, who cultivated crops such as yuca, corn, and yams. Yuca was used to prepare casabe, a flatbread that is still enjoyed today. Tainos used yuca to make vinegar, which was an important seasoning because they did not use salt in cooking, according to the Puerto Rico Tourism Co.

Foods introduced by the Spaniards include wheat, chickpeas, cilantro, onions, garlic, and rum. The Africans brought plantains and okra and are credited with developing coconut dishes. Their favorite technique was frying, which is a common way of cooking on the island.

Mofongo, a plantain mash, is an African name and a favorite starch served today with fish, chicken, and a variety of entrees. There are root vegetables such as boniato, malanga with a faint taste of chestnuts, and chayote, which takes on flavors of other ingredients. Calavasa is similar to pumpkin.

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