The food of the islands is influenced by the diverse cultures that have settled there, as well as the meats, fruits, and vegetables that are widely available. Seek out traditional Virgin Islands dishes while you visit.
No food group is as traditional in the islands as seafood. Pot fish, the reef fish caught in fish pots, is ubiquitous in local restaurants and is served grilled, boiled, or fried. Common species are yellowtail, trigger fish, snapper, red hind, and blue runner. Pot fish are typically served whole, sometimes with the head; larger fish are cut into steaks, locally called “junk.” Grilled fish is cooked over a fire with onions, peppers, and other seasonings wrapped in aluminum foil. Fried fish (everyone’s favorite) is cooked in hot fat over a charcoal fire. Boiled fish is topped with a sauce made of cooked onion, pepper, and mayonnaise thinned with the fish-cooking water.
Locally caught pelagic species will be found on the menus of more upscale restaurants. Mahimahi (also called dolphin fish), tuna, grouper, swordfish, and wahoo are some of the most common.
Saltfish is another island favorite, and its history dates back to the days when it was given to slaves as food. Made from imported salt cod, which stores forever without refrigeration, saltfish is a pungent hash of flaked fish seasoned with onions and peppers. It is often served for breakfast, or cooked inside patés—fried, meat-stuffed bread eaten for breakfast or a snack.
Whelk and conch are species of shellfish served stewed, wrapped in rotis, or stuffed in patés. Naturally tough, conch and whelk are tenderized in a pressure cooker before being served. Conch soup, made with dumplings and vegetables, is also well-liked, and every restaurant in the islands has a recipe for conch fritters, fried morsels of batter and conch meat similar to the hush puppies of the north.
The Caribbean spiny lobster is smaller than northern species but equally prized on the dinner plate. Anegada serves the best and freshest lobsters, cut in half, doused with garlic butter, and grilled over a wood fire. Lobster meat also finds its way into rotis and patés.
Goat meat, called mutton, is the most traditional red meat. Stewed mutton is flavorful, filling, and tender. Goat water is goat meat soup. Curried goat is a traditional Jamaican dish now popular in the Virgin Islands. Stewed oxtail is tender and rich. Bullfoot soup is a mostly vegetable soup deeply flavored by the cartilage of cow feet.
Pork is a favorite; many locals swear by souse, made of pig’s head and tail. Roasted, spicy pork will be found on the menu at restaurants with a Latino slant. In the holiday season, no home misses the opportunity to serve a ham. Jerk stands sell spicy grilled jerk pork.
Chicken, the most ubiquitous of meats, is consumed in many forms, including stewed, barbecued, fried, and curried. Chicken palau is chicken cooked with seasonings and rice.
Nowadays you can find any vegetable under the sun at island supermarkets, which import produce from around the world. But before container ships made weekly stops in the islands, residents grew their own produce, most commonly tomatoes, eggplant, cucumber, okra, cabbage, and peppers—sweet, hot, and “seasoning.” Pumpkin finds its way into rice, bread, soup, and stews. Wild and cultivated greens are picked and used in kallaloo, a vegetable stew seasoned with pork and well worth trying if you encounter it on a the menu of a local restaurant.
Without rice, wheat, or widespread corn cultivation, starchy vegetables, called ground provisions, served as carbohydrates on the traditional dinner plate. Local sweet potatoes are white, starchy, and sweet when boiled. Breadfruit, a distinctive-looking fruit the size of a basketball, can be served boiled, fried, or roasted. The flesh is not unlike potato. Bananas and plantains serve as fruit or vegetable. Green bananas are boiled and served as a starchy side. Ripe plantains can be boiled, fried, or mashed to provide a touch of starchy sweetness to the plate.
Everyone loves tropical fruits. Mangoes ripen in summer and are eaten in hand, outside where the juicy, sticky mess can be hosed off. Papaya, also called paw-paw, are sweet, yellow- and red-fleshed fruits cut up and eaten as a snack. Local bananas come in a number of varieties, but try to find the tiny sweet fig bananas, also called man-toasters.
Local fruits are used to make drinks, including guavaberry, a sweet, alcoholic Christmas drink; sorrel, made from the red flowers of the sorrel bush (sorrel is a variety of hibiscus); soursop, often made with milk and a popular flavor of ice cream; hibiscus, made from the petals of hibiscus flowers; and mauby, made from the bark of a local tree, is reminiscent of root beer. In addition, fruit punch made from guava, mango, passion fruit, pineapple, orange, and other fruits is popular.
Grains and Bread
The most common grain is rice, and it is often cooked with pigeon peas, beans, or seasonings. In the British Virgin Islands, peas and rice are cooked with a little bit of sugar. Fungi, a side dish made from cornmeal and not unlike polenta, is another traditional accompaniment to fish. Dumplings are not just for soup; the dense, boiled side is served alongside boiled fish.
Johnnycakes are discs of fried, hot bread, served alongside fish or chicken, with cheese for breakfast, or just as a snack. Coconut bread is a round, flat, mildly sweet loaf made with grated coconut, delicious and filling when eaten warm with egg and cheese in the morning. Flat, dry discs of cassava bread were once a staple but are now hard to find.
Bread was baked in brick ovens, which you can still see here and there, especially in the British Virgin Islands. Taste brick-oven-baked “dumb bread” at Annaberg on St. John, where docents act the part of traditional bakers three days a week. Dumb bread, baked without yeast, is a bit like a heavy biscuit. Local yeast bread is white, light, and bland. Tittie bread has been shaped into a long, narrow loaf with small round points on each end.
Tarts are the most celebrated of island desserts. Homemade pastry a bit like shortbread is stuffed with fruit fillings (coconut, pineapple, and guava are the most common) and baked. Vienna cake, especially well-known on St. Croix, is a seven-layer cake with a variety of fruit fillings. Black cake is a rum-soaked fruit cake traditionally served at Christmas.