We have said on more than one occasion that Dominican food has more in common with its Spanish-speaking Caribbean neighbours than with other parts of Latin America and the Caribbean. I thought I’d look into this in a little more detail. It makes sense that we should share a common culinary tradition with Cuba and Puerto Rico, because the ingredients that make up their populations and their respective cuisines – Indigenous, Spanish and African – are identical to ours, albeit in different proportions. Our neighbouring English-speaking islands share two out of the three basic components, and it follows that this should be reflected in the food people eat.
I enlisted the help of some friends with first-hand knowledge of the English-speaking islands. Clarita who lives in Jamaica was the first to reply. As well as having lived in Venzuela and Cameroon, she has also visited the Dominican Republic and is able to compare the two gastronomic cultures. This is her report:
“The one main thing that is different is probably the use of the scotch bonnet pepper in Jamaican cooking which does not seem so prevalent in Dominican cooking. Everything here is hot – even when you order a tuna sandwhich they put chilli in the tuna mix. After living here for a while I have got used to it and use more chilli in my cooking than ever before!
The main meat here is probably chicken; sometimes beef but that would not be very common in basic establishments. Patties are a very popular snack – meat, chicken or fish usually. Seafood is of course very popular – snapper fried or grilled and served with an escovitched sauce – which is a sort of vinegar sauce with peppers and onions in it. Two accompaniments to that: bammy (a sort of cassava bread) and festival (slightly sweet dumpings). You can see a lot of influence from the slavery days as I recognise a lot of similarities in the food here as in Cameroon.
Jamaicans love to eat and have three big meals a day. They have a massive plateful for breakfast – ackee and saltfish, green banana (plaintain, boiled), festival etc. Then they sit down to a hearty meal again at lunchtime – jerk chicken, the ubiquitous rice and peas, some sort of vegetable, a red pea soup, or goat curry. Something that may sound disgusting is mannish water – a soup with all the wrong bits of goat in. It is meant to give men virility… At Christmas the big thing is baked ham”.
There are some important differences, most notably being the passion for spicy food, but let’s list the familiar sounding foods Clarita describes:
Chicken or beef – the same goes here in the Dominican Republic, where people usually accompany their lunchtime rice and beans with one or the other. In Jamaica, as in the Dominican Republic, rice and beans (known as ‘rice and peas’ in Jamaica) is also a daily staple and the central part of the main meal. The only difference being that Jamaicans tend to eat red beans rather than black beans, while Dominicans love both.
It is worth mentioning that the English speaking islands have also been influenced by East Indian migration, i.e. people from India, which also used to be part of the British Empire. In other parts of the English speaking Caribbean roti is a very popular food, basically an Indian chapati stuffed with vegetable or chicken curry. But although there has been no East Indian influence in the Dominican Republic, can there really be much of a difference between Jamaican curry goat and Dominican chivo picante?
Dominicans eat dumplings, calling them ‘don-plin’ which were introduced here by migrants from the English speaking islands. The islands did not develop in isolation and there have been several culinary influences from across the Caribbean, another being favourite Dominican street snack ‘yaniqueque’ which derives from the Caribbean English ‘johnnycake’.
Clarita mentions plantains being eaten for breakfast, although in Jamaica they are apparently boiled and eaten whole, not mashed like the Dominican mangu.
Seafood is also popular here, which is normal for an island culture. I wonder whether Jamaican saltfish is the same as – or at least similar to – Dominican ‘bacalao’? The ‘escovitched sauce’ Clarita mentions is known here as ‘escabeche’.
Cassava bread – this certainly sounds familiar to anyone who knows the Dominican ‘casabe’ but this is not surprising as Jamaica shares a similar indigenous heritage.
Patties – the Dominican equivalent of the Jamaican pattie is the ‘empanada’, which is also stuffed with meat, chicken or fish.
Like Dominicans, Jamaicans opt for pig rather than turkey for Christmas dinner. Dominicans roast a suckling pig on a spit (‘lechon asado’), while Jamaicans bake a ham.
And finally, ‘mannish water’ may sound like ‘mamajuana’ but the idea behind is far from identical! Mannish water is a goat soup.