Barbados Cuisine: A Foodie’s Cure

This Caribbean island is just the cure for your Culinary Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, with treatment that includes fried flying fish melts and conch fritters at top restaurants in Barbados.

Sufferers of a hotly debated chronic illness, Culinary Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (COCD), are aware that right now, there is no cure. But there is treatment. Those who doubt the existence of COCD—doctors and such—call this healing therapy general names like “vacation” or worse, “holiday.” But those who are victims of the relentless process, such as myself—a 40-year-old foodie with early onset of the disorder—know this ray of light by a more specific and apropos name: Barbados.

Part of the Lesser Antilles, Barbados is the easternmost Caribbean island, located just northeast of Venezuela, and easily accessed from the United States. The island has a colorful and important history, dating back to the Amerindians and continuing to 1625 when an English ship claimed Barbados on behalf of King James I, and then to 1751 when Colonial America’s future president, George Washington, stayed on the island with his tuberculosis-stricken half-brother to improve his health. Today, Bajans (in local dialect) so love George Washington that they restored and furnished the historic Georgian house he slept in, opening it to the public in 2007 complete with a café and a gift shop in the 18th-century stables. They even show a movie about Washington’s journey to Barbados—the only one he ever took out from the mainland.

Dining Capital of the Caribbean

More to the point for COCDers, however, is that Barbados is often referred to as the “Dining Capital of the Caribbean.” Richard Williams, a native who is the vice president of the Americas for the Barbados Tourism Authority, notes that “for a Caribbean island, this is a unique experience for food. We have a nice assortment of restaurants.”

In fact, Pat Hoyos, editor of the 2008 Zagat Best of Barbados, points to 174 eateries remarking that “this year’s crop of newcomers adds to a list of wonderfully varied choices.” These range from ethnic newbies such as Apsara & Tamnak Thai in Christ Church to long-running haute cuisine master The Cliff in St. James to the purely Bajan establishment called The Cove, situated above Cattlewash in St. Joseph.

If you feel COCD symptoms coming on strong, walk right into Indian-themed Apsara, on the ground floor of a renovated, 200-year-old plantation house, or Tamnak, the sister Thai establishment on its first story, for a sizzling, savory lunchtime curry. For dinner, however, the restaurants “do recommend that reservations be made for dinner to avoid disappointment.” Morcambe House, Worthing, Christ Church. Tel. +246-435-5454. Hours: Open daily from 6:30 to 9 p.m.

The Cliff and The Cove both require reservations, particularly during high season. But do note that the latter, owned by Gourmand World Cookbook Award-winning chef Laurel Ann Morley, who was born in Venezuela but whose parents were Trinidadian and grandparents Bajan, is far more casual and open only for lunch. A small blue house perched dramatically on a hillside, The Cove can be tough for outsiders to locate. But one taste of Morley’s thyme-spiked conch fritters or her curried chicken and potato roti, accented with sweet-tart tamarind chutney—accompanied by a glance of the waves beating on the eggshell shore below you—and you’ll forgive the hardship. The Cove, Atlantic Park, Cattlewash. Tel. +246-433-9495. Hours: Open Wed., Thu., Sat., Sun. from 12 to 3 p.m. The Cliffs, Derricks, St. James. Tel. +246-432-1922. Hours: Open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Two-course meal prices start at BD$245 per person (US$124).

Flying Fish Delicacies

Another epicurean facet enabling Barbados to stand alone is its denizens’ devotion for a particular fish. Actually, many restaurants in the Caribbean serve frozen fish because the jet stream around their islands isn’t conducive to catching fresh fish. (So yes, they get it shipped from other places, like Florida.) But while cricket, not fishing, is the No. 1 sport in Barbados, it’s the flying fish that’s earned itself the title of “national treasure.”

Indeed, Bajans so love the flying fish they even consider its reproductive organs a delicacy. One of the best places that tourists can find the battered and fried “roes and melts” of the flying fish is at the picturesque Waterfront Café on the Bridgetown Marina in St. Michael, which is easily accessed from the deep-water port where the cruise ships make anchor. Served with a zesty horseradish aioli, the melts are surprisingly good, with a buttery texture and faint, musky smell that reminded me of oysters. I have to admit, though, that the first time I ate them I didn’t exactly know what they were, beyond “they’re the melts, mon.”

So if these make you shudder just by thought itself, indulge instead in the café’s specialty of flying fish and cou-cou (a Caribbean polenta made with okra). The fillets of fish, steamed skin-on and jelly roll-style in a fish broth that is also redolent of tomatoes, onions, hot peppers and thyme, are plated next to a mound of molded cornmeal. This cou-cou, which speaks to the African heritage of Barbados, is an excellent starch for soaking up gravy, so the more you spill on, the better. The Careenage, Bridgetown. Tel. +246-427-0093. Hours: Mon. to Sat. 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Rock Lobster

If you’re not a fan of flying fish but do love the idea of fresh, head to Lobster Alive. This beachy dive on the sands of Carlisle Bay in St. Michael began as a wholesale market, flying thousands of spiny lobsters up live from the Grenadines every week. Then, Australian owner Art Taylor says his practice of steaming lobster tails for take-out while his clients waited for their orders to be ready “forced a restaurant.”

He still keeps his indoor wading pool filled with spiny lobsters of all sizes, and the number of creatures is almost alarming for the phobic. But now his customers can come in and choose their own tail before taking a seat. It’s even a tradition for locals to bring out-of-towners and stuff them full of parmesan-heavy crab backs, succulent bites of “soused sea cat” (pickled octopus) and an enormously rich rock lobster Thermidor, sauced with Lobster Alive’s dizzying version made with wine, brandy and cheese. And if you catch the place on a good night, you’ll have the thump of live jazz from a guitar, trombone and bass to help you digest. Wesley House, Bay Street. Tel. +246-435-0305. Starters like Lobster Bisque are priced at $30, or Lobster Spring Rolls, $28. Hours: Lunch, 12 to 3:30 p.m. Mon. to Sat., Sun. 12 to 4 p.m. with live jazz; dinner, 6 to 9 p.m., Mon. to Sat.

Taste of Barbados Festival

If you number among those who doubt the reality of Culinary Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, time your visit for October, when the annual Taste of Barbados festival infuses every aspect of island life for nine days. At the various seminars, you’ll learn about West Indian culture through the multifaceted cuisine and meet both homegrown and visiting chefs.

For a variety of reasons—not the least of which is because you sample the food at the end—it’s very helpful to attend an early class led by festival mainstay chef Peter Edey, a Bajan who introduces traditional ingredients, recipes and techniques in his talks. You can then use your newfound knowledge of salt fish and eddo cakes (bacalao and taro) and frizzled (browned) fish to navigate the popular lunch buffet at Brown Sugar on your own, which is just down Bay Street from the centrally located Hilton Barbados. Or impress the friends who stayed behind on the beach with your short-term memory skills by quoting Edey: “The secret to Bajan cooking is flavoring every layer.”

At night, you’ll have the opportunity to sample a wide variety of restaurants at the Gourmet Taste at the historic Holders House, an annual happening, or try, at events such as the Aphrodisiac evening, elusive items such as “bush rum.” While the rum shops—bars devoted to selling name-brand rum such as Mount Gay or Cockspur—outnumber churches four to one, bush rum is very much a home concoction. It’s made with bark and herbs for medicinal purposes and is said to be an aphrodisiac. Tel. +246-426-5041.

Rum Tasting

If you feel like you didn’t get a chance to sample enough rum (perhaps that Mount Gay snow cone at Holders House didn’t pack enough punch, or guest bartender Tony Abou-Ganim’s mojito, which really was “like a great gravy, tasting better as it comes together,” created a thirst for more) head to Mount Gay Visitor’s Centre to find out more about the oldest spirit in the New World. Or check in with Island Safari Tours to take the Rum Shop Safari Tour. This outfit, which runs open-air Land Rovers that are capable of off-roading around the island, will happily take you to several rum shops and teach you how Bajans take their drinks: Mount Gay Extra Old, hold the ginger ale. Tel. +246-429-5337. Cost: $62.50 per person. Tours: Sat., 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

Remember, Barbados and its delicacies and festival are here to help, so keep to the recommended dosage. Overindulgence could lead to negative side effects; trust me, I submitted myself to the studies so you don’t have to. With proper application, Barbados could temporarily help relieve your Culinary Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. 

Destinations: Barbados

Themes: Culinary

Activities: Eat