Whenever there's a sun shower on Barbados, the locals like to say the devil and his wife are fighting over the cou cou stick. The expression refers to the cricket-bat-shaped cooking implement used to stir cou cou, a thick, African mash of okra and cornmeal, a dish as elemental to the island's identity as its tropical weather.
Although not as well known as the cuisines of Caribbean counterparts like Jamaica or Trinidad and lacking their incendiary heat, Bajan cooking is a world of its own, a multi-cultural stew that rewards sampling.
British sailors claimed Barbados, a coral tear dripping from the Lesser Antilles, for the Crown in 1625. Colonists quickly turned the island into the epicenter of the burgeoning sugar trade. In his 2006 book, And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails, Atlantic contributor Wayne Curtis writes that by the mid-17th century Barbados produced more sugar than all the other islands in the British West Indies combined. Rum, made from the plentiful waste produced by sugar refining, soon followed. (Although the provenance of rum is still debated, Barbados is the home of the oldest continuously operating distillery, Mount Gay, founded in 1703. Malibu and several others are also based on the island.) The English, including indentured servants and prisoners; the African slaves they brought to the island; and, later, after abolition, migrant Indian laborers, all shaped the cuisine, which skews to the hearty, stick-to-your ribs variety.
"I call it a bellyful of food," laughed Laurel-Ann Morley, the author of two cookbooks, including Cooking with Rum, and chef-owner of the Caribbean restaurant The Cove in St. Joseph Parish on the island's rugged eastern coast.
To be sure, fish is a big part of the cuisine, but dishes like roast pork and beef and goat stew are also among the island's favorite. And most protein-based dishes are served alongside starchy sides like cou cou, rice and peas, mac pie (a crusty slab of macaroni and cheese), and breadfruit, the fibrous, mildly sweet tree fruit that is ubiquitous throughout the tropical world and that Morley's restaurant prepares in an astounding 32 ways.
Happily, meals tend to be leisurely affairs, Morley said. "We take lot of time eating meals because it's a social time, a family time for us."
Perhaps that explains why more traditional Bajan-style cuisine—the bellyful kind—still thrives. In addition to The Cove, it lives on in the 166-square-mile island's hundreds of rum shops, colorfully painted former chattel houses where you can wash down a plate of fried flying fish with a rum and Coke or rum punch, topped with Angostura bitters (from neighbor Trinidad) and a dusting of freshly ground nutmeg, of course. And then there is the wildly popular Oistin's, a fresh fish market with a warren of stalls where, for less than $15, you can buy grilled and fried dolphin (as mahi mahi is known on the island), swordfish, flying fish, red snapper, and whole lobsters, plus sides. On Friday nights the place is packed—even after a recent expansion—with Bajans and tourists alike. They eat at picnic tables under Christmas lights and dance to the mix of soca and rocksteady that blares from the market's rum shops.
"We like our food," Morley said. Chances are you will too. Try one of Morley's recipes, below, for a gustatory trip to Barbados.