On his trip to the West Indies in 1859, Anthony Trollope, the British novelist, was not impressed with the food his plantation-owning hosts served him. Ignoring the rich bounty of their islands, including local fruit and vegetables, they fed him canned potatoes, tinned meats, and cheeses imported from England. At the time, British expats felt that if a food item didn't come from their homeland, it wasn't worth putting on the table.
Regrettably, Trollope did not visit the Cayman Islands as part of his sojourn. Had he paid a call, he would have found that the enterprising Caymanians were eating what they raised. Or, more accurately, what they caught. There was little reliance on imported goods in the 19th-century Cayman Islands. Today, Caymanian cuisine continues to take advantage of the islands' natural provisions, and locally caught fish dominates menus throughout the islands.
Today, many Caymanian chefs showcase international recipes on their menus, and some Caymanians claim that you have to be invited to a local home to sample real island cuisine. This is simply not true. Numerous restaurants still feature West Indian cooks who prepare food as their grandmothers did, and we've recommended several of them. Unless a restaurant is devoted to a particular foreign cuisine, it is likely to offer a handful of authentic Caymanian dishes.
Although Grand Cayman hotels quote their rates in U.S. dollars, nearly all restaurants list prices in both Cayman and U.S. dollars. (This is based on the assumption that islanders patronize their local restaurants, but have little need for hotel rooms.) Most restaurants add a 10% to 15% charge in lieu of a tip, so check your bill carefully.
Following are a few traditional menu items you can expect to see at Caymanian restaurants:
Sea Turtle -- Turtle meat that appears on menus in the Cayman Islands is from the local Cayman Turtle Farm, which raises turtles specifically for commercial purposes.
Queen Conch -- The national food of the Cayman Islands is conch. The firm white meat of this mollusk -- called the "snail of the sea" -- tastes somewhat bland until local chefs work their magic. Conch has a chewy consistency, which means that it has to be tenderized. It's often served at happy hour in taverns and bars, as a main dish, in salads, and as an hors d'oeuvre.
Every cook has a different recipe for conch chowder, but a popular version includes tomatoes, potatoes, sweet peppers, onions, carrots, salt or pork bacon, bay leaves, thyme, and (of course) salt and pepper. Conch fritters are served with hot sauce and are made with finely minced peppers, onions, and tomato paste, among other ingredients. They are deep-fried in oil.
Cracked conch (or "fried conch," as the old-timers used to call it) is prepared like a breaded veal cutlet. The conch is tenderized and dipped in batter, and then sautéed. Conch is also served steamed, in Creole sauce, curried, "scorched," creamed on toast, and stewed. You'll even find "conch burgers" listed on menus.
Marinated conch is frequently enjoyed right on the water, courtesy of the numerous Caymanian sea captains who operate North Sound excursions that include lunch. They will scoop a conch right out of the sea, remove it from its shell (an art unto itself), slice it up, and serve it with lime juice and onions -- as fresh as it can possibly be.
The Main Event -- Red snapper, mahimahi (which is also called dorado or dolphin), swordfish, yellowfin tuna, and grouper are the most commonly available fish.
The most elegant item you'll see on nearly any menu is the local spiny lobster. This tropical cousin of the Maine lobster is also called crayfish or rock lobster. Only the tail is eaten. You get fresh lobster when it is in season, from the beginning of April until the end of August. Otherwise it's frozen.
Chicken and pork, the meats that are most often prepared island-style, are frequently roasted, grilled, curried, or "jerked" -- that is, rubbed with spices and slow-smoked for hours over a low fire, preferably made with pimento wood. Each cook has his or her own spice blend, but jerk spices usually include allspice, hot Scotch bonnet pepper, thyme, nutmeg, salt, garlic, onion, and green onion. Other popular meat dishes that are easily found at restaurants serving island cuisine include braised beef liver, curried goat, oxtail, and salt beef and beans.
The Sides -- The most frequent companion for main dishes is "rice and peas," a dish that's also popular in Jamaica, which is actually composed of rice and red beans cooked in coconut milk. Along with rice and peas, ripe plantains (larger, less sweet relatives of the banana) are fried or baked with brown sugar and served alongside main dishes.
Which Dollar? Yours or Mine?
Make sure you know in which currency menu prices are quoted. If the currency is not written on the menu, ask the waiter if the prices are in U.S. or Cayman Islands dollars.
The High Price of Imported Ingredients -- Because many ingredients must be imported into the Cayman Islands, restaurants here are among the most expensive in the Caribbean. Even so-called moderate restaurants can become expensive if you order steak or lobster. For the best value, opt for West Indian fare at local restaurants.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.