Just as food critics were composing eulogies for traditional cooking in the Virgin Islands, there was a last-minute resurgence. Many of the old island dishes have made a comeback, and little taverns and shanties offering regional specialties are popping up everywhere. You can now escape hamburger hell and taste some real Caribbean flavors.
When dining in the Virgins, try fresh fish, especially mahimahi, wahoo, yellowtail, grouper, and red snapper. These fish, accompanied by a hot lime sauce, are among the tastiest island specialties. Watch out for the sweet Caribbean lobster: It's likely to be overpriced and overcooked, and many diners, especially those from Maine, feel that it's not worth the price.
The major resort hotels often feature elaborate buffets, which inevitably include some West Indian dishes along with more standard Continental fare. They're almost always reasonable in price, and you'll most likely enjoy the sounds of a West Indian fungi band while you eat (fungi music is a melodious, usually improvised blend of African and Spanish sounds). You don't have to be a hotel guest to indulge, but you often need to make a reservation.
The most famous soup in the islands is kallaloo, or callaloo, made in an infinite number of ways with a leafy green vegetable similar to spinach. It's often flavored with any combination of the following: salt beef, pig mouth, pig tail, hot peppers, ham bone, fresh fish, crab, corned conch, okra, onions, and spices.
Many soups are sweetened with sugar and often contain fruit; for example, the classic red-bean soup -- made with pork or ham, various spices, and tomatoes -- is sugared to taste. Tannia soup is made with its namesake, a starchy root known as the "purple elephant ear" because of its color and shape; it's combined with salt-fat meat and ham, tomatoes, onions, and spices. Souse is an old-time favorite made with the feet, head, and tongue of a pig, and flavored with a lime-based sauce.
Saltfish salad is traditionally served on Maundy Thursday or Good Friday in the Virgin Islands. It consists of boneless salt fish, potatoes, onions, boiled eggs, and an oil-and-vinegar dressing.
Herring gundy is another old-time island favorite; it's a salad made with salt herring, potatoes, onions, green sweet and hot peppers, olives, diced beets, raw carrots, herbs, and boiled eggs.
Rice -- seasoned, not plain -- is popular with Virgin Islanders, who are fond of serving several starches at one meal. Most often rice is flavored with ham or salt pork, tomatoes, garlic, onion, and shortening.
Fungi is a simple cornmeal dumpling, made more interesting with the addition of okra and other ingredients. Sweet fungi is served as a dessert, with sugar, milk, cinnamon, and raisins.
Okra (often spelled ochroe in the islands) is a mainstay vegetable, usually accompanying beef, fish, or chicken. It's often fried and flavored with hot peppers, tomatoes, onions, garlic, and bacon fat or butter. Accra, a popular dish, is made with okra, black-eyed peas, salt, and pepper, all fried until they're golden brown.
The classic vegetable dish, which some families eat every night, is peas and rice. It usually consists of pigeon peas flavored with ham or salt meat, onion, tomatoes, herbs, and sometimes slices of pumpkin. Pigeon peas, one of the most common vegetables in the islands, are sometimes called congo peas or gunga.
Fish & Meat
Way back when, locals gave colorful names to the various fish brought home for dinner, everything from "ole wife" to "doctors," both of which are whitefish. "Porgies and grunts," along with yellowtail, kingfish, and bonito, also show up on many Caribbean dinner tables. Fish is usually boiled in a lime-flavored brew seasoned with hot peppers and herbs, and is commonly served with a Creole sauce of peppers, tomatoes, and onions, among other ingredients. Salt fish and rice is an excellent low-cost dish; the fish is flavored with onion, tomatoes, shortening, garlic, and green peppers.
Conch Creole is a savory brew, seasoned with onions, garlic, spices, hot peppers, and salt pork. Another local favorite is chicken and rice, usually made with Spanish peppers. More adventurous diners might try curried goat, the longtime classic West Indian dinner prepared with herbs, cardamom pods, and onions.
The famous johnnycakes that accompany many of these fish and meat dishes are made with flour, baking powder, shortening, and salt, then fried or baked.
Sweet potato pie is a Virgin Islands classic, made with sugar, eggs, butter, milk, salt, cinnamon, raisins, and chopped raw almonds. The exotic fruits of the islands lend themselves to various homemade ice creams, including mango, guava (our favorite), soursop (a tangy fruit), banana, and papaya. Sometimes dumplings, made with guava, peach, plum, gooseberry, cherry, or apple, are served for dessert.
The islands' true poison is Cruzan rum. To help stimulate the local economy, U.S. Customs allows you to bring home an extra bottle of Cruzan rum, in addition to your usual 5-liter liquor allowance.
Long before the arrival of Coca-Cola and Pepsi, many islanders concocted their own drinks with whatever was available, including local fruit. Fresh fruit concoctions are still available today.
Water is generally safe to drink on the islands. Much of the water is stored in cisterns and filtered before it's served. Delicate stomachs should stick to mineral water or club soda. American sodas and beer are sold in both the U.S. Virgin Islands and the British Virgin Islands. Wine is sold, too, but it's usually quite expensive.
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.