Christmas in the Caribbean is quite unique. While gift giving and decorating homes and communities are considered rituals in other countries, on the islands, celebrating the festivities revolves around local cuisine. Indeed, food and beverage play an integral part in almost all social events. Whether it is a wedding, a birthday party or even a wake (ceremony to commemorate the life of a recently deceased person), the focus has always been on the various dishes that are associated with each occasion. Similar to the turkey feast of Thanksgiving, Christmas in the Caribbean is characterized by the preparations of traditional dishes.
The black cake or fruit cake is a staple dessert in every household. Each country has its own recipe. Families would add their own particular set of ingredients and then boast that theirs is the “best black cake in the country”. Preparations may begin several months in advance. They are usually baked two weeks before Christmas in order to be enjoyed by family and friends. Usually the matriarch would soak or marinate dried fruits, such as prunes, raisins and cherries, in rum or sherry, for additional flavor. The fruits are can also be grounded using a mill or pureed. They are then placed into containers until ready for use. Baking the cakes involves the participation of the entire family. Even the youngest ones assist by licking the bowls clean.
Additional baked goodies include the very popular sweet bread. The essential ingredient is the coconut. It can be purchased in powdered or shredded form, but the best and freshest flavor is acquired when the “meat” found inside a mature nut is actually grated before mixing the batter. This is an arduous task as it is done by entirely hand, however the results are certainly worth the effort. To make this dish, simply add coconut, spices and dried fruit to a basic bread recipe.
Making Caribbean pastels (or pastelles), a dish originating from France, is fairly complex. Firstly, the filling , made of stewed chicken, beef, fish, peas, vegetables or soya combined with olives and raisins, has to be prepared. It is then stuffed into a pie made of steamed cornmeal and then wrapped in banana leaves.
Beverages consumed tend to be alcoholic as it complements the spirit of the season. Ponche de crème is a very popular drink. The main ingredients are eggs, condensed milk, evaporated milk and rum. Ginger beer is a non-alcoholic beverage that can be enjoyed by the younger members of the family and is fairly easy to prepare. Ginger is pureed and soaked in water and sugar for a day. Then simply strain it, add some lime juice and ice and enjoy your Caribbean ginger beer.
Sorrel drink is made from the sepals of a flower of similar name (genus:Hibiscus sabdariffa). The sepals are boiled in order to extract the flavor and sugar is added to sweeten it. It is one of the most refreshing drinks available. Homemade wines are also quite exotic. When it comes to homemade Caribbean wine, almost anything goes! The varieties include rice wine, wine made from almost any fruit on the islands, from hibiscus flowers and even one made from aloe.
There is no other time of the year that brings folks together than during this season. As everyone partakes of food and drinks together, animosities are forgotten, past misdeeds are forgiven. The mantra is simply: Eat and be merry. Combine food and fun with family and friends and you’ll have the recipe for the perfect Caribbean Christmas.
Special thanks to Zemi Beach