Conch, callaloo, cassava: a taste of the Cayman Islands
From health-food cafes selling superfood salads and kombucha to ambient ocean-side restaurants serving up everything from steak to sushi, the Cayman Islands has definitely earned its title as the culinary capital of the Caribbean. It’s a reputation that’s been further bolstered by food festivals like Taste of Cayman and Cayman Cookout, the latter of which boasts José Andrés and Anthony Bourdain as former hosts.
When it comes to local gastronomy, though, you’ll find Cayman is massively influenced by the spicy flavors of neighboring Jamaica. Nevertheless, Grand Cayman, Cayman Brac and Little Cayman have a few distinctive dishes of their own that – unsurprisingly – tend to take inspiration from the sea. Soaking up a new country should always include trying its cuisine, so here we take a look at what’s on offer if you’re after a true taste of the Cayman Islands.
Fruits of the sea
You’ll be hard-pressed to find an eatery in the Cayman Islands that doesn’t heavily feature seafood on its menu, whether that’s at a rustic hole-in-the-wall like Heritage Kitchen in West Bay or fancier establishments like historic Grand Old House.
Fishing is historically a huge industry in Cayman and you’ll discover daily catches served up in numerous ways, from chargrilled wahoo and coconut shrimp to chilli-infused lobster tails. For something even more exotic, a trip to Australian-Caribbean fusion restaurant Tukka will proffer blackened lionfish tacos. And, if you simply can’t choose between species, Kaibo’s atmospheric Barefoot Beach BBQs combine an all-you-can-eat fish feast with tunes from local band Bonafide.
With so much fresh produce on the island’s doorstep, many restaurants in Grand Cayman have embraced the farm-to-table movement, including upmarket Morgan’s Seafood at the Cayman Yacht Club and Brasserie in George Town. Waterfront Cayman Cabana similarly runs Farm to Table Thursdays, with the menu changing depending on each week’s catch.
Similar in taste to clams or scallops, conch are in season from November to April but served all year round in various forms, from ceviche to stew. Melt-in-the-mouth fritters seasoned with garlic and hot pepper tend to be the most popular.
You’ll find conch fritters at Rum Point Club where they’re accompanied by a spicy tartar sauce and refreshing Caribbean-style coleslaw. Alternatively, head to George Town harbor’s Rackam’s – aptly named after a notorious 17th-century pirate – for their version, which comes with a moreish jerk mayo dip.
Cayman’s answer to a roast dinner is a slow-cooked beef dish that’s typically marinated in garlic, ginger and just a hint of chilli. It’s usually eaten on Christmas Day but you’ll find myriad places to try it throughout the year.
West Bay’s Boggy Sand Kitchen includes Cayman beef as a filling option in its coco-bread sandwiches, plus they even shred it up on a pizza with feta, caramelised onion and a dash of Scotch bonnet sauce. If you make it to the country’s most remote island, you’ll find takeaway restaurant Cook Food ‘Little Cayman’ whips up a more traditional version.
This is definitely a flavor that’s been pilfered from Jamaica, and it’s served every which way in Cayman, whether that’s on a pizza or stirred into fettuccini. Seven Mile takeout joint Chicken Chicken is the go-to place for jerk rotisserie chicken, while you’ll find jerk pork BLTs in coconut focaccia just down the road at Cimboco.
If you’re not a meat-eater, George Town vegan lunch spot Bread and Chocolatetosses chunks of fiery jerk tofu into its quinoa or brown rice Island Bowls. For those planning on making a side trip to sleepier Cayman Brac, Barry’s Golden Jerk is a local hotspot open only on Wednesdays and weekends. You’ll be able to smell the succulent jerk pork and chicken long before you see it.
Once one of the Cayman Islands’ largest exports, the green sea turtle unsurprisingly ended up as the national dish. Nowadays, hunting these beautiful creatures from the ocean is illegal which is why they’re sustainably bred at Grand Cayman’s Turtle Center.
Turtle stew is a delicacy that’s mostly popular with older generations, however, you’ll find it featured on the menus of several Cayman establishments. It’s a rich mix of marinated turtle, tomatoes and spices that’s typically paired with rice and beans.
The Turtle Center’s restaurant Schooners Bar & Grill predictably serves turtle stew, plus you’ll find family-run Amelia’s Kitchen on Crewe Road has its own version of the dish, too. On Cayman Brac, quaint local haunt Pat’s Kitchen also includes turtle stew on the menu – but you’ll have to get in there quick as they only cook small batches.
An iron-rich, leafy green similar in taste and look to spinach, callaloo is widely grown in the Cayman Islands and deliciously sautéed with Caribbean spices. Cimboco’s plantain-wrapped callaloo starter sees it sandwiched between another must-try local crop, whereas Cayman Cabana serves it up with bacon and mushrooms in its eggs Benedict brunch.
This may seem like an obscure thing to eat, but green iguanas are actually pests in the Cayman Islands, making them a free-for-all when it comes to meal ingredients. Only one restaurant currently has them on its menu and that’s Tukka. Wittily described as ‘Cayman Tree Chicken’ due to the similarities in taste and texture, it can be sampled fried or drenched in a fragrant curry sauce.
Also known as heavy cake, this is a dense Caribbean bake made from grated cassava, homemade coconut milk, brown sugar and spices. It’s usually prepared for special occasions and is far more likely to be found in shops than on restaurant menus.
If you do fancy trying it, Vivine’s Kitchen is the place. This tiny eatery is found in Gun Bay, 30 minutes’ drive from George Town, and is essentially local woman Vivine’s front room but with uninterrupted ocean views and no-nonsense homegrown fare.
Veggie and vegan visitors may find Cayman’s local cuisine somewhat lacking at first glance, but there are a few native dishes that should get your mouth watering – coconut ceviche is one of them. It’s made from the flesh of young coconuts that’s finely sliced and tossed together with tomatoes, onions and herbs.
Vivo in West Bay, apart from being a great spot to watch the sunset as you dine, has an extensive vegan menu which includes coconut ceviche as a starter. You’ll also spot coconut prepared calamari-style with a piquant tomato dipping sauce.
This is a drink synonymous with the Caribbean – and you’ll find no shortage of it in the Cayman Islands. If you prefer yours on the rocks instead of in a cocktail, you can even book tasting sessions at the Tortuga distillery on Grand Cayman.
Rum comes in cake form in Cayman, too, with local brands Tortuga and Blackbeard’s selling baked treats that make ideal souvenirs. As well as sticky cakes doused in dark rum, you’ll find decadent flavored options from coconut to chocolate.