Diving into Caribbean Plant Foods

Learn about the abundant supply of unique Caribbean plant foods, including vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, and spices, which are a key part of the rich traditions in Caribbean foodways and cuisine.

The Caribbean may bring up visions of sugar sand beaches, brilliant turquoise waters, pleasant trade winds, and sunny days. And while those images are in fact true, those elements also nourish the diverse array of plant foods cultivated in the Caribbean islands. These beloved foods, including starchy foods, fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts, and spices, which are grown both wild and cultivated in the natural environment of volcanic-rich soils, rainfall, and sunshine, are essential parts of the traditional diets of the Caribbean. 

A small home farm in St Lucia

If you’ve been fortunate enough to spend time in the Caribbean, as I have, you will observe a variety of these plant foods at roadside stands, food shops, and local restaurants. You will find fruit and nut trees growing in forests, jungles, beaches, and homes; small patchwork vegetable farms dotting the islands, and cheerful backyard home gardens filled with vegetable beds and fruit trees. Some of these foods you may recognize, such as squash, mango, papayas and bananas, however other produce may seem curious, from hairy-brown tubers to exotic tree fruit. Each island may have its own unique name for produce, such as taro, which is also known as dasheen, kalo, marope, magogoya, patra, and godere, depending on which island you are in. As we strive to learn about more food cultures and celebrate them with our clients, diving into the beautiful plant foods and culinary traditions of the Caribbean is a worthy endeavor.

I interviewed three dietitians who were raised in the Caribbean to provide insight into its beautiful produce and foodways. Celine Heskey, DrPH, MS, RD, nutrition professor at Loma Linda University, School of Public Health, grew up in several Caribbean islands, including the island nation of Antigua and Barbuda. Sylvia Melendez Klinger, DBA, MS, RDN, founder of Hispanic Food Communications based in Chicago, was born in Puerto Rico. Lesley Ann Foster-Nicholas, DrPH, RDN, Assistant Professor, School of Allied Health Professions, Loma Linda University, worked as a dietitian in Trinidad and Tobago for 13 years.

Cacao growing in a Caribbean forest

Digging into Caribbean Food History

In order to understand the traditional style of eating in the Caribbean, one must first appreciate the unique history in this region of the world. While these islands dotting the Caribbean may possess similarities, they each evolved to be distinctive based on their history. Indeed, there are 16 countries in the Caribbean, including Antigua and Barbuda, The Bahamas, Belize, Aruba, Bonaire, Sint Eustatius, Saba, Curacao, Sint Maarten, Saint Martin, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Saint Barthelemy, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Navassa Island, Puerto Rico, US Virgin Islands, British Virgin Islands, Anguilla, Cayman Islands, Montserrat, Turks and Caicos Islands, Cuba, Dominica, Jamaica, Grenada, San Andres and Providencia, Federal Dependencies of Venezuela, Nueva Esparta, Trinidad and Tobago, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.

An orchard in St Lucia

“The islands of the Caribbean were once colonized by Spain, France and England, and these European countries brought slaves from Africa and indentured laborers from East India to the islands to work on their plantations. This resulted in islands with different cultural and language influences, and there are differences in the names given to the same fruits and vegetables. Each group brought their own cuisine and dietary habits, which evolved over time and has taken on a Caribbean flavor of its own,” says Foster-Nicholas.

“Historically, the food culture in the Caribbean is shaped by a mixture of factors including traditions of native islanders, European colonization, the slave trade, indentured servitude, and periods of migration; each of these events has contributed to what has now become the varied traditional diets within the region,” adds Heskey. She offers the English-speaking Caribbean as an example, where there are a few influences from the United Kingdom, but most of the influences are from those of African and/or Asian Indian descent. Other influences come from the Middle East, and China. “We have a ‘melting pot’ of dishes throughout the region. Those who were brought or came to this ‘new world’ brought their food traditions with them, and these were blended with the native traditions,” says Heskey. Foster-Nicholas notes that Trinidad and Tobago, for instance, has a multicultural population with an array of traditional dishes influenced by African and East Indian diets.

Historic remains of a sugar plantation in St. Lucia

These evolving shifts in food culture can be seen in traditional dishes. “The food culture in many Caribbean countries includes an entrée item that is traditionally steamed in banana leaves. In Antigua, we may make it with sweet potato, dry coconut, sugar and flour, but I know of variations of the same dish that include corn meal in place of the potato in other islands. When you do some deeper investigation, there are similar dishes spanning several countries in Western Africa, and with small variations between countries, communities and tribes. So, you start to understand that many of these food traditions are from Africa, and survived the devastating impact of slavery,” says Heskey.

The food culture of the Spanish-speaking islands, such as Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic, have its own unique culinary expression. Klinger notes that the Caribbean islands were heavily influenced by the different explorers, merchants, natives, and religious groups, adding, “Each one left a culinary mark in the Caribbean.” When it comes to religion, “Some individuals may be adherent to a dietary pattern that is low in or absent of meat, including those who are adherent to Rastafarianism, and some members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church,” says Heskey.

Another factor that contributes to the differences in traditional diets is the type of plants, whether fruit, vegetables or spices, which were brought from either African or Indian countries. For example, Saint Vincent has an abundance of breadfruit trees on the island making breadfruit one of its national dishes. The food traditions are also shaped by the environment and the need to make a living, while gaining access to food; most of the countries within the Caribbean are islands with many coastal villages, explains Heskey, who adds, “My paternal grandfather was a fisherman and a farmer, and like many, had for decades caught seafood, and harvested produce that were sold in a large market in the capital city of Antigua and Barbuda.” Additionally, it is not uncommon for individuals to have their own small garden at home, including fruit trees, root vegetables, green leafy vegetables, and peppers being some of the most popular items to plant for one’s own use and to share with neighbors and friends. “Gardening is a point of pride in some communities, and a practice that some have maintained when they have emigrated to the United States,” says Heskey.

Food Guide of Jamaica, 2015, FAO

Dominica Food Based Dietary Guidelines, FAO

Getting to Know Traditional Caribbean Diet Patterns

Traditional Caribbean diets are based on the Caribbean six food groups: staples, vegetables, fruits, food from animals, legumes and nuts, and fats and oils, says Foster-Nicholas. She adds, “Staples form the main portion of the meal and consist of rice dishes or root vegetables, also referred to as ground provision in most Caribbean islands.” These rice dishes are often accompanied by peas and legumes, such as red beans, pigeon peas or black-eyed peas; or vegetables such as spinach (bhagi) or ochroes (okra), eggplant, or pumpkin. Klinger reports that while the Caribbean is well known for its produce, the foundation of this cuisine is based on white rice, seasoned beans, and an abundance of root vegetables and tropical fruits. You can also find traditional soups that are very important to the diet—these are typically very hearty and include many local starchy root vegetables.

Coconut, both milk and fresh coconut, is one of the most predominantly used fats used in cooking Caribbean dishes, both savory and sweet. Sweet buns, butter breads, and various baked goods like current rolls and coconut tarts are also popular.

Another significant feature of Caribbean diets is the use of spices to create bold flavorful dishes which may be very spicy. Klinger reminds us the spices are perhaps one of the biggest differences in the various Caribbean eating patterns. “Puerto Ricans use cilantro, bell peppers, onions and garlic to make sofrito, a seasoning used to add flavor to everything from rice, beans, meats, fish and stews called guisos, while the Cubans add more tomatoes and blood oranges to their sauces. Adobo, a combination of cumin, salt, pepper, paprika, oregano and onion powder, is a seasoning used extensively by Caribbeans,” says Klinger.

A local produce stand in the Caribbean

Caribbean Plant Foods Up Close

There are too many treasured plant foods to mention in this article, but our experts weighed in on many of the most significant and less well known plant foods in traditional Caribbean diet patterns.

Starches/Staples (also known as Ground Provisions)

Dasheen (top) and breadfruit (bottom) at a Caribbean farm stand


This large, green, lumpy tree fruit (Artocarpus altilis) is a versatile staple; high in carbohydrates, fiber, B vitamins, magnesium, potassium, and carotenoids. It can be baked or boiled like a potato, and it is often used to make chips, roasted breadfruit, rolls, salad, and oil in Trinidad and Saint Vincent, as well as pies, pancakes, cakes, cookies, and wine in other parts of the Caribbean.

Cassava (Yuca) for sale in a street stand in Puerto Rico


This starchy tuberous root (Manihot esculenta), which has white flesh and a brown peel requires careful preparation to remove traces of cyanide. It is a good source of thiamine and carbohydrates and may be boiled, fried, and used in soups or salads. The national dish of Grenada is cassava bread. Cassava is also used in biscuits and pone (pudding). Yuca masa is used to make Puerto Rican pasteles for the holidays.


This starchy root vegetable (Colocasia esculenta) classified as a corm (underground food storage consisting of a swollen rounded stem base) is believed to be one of the earliest cultivated plants. With light-colored flesh speckled with purple and a brown skin, dasheen is a good source of carbohydrates, fiber; vitamins B6, E, and C; potassium, copper, manganese, and magnesium. It is used in soups, salads, and the dish callaloo, which includes dasheen leaves cooked with onion, garlic, tomatoes, and pepper.


Resembling a striped potato, this starchy, high carbohydrate staple (Colocasia antiquorum) is a corn similar to dasheen, and may be cooked in soups.

Plantains for sale at a street side stand

Plantains/Green Banana

In the genus Musa, plantains (green bananas) are the starchy equivalent of sweet bananas, and are a good source of carbohydrates, fiber, potassium, magnesium, folate, and vitamins A, B6, and C. Enjoyed cooked or fried, plantain is part of the favorite Puerto Rican dish mofongo (mashed fried plantains seasoned with garlic and olive oil), maduritos (fried ripe plantain) and pastelon (lasagna-like dish). Ripe plantains are boiled or fried, and green plantains are used in soups or to make plantain chips. Roasted plantain is a popular street food in Dominica, and is often served with the Trinidad dish, saltfish buljol. Boiled green bananas served with stewed saltfish is the national dish of St Lucia. Green bananas are also used to make porridge or souse (meat soup).

Squash for sale at a roadside stand in Puerto Rico


These starchy vegetables (calabaza) provide a good source of fiber; vitamins A, B, C, E; potassium, and copper. Pumpkin is often added to beans, rice, stews, and soups, as well as pumpkin bread, ice cream, or pumpkin choka (popular Trinidad dish served with sada or paratha roti bread).

Yams/Sweet Potatoes/Boniata

These purple-skinned lumpy tubers with white flesh (Ipomoea Batatas)—different than those in the U.S.—are good sources of carbohydrates and fiber. Ducuna is sweet potato dish popular in many islands boiled in a banana or grape leaf with raisins and spices. It is also popular mashed with butter and in batidos (milkshakes) with condensed milk.


Avocados on display in Puerto Rico


Different than the Haas variety we know, the Caribbean avocado (Persea americana), sometimes called a pear, is much larger. Rich in healthy fats, potassium; vitamins B6, C, and E; fiber, and carotenoids, avocado is consumed traditionally with savory meals or in sandwiches.

Cashews growing on a tree in St. Lucia; the cashew apple is at the top of the nut

Cashew Apple/Cashew Maw

The tree (Anacardium occidentale) that produces the cashew nut also bears the cashew apple, an accessory, pseudo-fruit for the nut. A fleshy, pear-shaped fruit with wavy yellow or red skin and an astringent yellow flesh, it contains fiber, carbohydrates, vitamins A and C, and B vitamins. They are eaten fresh or preserved in syrup.

Green Leafy Vegetables

Green leafy vegetables are used in many ways, such as in rice, and steamed with onions, garlic, and pepper. Dasheen leaves and spinach leaves (bhagi) provide a good source of folate, potassium, iron, zinc, and vitamins A, C, E and B6. Dasheen leaves are used to make callaloo, the national dish of Trinidad and Tobago, and bhagi (spinach with coconut cream) and saheena (spinach fritters), popular Indian street foods found in Trinidad and Tobago. Green leafy vegetables are also used in Antiguan pepper pot, a stew that includes eggplant, edo leaf, and okra.


A widely used, versatile vegetable in the Caribbean, ochro (Abelmoschus esculentus) is rich in fiber, folate, magnesium, and vitamin C. It’s often included in many traditional dishes, such as callaloo, ochro rice, soups, and cou cou (made with corn meal and okra), the national dish of Antigua and Barbuda and Barbados (called fungi in the Virgin Islands).

Sea moss is used in beverages

Sea Moss

This type of seaweed (Chondrus crispus) is found in tidepools and inlets, providing good sources of B vitamins, vitamin C, zinc, phosphorus, and calcium. It is used to make beverages, such as a punch blended with nutmeg and condensed milk.

Rose apples (also known as mountain apple or Otaheite apple) growing on a tree



In the same family as lychee, this pear-shaped tree fruit (Blighia sapida) is the national fruit of Jamaica. It has three lobes in bright red to yellow-orange flesh that split open when ripe, revealing three large black seeds, which have a nut-like flavor. Rich in carbohydrates, vitamin C and fiber, the fruit is cooked with salted water or milk, fried in butter, cooked with codfish and vegetables, or added to curries and soups.

Cherimoya/Custard Apple

This creamy tree fruit (Annona cherimola)covered with a lumpy green skin contains good sources of carbohydrates, fiber, vitamins C and B6, magnesium, and potassium. They can be eaten in their original form, but are often used to make punches and ice cream.


This sweet tree fruit (Psidium guajava) provides good sources of carbohydrates, vitamins A and C, fiber, potassium, and B vitamins. Guava is used to make juices, jelly, sorbet, empanadillas (fruit turnover), and cheese (a thick jelly).

Golden Apple/Ambarella

A tree fruit (Spondias dulcis), it has a crunchy, slightly sour, golden flesh, containing vitamins A and C, carbohydrates, fiber, and iron. Golden apple may be eaten with salt, made into a drink, or cooked in a curry with spices.


An oval green tree fruit in the genus Ziziphus, this fruit resembles a date when it has matured, with wrinkled brownish skin. It contains carbohydrates, fiber, vitamin C, and potassium, and can be eaten fresh or dried, or used in jams.

Mangos for sale in Puerto Rico


This prolific bright orange tree fruit (Mangeferi indica) provides good sources of carbohydrates, vitamins A, C, E; fiber, folate, and some B vitamins. While it is often consumed fresh, mango is also used in beverages, shakes, mango chow (snack), mango amchar (seasoning), chutney, ice cream, and other desserts.


A yellowish-green fruit (Morinda citrifolia) in the coffee family, noni has a strong, vomit-like odor and bitter taste, and was considered a “starvation fruit” used by indigenous peoples during famine. Containing carbohydrates, vitamin C, and B vitamins, it can be eaten raw with salt, made into a beverage, or cooked in a curry.

Papaya for sale at a farmstand in Puerto Rico


An orange tree fruit (Carica papaya), which provides a sweet custard-like flavor and texture, provides good sources of carbohydrates, vitamins A and C; fiber and B vitamins. It is eaten raw and used in chutneys, or green in salads and curry dishes.




Produced from a slow, tall evergreen tree, this soft, sweet, juicy orange-brownish fruit (Manilkara zapota) with a pear-like taste is a good source of carbohydrates, fiber, vitamin C, iron, and potassium. They can be enjoyed fresh out of hand, and are often used to make drinks and frozen desserts.

Sapote/Mamey Sapote or Apple

This soft tree fruit (Pouteria sapota) with white, yellow-orange, black, and red varieties. covered with a green or brownish peel, contains a good source of carbohydrates, fiber; vitamins A, B6, and C; magnesium, and potassium. They can be eaten raw, but are often used to make beverages, sauces, shakes, fruit bars, and frozen desserts.


A species of hibiscus (Hibiscus sabdariffa), this plant contains carbohydrates, vitamin C, calcium, and potassium. It is used to make a very popular chilled beverage in many of the Caribbean Islands.

Soursop at a Puerto Rico stand


With a sweet creamy white flesh, and green spiky peel, this tree fruit with its pineapple aroma and strawberry-banana taste offers a good source of carbohydrates, fiber, vitamins B6 and C, iron, magnesium, and potassium. They can be eaten fresh and are often used to make drinks, ice cream or sorbet.

Starfruit for breakfast


This tree fruit (Averrhoa carambola) has ridges running down its sides, revealing a star shape when it is cut horizontally. Both the yellow-orange peel and yellow fruit may be consumed, offering a crisp, slightly sweet taste. Containing carbohydrates, fiber, and vitamin C, the fruit is used to make beverages, relishes, and preserves.


The bean-like pod filled with seeds that grows on trees (Tamarindus indica)

becomes paste-like as it matures, providing a sweet-sour taste that makes it a useful addition to savory dishes, confections, and beverages. It is also rich in nutrients, providing carbohydrates, fiber, vitamin C, and potassium.

West India Gooseberry

These small edible yellow berries from a tree (Phyllanthus acidus) have a sour, tart flavor and provide a source of fiber, carbohydrates; vitamins A and C, B; and iron. They are used to make beverages and jams.

At a local farmstand in Puerto Rico

Legumes & Nuts

Cashew Nuts

The seed of the evergreen, tropical cashew tree (Anacardium occidentale), these nuts are eaten raw, roasted or fried as a snack food. They provide a significant source of protein, heart healthy fats, fiber, copper, and magnesium. They are also enjoyed as a treat during the holidays.

Pigeon Peas/Gandules

This legume (Cajanus cajan), which grows widely in tropical regions, is an important source of protein, fiber, potassium, carbohydrate, iron, magnesium, calcium, and B vitamins. Pigeon peas are typically cooked with rice.



A member of the palm tree family, coconut (Cocos nucifera) is an important part of the diet, providing both flesh from the mature seed and coconut milk. When fresh, coconut water is used as a beverage; when dry it can be added as an ingredient to savory and sweet dishes. With its high fat content, coconut is grouped with fats and oils in the Caribbean six food groups. It also contains fiber, manganese, copper, selenium, magnesium, iron, and potassium. Coconut milk is used to prepare rice dishes, stews, oil down (stew of fish, pork, breadfruit, and taro from Grenada), callaloo and cou cou. Coconut milk is also used to make ice cream and cakes, and the coconut husk is employed in desserts, such as coconut tarts, sweet bread, sugar cakes, cookies (besitos de coco), coconut custard (tembleque), manpostial (candy in Puerto Rico), coconut flan, and toolum (a chewy treat from Trinidad).

Spices, Herbs, Seasonings


A tropical flowering plant (Zingiber officinale), the root or rhizome is used as a flavorful spice. Containing more than 400 compounds, gingerol specifically is the subject of interest for health benefits. Many popular Caribbean foods are made with ginger, include ginger beer, tea, and ice cream, as well as many savory dishes.


From a plant in the ginger family, the bright orange turmeric root (Curcuma longa) contains many active ingredients including curcumin, which is linked with health benefits. With its warm, bitter taste, it is often referred to as saffron in Trinidad and Tobago, and is used in most Indian dishes in the Caribbean, such as curries and rice, as well as in oil down and as a paste for soups.

Ginger and Scotch bonnet peppers for sale at a farmstand in Puerto Rico


While sweet bell peppers are used in the classic sofrito sauce, spicy scotch bonnet (Capsicum chinense), also known as bonney peppers or Caribbean red peppers, is a variety of chili peppers known for their resemblance of a tam o’ shanter hat. It is a very hot pepper used in seasoning, though some sweeter varieties are grown in the Caribbean. High in vitamins A and C, this pepper gives jerk and many Caribbean dishes their characteristic spicy flavor in recipes such as rice and beans, sauces, and pepper jelly.

Resources on Caribbean Foods and Diets

Sharon enjoying the beauty of the Caribbean

For my favorite Caribbean-inspired recipe, check out my Mofongo recipe.

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