Friday, August 13, 2010

Eating in the Caribbean

Jeff and I have been back from the Caribbean for a week, and the time has flown by really fast. We came home to an infestation of bed bugs and piles of work to catch up on, so I haven't had much time to think about blogging until now.

We spent a few days in Puerto Rico, followed by a cruise to St. Thomas, Dominica, Barbados, St. Lucia, St. Kitts and St. Maarten / St. Martin. This post will be the first in a series of posts on some of the delicious foods we ate on the islands, and either Jeff or I will write a follow-up post on how to eat on a Carnival Cruise.

Puerto Rico
We all stayed at a hotel in Isla Verde, which is very near the airport and a short taxi drive to the cruise docks. This strip is home to lots of hotels and several restaurants all within walking distance. It is also home to a cock fighting establishment, which I obviously never intend to step foot in. Lupis Mexican Grill, which is apparently a chain, resides here and serves a veggie burger that tastes of the dead cow that was previously fried on the grill. It's okay if you want to eat, but not if you want a meal. Platos is also near Lupis but actually serves Puerto Rican food. My entire family walked over for dinner on our first night in town, and Jeff and I scoured the veg options. We asked the waiter for help and he was able to suggest mofongo, made without any butter. (At first he seemed aghast that mofongo be made without butter, "but that's how it's made!") Mofongo is a dish of mashed plantains, and ours featured an array of grilled veggies inside. It is very delicious, starchy without tasting anything like mashed potatoes.

By far the best restaurant I've eaten at in Puerto Rico is Cafe Berlin. Located in the heart of Old San Juan overlooking a statue of Columbus himself, Cafe Berlin serves vegeterian, vegan and omni cuisine and is pretty much guaranteed to make any member of your family happy. The hardest part is deciding what to order. Jeff ordered the veggie steak, which I'd had before. Served with a savory gravy with some mushrooms and potatoes, the "steak" is soft but substantial. It would probably be divine if a little bit more firm, but even if the texture wasn't quite there, the taste was. I had the coconut-tomato tofu, which was a nice hefty chunk of tofu served in a delicious sauce made from (you guessed it) tomato and coconut. I thought the combination to be odd, but the two flavors made a great marriage. It was served with some mashed potatoes and sauteed vegetables, including carrots, which I ate. (I generally hate carrots, but only when they taste like raw carrots. These were cooked to mushy perfection, in my opinion.) To top it all off I had a mango smoothie, making Jeff regret not ordering one as well. My mom ordered a banana smoothie which was just as good. (Photo credits: my mom)

In driving around Puerto Rico to various locations (caves in Camuy, El Yunque rainforest and the Aricebo Observatory) we drove by lots of produce stands on the sides of the street. That and a lot of small BBQ shacks where people grill and sell (mostly, I think) dead animals. While the BBQ shacks were not my thing, we stopped at a produce cart and I had the most delicious banana ever. Anything I've eaten in the northern latitudes of the US just can not compare. The first remarkable thing about the banana was its heft and size. Biting into the banana yielded an incredible tender, juicy and sweet fruit. I had a "banana" in my cereal this morning and it was disappointing, even though I still love bananas. Chances are good that you've never had a plant ripened banana before if you live in cold climates. Just as a vine ripened tomato far surpasses the taste of anything you'll get shipped from thousands of miles away and ripened by gas in a truck, a fresh picked banana is truly a delight. (Photo credit: my mom)

But if I thought the bananas were delicious, I had only to sink my teeth into a mango to learn the taste of pure heaven. The tender flesh yielded easily to my bite, and I had to be careful not to let the juicy nectar spill all over my face. The mangos were easy enough to peel by hand so we could eat them in the car. (We couldn't wait to try them out!) Jeff and I had a hard time sharing, even though we had purchased several mangoes.

By far the strangest fruit I've eaten, and a new one for me was the canepa. This is a tiny little green ball about the size of one of those big shooter marbles. You peel back the slightly bumpy skin and pop the entire fruit into your mouth, being careful not to eat the large pit. There isn't much flesh in a canepa, and eating one is more like sucking on a lollipop than doing any real chewing and swallowing. Canepas reminded me of strange jellied concoctions you generally find in Asian grocery stores. Honestly, I felt that they were too much effort for little reward, but they seem to be a favored fruit in Puerto Rico. Definitely worth trying if you're up for something different.

On our last evening in Puerto Rico we took an excursion to the Bioluminescent Bay in Vieques. Easily one of the most impressive places I have ever been in my life, the bay is inhabited by countless dinoflagellates that luminesce when agitated. Put in simpler terms, if you swim in the bay at night, the water around you will glow a shade of blue. It is an amazing sight to behold, and my sister, dad, Jeff and I were all sad to have to eventually leave the water to go back to our hotel on the main island. We booked the trip to Bio Bay through a company whose name I can't recall, but they offered a dinner as part of the trip. Jeff and I knew better than to get to the boat hungry, so we grabbed some take-out Chinese food on our way. The menu was presented to us before we got on the boat to Vieques, where we were to pick our option so it would be ready when we got there. We were pleased to see vegetarian options with mofongo listed as well as rice and beans. Having found out at Platos that mofongo is made with butter, we opted for the rice and beans. Settled into a beautiful boat ride with loads of rum drinks, we enjoyed some time with my family until we got to Vieques. A short bus ride brought us to the restaurant where we awaited our food and chatted with other people headed on the excursion. The rice came out first, and Jeff and I happily started eating. Next the beans, which I heaped over my rice, and I started chowing down. As did Jeff, but when he overturned his bowl of beans, out popped a pork bone. As we made this discovery, the waitress brought us some steamed veggies topped with a pat of butter. We put our forks down and were just glad to have found out the truth behind our meal, and that we had already eaten something earlier.

All in all, our experience in Puerto Rico was lots of fun. Two years ago when I went to Puerto Rico with my parents, sister and brother in law, we only stayed for an overnight which was not enough time to really experience the island.

Stay tuned for a summary of the delicious food, and more pictures, from other Caribbean islands.

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