Surrounded by water, the Cayman Islands has always used the sea as a source of food. Locals enjoy everything from typical fish-fry dishes and stews to more unique options like lionfish, octopus and even turtles.
Since the 17th century, ships sailing around the Caribbean would make provisions stops in the Cayman Islands. Green sea turtles quickly became the seafood of choice for sailors, since these reptiles could easily be kept on board and supply a steady stream of fresh meat. Turtles became a means of income as well as a source of food for local residents in Cayman, as well. And whilst sea-inspired Caymanian cuisine is taking its influences from around the world too, turtles still play a part in cooking in Cayman.
LOCAL GOES GLOBAL
In a similar style to Floridians eating native alligator, Caymanians took to turtle farming and voilà — the national dish, turtle stew, was born. Considered the Islands’ most traditional meat, turtle stew is prepared in similar style to that of the beef variety. Typically found at fancier restaurants, turtle steak is served simply blackened or spruced up Italian Milanese-style, part of the global influence of the 100-plus nationalities living on the Islands. “This globalisation of food is happening more and more,” explains Kimpton Seafire Resort + Spa’s executive chef, Massimo De Francesca. “What’s happening is that global inspiration is influencing local and traditional recipes.”
Sure, you can still find turtle stew on more traditional restaurant menus, but what you’ll also notice across Cayman is a heavy influence of Mexican and Peruvian flavours blending seamlessly with classic Caribbean spices and ingredients. Take ceviche, for instance. This South American staple with heavy roots in Peru is almost guaranteed on any restaurant menu across Cayman. “You’ll see a ceviche on Island here that has a blend of Mexican and Peruvian styles, so it ends up being a rivalry as to which is better. It’s just like a Montreal versus New York bagel,” De Francesca jokes. The chef, for instance, will throw in spicy aji Amarillo hot peppers — a Peruvian favourite — to his market-fresh ceviche.
Whilst ceviche is one of the most popular menu items in Cayman, fresh-off-the-boat catch of the day is just as hot as ever. “People really love hearing what the catch of the day is and that will never change,” De Francesca says. “People come down and expect to eat fresh seafood.” In Cayman, this includes seasonal conch, lobster and a great variety of local fresh fish like wahoo, mahi-mahi, snapper and tuna, which chefs serve grilled, fried or baked in a salt crust. “Fishermen have me on speed dial,” laughs Sandy Tuason, executive chef at The Westin Grand Cayman Seven Mile Beach Resort & Spa. “It’s an old joke, but it’s true; we try and use as much local fish as we can.” Tuason also ensures seafood is caught in a sustainable fashion “as it should be,” with a line and not a net.
Many of Cayman’s recipes share similarities to those around the Caribbean, with seaside fish fry huts serving up traditional dishes like old-fashioned fish fry — fried whole fish paired with sides like plantains and rice and beans. Ackee and codfish has always been a popular lunch and dinner dish for Caymanians, but in recent years it has become more common on breakfast menus. Conch stew and fritters grace many of the Islands’ menus during conch season, which runs from November to April. A sister dish to conch fritters, cracked conch is another menu staple, served fried with fennel and tartar sauce. Despite being seasonal, conch appears in as many recipes as shells lining the Islands’ shores, with one of the must-tries being a spicy tomato-based conch chowder.
Chefs aren’t afraid to play with the classics, taking seafood staples and giving them a gastronomic twist. Caribbean lobster, for example, makes its way into recipes like shrimp and lobster cocktails, which chefs like De Francesca jazz up with charred pineapple, mango salsa and Cayman-style cocktail sauce, a blend of ketchup, peppers, onions, Tabasco and molasses-flavoured Pickapeppa Sauce, the “Caribbean HP Sauce,” as he puts it.
“The caliber of cooking and chefs here is high,” Tuason says. “I cooked in New York for 25 years, but this is different; there’s a camaraderie here since it’s a small island and everyone knows each other. Cayman is called the Culinary Capital of the Caribbean, and I really believe that.”
TASTE THE CAYMAN ISLANDS
Eat your way around Grand Cayman sampling five seafood specialities at some of the most iconic eateries on the Islands.
Conch Chowder at Lighthouse
The Lighthouse may be heavy on Italian fare, but owner Giuseppe Gatta still pays tribute to Cayman classics like conch chowder during conch season, with a recipe inspired by “The Queen of Breakers,” Nell Connor. lighthouse.ky
Lobster Rundown at Grand Old House
The panoramic restaurant sits along the waterfront on a former coconut plantation dating back to 1908. Cuisine here marries classic and modern techniques with dishes like a lobster version of a rundown stew with lobster chunks cooked down in coconut milk beautifully blended alongside scotch bonnet and peppers. grandoldhouse.com
Fish Tea at Heritage Kitchen
The colourful seaside shack on Boggy Sand Road in West Bay is a no-frills spot to get your local seafood fix, sampling some of the tougher-to-find Caymanian delicacies that fancier eateries have started leaving off the menu. Case in point: fish tea, a spicy soup. heritagekitchen
Turtle Steak at Lobster Pot
Head up to the open-air terrace dangling over the sea and get ready for a sunset like no other with views only matched by a menu of super fresh seafood that covers all the classics, including stand-outs like turtle steak, served blackened and drizzled with Cayman sauce. lobsterpot.ky
Cracked Conch at Cracked Conch
The North West Point institution not only boasts one of the most scenic perches over the water, it’s also home to some of the Islands’ best conch dishes, served in ceviche, chowder and namesake cracked conch form. crackedconch.com.ky
Author: Lane Nieset