As is the case everywhere, cultural and geographical factors have influenced the everyday foods of the Turks and Caicos and many unique tastes were the result.
Today it can be hard to find an authentic Turks and Caicos meal, especially on Providenciales. The less-populated islands of North Caicos, Middle Caicos, Salt Cay and South Caicos are a bit closer to their roots and old-style dishes are still commonplace.
If you walk into any of the favourite island restaurants and ask for their signature dish, chances are that the answer will somehow involve conch.
There are several popular local ways to prepare this giant sea snail, but it’s likely that it’ll either be breaded and fried “conch fritters”, or served raw as a mixed conch salad.
Other seafood definitely also factors in, including fish and lobster. Delicious grouper and snapper, either pan cooked or fried, tends to be the fish dish of choice.
Lobster does have an August to March season, so you’ll won’t always be able to order it fresh.
As would be expected for a small Caribbean nation, historically seafood has played the primary role in local cuisine.
There’s very little fertile soil and fresh water naturally in the Turks and Caicos, so farming has always been difficult. However, okra, peas, peppers, beans, papaya and maize was raised in little patches and would add some much needed greenery and vegetables to the diet.
A drought-resistant maize, which was dried and ground into what was known as “hominy” or “grits”, was also raised and was largely used in place of the rice and cereals common today.
It’s still possible to see maize growing in some of the settlements today, such as at Lorimers on Middle Caicos or on the remote west end of Providenciales.
Some food items could also be gathered from the land. Giant blue land crabs, common to many of the country’s wetlands, also provided a bit of variance. Sea grapes and tamarinds added a bit of tang, and sugar apples were the main source of sweet.
On the salt producing islands, there was a bit more money to buy imported staples such as rice and some grains, and also comparatively small quantities of tea, coffee, sugar and salt meat.
Johnny Cake, a pan baked and slightly sweetened cornbread, largely took the place of bread in the past.
Today, locally-caught conch, lobster and fish continue to define local dishes.
The agricultural scene in the country has seen much improvement due to the increased availability of fresh water and modern hydroponics. Both North Caicos and Providenciales have multiple farms that produce tomatoes, cucumbers, papayas, bananas, herbs and lettuce, and these fresh vegetables are becoming increasingly used throughout the country.
Interestingly, two of the most famous local dishes, conch fritters and conch salad, are relatively recent culinary inventions that weren't on the menu 100 years ago.
Popular today, deep-fried fish is another relatively new cooking method. In the past, cooking oil was very hard to come by so pan frying or poaching, or roasting was the norm.
A good current example of authentic local cuisine is pan poached fresh grouper, peas and rice, and a side of locally-grown mixed greens. Few restaurants create this dish as well as Daniel’s Café on Middle Caicos.
Out of the Caribbean, the countries of Bahamas and Jamaica have especially had an influence in modern Turks and Caicos cuisine.
Because of close geographical ties and natural population movements, the Bahamas has had the heaviest impact, and many conch dishes and stews here were inspired by the neighbouring country.
Originating more to the south, flavourful BBQ jerk chicken and fish from Jamaica added another spicy element.