BRIDGETOWN, BARBADOS — I came to Barbados for the flying fish sandwiches.
Not that this small island at the easternmost edge of the Caribbean doesn't offer other attractions. Like perfect weather. And beaches that come in two flavors -- Caribbean, which has a sea that is turquoise and tranquil, and into which the sun sets spectacularly every evening, and Atlantic, where the coastline is rocky and the sand is the color and consistency of cake flour.
Then there are the Barbadians themselves, people who are the very definition of friendly locals. And the fact that 300 years of British rule have left the island with some interesting Anglo-Caribbean quirks, including stone churches straight out of "Jane Eyre" and cricket players with dreadlocks.
Still for me, it was the flying fish sandwiches. And the macaroni pie. And the pepper sauce. Definitely the pepper sauce.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, November 06, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
Barbados: A box accompanying a Travel article Sunday on the culinary attractions of Barbados incorrectly gave the island's official tourism website as www.barbados.org. That website is actually www.visitbarbados.org.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, November 08, 2009 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 3 Features Desk 1 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
Barbados: A box accompanying an article last week on the culinary attractions of Barbados incorrectly gave the island's official tourism website as www.barbados.org. That website is actually www.visitbarbados.org.
Because in my mind, the most compelling reason to travel anyplace is food. And Zagat -- holy book of the foodie traveler -- has proclaimed Barbados the Culinary Capital of the Caribbean. What I wasn't counting on was that eating one's way through Barbados would turn out to be as much a cultural tour as a culinary one. On Barbados, a healthy (or even obsessive) curiosity about sweet potato mash, coconut water and pig intestines is enough to gain entry into every one of the island's different worlds, from that of well-heeled tourist to the British expat to the born-and-bred Barbadian, or Bajan, as they're also known.
Here, then, are some simple instructions on doing Barbados by food.
Every Friday night, the little seaside town of Oistins turns itself into one big barbecue. The food stands raise their awnings, long tables are set up near the beach, and the air fills with over-amplified reggae and the tangy scent of fish marinated in something spicy and slightly vinegary.
Oistins Friday Night Fish Fry is one of those rare events that attracts as many locals as visitors, probably because it's cheap, fun and seriously delicious. Just find a stand where the food looks appetizing, ask a waitperson to seat you at one of the long tables, and order whatever is on the grill.
When you're finished eating, stroll down to Lexie's bar and watch middle-aged Barbadian couples dipping and swirling on the open-air dance floor. (Ballroom dancing is big on Barbados.) Or wander to the opposite end of the street and get a firsthand look at the surprisingly competitive world of Barbadian dominoes. Just follow the sound of slamming tiles.
Tucked on a side street and up a flight of stairs, Mustor's in Bridgetown is the kind of locals' restaurant you always hope to find. It is no more than a big, airy room where the only thing approaching decor is the orangey bottle of pepper sauce on every table. And, really, you don't need anything else.
Place your order with the cashier: flying fish steamed or fried (I recommend fried) or chicken fried or stewed (go with stewed). It comes with macaroni pie (the Bajan version of mac and cheese) and mounds of yams, and rice with pigeon peas, those pale, nut-flavored peas that are a staple of Caribbean cooking. Wash everything down with a local Banks beer or a glass of Bajan-style limeade, which is almost magically sweet and tart at the same time.
If you're looking to up your Bajan cuisine game, try Sweet Potatoes at the entrance of bustling St. Lawrence Gap, the milelong stretch of road crowded with nightclubs and restaurants that cater to tourists. Take a seat under the icicle lights on the open-air porch, and order some examples of what Sweet Potatoes' owners refer to as Good Old Bajan Cooking. Try Mullins Bay bol jol, an insanely good spread of marinated codfish seasoned with herbs and onions. Or Pot Belly Flying Fish, rolled and fried and served in a red pepper sauce. And don't forget cou cou, a Bajan-style polenta made with okra.
If you decide you can't live without some Good Old Bajan Cooking at your house, you can come back for one of the restaurant's cooking classes. (See "If You Go" box.)
Want to see what an expat British chef with locavore sensibilities cooks on Barbados? Dine at the Terrace at Cobbler's Cove (a small hotel on the northwest coast of Barbados). Bryan Porteus, the chef at the Terrace, is committed to using as many local ingredients as possible. He has planted an herb and lettuce garden across from the hotel and visits the fish market in Bridgetown every day. (Sometimes he even takes guests with him.)
The Cove also employs its own fisherman -- a one-named celebrity called Barker -- whose morning catch turns up on the dinner menu every evening. The result is an entree list that includes bonito with plantain fritters, sesame tempura of Caribbean vegetables, and rack of black belly lamb (a local animal that resembles a sheep and a goat).