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A fusion of Caribbean flavors will remind you of vacation

West Indian cuisine has traditionally blended whatever ethnic influences sailed through on the trade winds.

By Mima MohammedContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / August 15, 2007

When you enter Ali's Roti Restaurant here in Boston, the blaring Carnival Soca music and panoply of aromas make you feel as though you've been transported to the West Indies.

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With West Indian populations burgeoning in the United States, many Caribbean neighborhoods, such as the one along Blue Hill Avenue in Boston's Mattapan neighborhood, can deliver a genuine taste of the islands.

No starred chefs operate the mom and pop eateries here that prominently display their national pride with flags, but the simple dishes offer a taste of home to recent immigrants and a chance to revisit island memories for New Englanders who have vacationed there.

"We have people coming from all over to eat at restaurants along this Blue Hill strip in Dorchester – people from New Hampshire; Springfield, [Mass.]; Rhode Island; Connecticut," says Charles Wynter, a Jamaican immigrant who works at Ali's. "When people travel or spend time in the Caribbean, then they want to eat what they tasted on vacation in the islands when they return home," he concludes.

The Caribbean embraces a wide expanse of islands between Florida and South America. Explorers, conquistadors, and pirates have all sailed the trade winds that sweep the West Indies, shaping its demography in the process. Caribbean cuisine is a fusion of Spanish, French, African, and Indian influences mixed with local produce and bountiful seafood. Goat is another staple that features prominently in many Caribbean dishes.

Even among the islands, cuisine varies widely, depending on the colonial history. For instance, the Chinese introduced rice to the Caribbean and people from India brought curry when both groups first came to work as indentured servants in various sugar-cane plantations.

Rice on each island also may be a little different. Some season their rice, others add peas or other touches – including, coconut.

Trinidadian food is dominated by yellow curry and roti (a flaky bread cooked on the stove similar to a tortilla or the Indian bread called naan), whereas Jamaican food tends features more "jerk" seasoning, milder sauces, and flour dumplings.

"Heat" is common to the all West Indian cuisines, whether it's from spices like turmeric or cumin or from hot sauces made from peppers. Freshly made "green seasoning" is a common meat marinade made from green onion, hot peppers, ginger, cilantro, and garlic. Menus also include a lot of seafood – so it's hardly surprising that Caribbean restaurants have found a particular niche along North America's East Coast.

The majority of West Indian immigrants in Boston tend to come from the larger islands of Jamaica and Trinidad – and so those palates dominate the dishes offered by restaurants in the United States and Canada. The shift to a northern clime – with all its hurry and cold weather – makes Caribbean restaurants even more appealing to those populations used to a slower pace and a warmer region.

"There is a lot of work that goes into making Caribbean dishes," says Hanif Abrahim, manager and head cook of Ali's Roti Restaurant, which opened in 1989. "When people move here, they don't have time to spend all day cooking their favorite meals."

Typical of most cooks in locally owned Caribbean restaurants, Mr. Abrahim never had any formal training as a chef. The Trinidad-born cook began his career laboring in family owned restaurants until he emigrated to the US in the 1980s. Although he initially moved to America with hopes of playing in cricket league clubs, he eventually gave up that dream to become the general manager of two Caribbean restaurants in Boston.

Owners of the Caribbean restaurants in Mattapan estimate that about 60 percent of the clientele are from the Caribbean; the rest are mainly white and black Americans. Blue Hill Avenue in Boston's Mattapan and Dorchester neighborhoods is dotted with Caribbean restaurants and bakeries that serve almost every dish that one can find in Trinidad, Jamaica, or Haiti.

"I don't even know anyone from the Caribbean, and I am not sure which particular food comes from which island – I just like to switch up the food I generally eat and I enjoy roti and curried goat," said Nelson Thomas as he ate his roti lunch at Ali's and sipped a Jamaican cream soda.

Because of their out-of-the-way locations, many ethnic restaurants tend to remain unexplored by most city dwellers, except for those who live in the immediate neighborhood. But with millions of tourists making the trek southward in winter, even high-end Boston restaurants may feature Caribbean-influenced seafood. And in some North American cities, Caribbean food has already entered the mainstream diet.