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True Caribbean Flavors From Unlikely Source In Anguilla

A traditional breakfast at Anguilla Guest House includes coconut dumplings, fried salt cod and fresh avocado. Credit: Copyright Ramin Ganeshram

A traditional breakfast at Anguilla Guest House includes coconut dumplings, fried salt cod and fresh avocado. Credit: Copyright Ramin Ganeshram

With winter still holding much of the country in its clutch, our thoughts wander to warmer climes — sandy beaches with picture-perfect palms swaying in the breeze. On this side of the world, nowhere answers that description better than the Caribbean islands.

And as thousands flee to the Caribbean for the heat and resort fun, culinary adventure tends to be low on the list. The sentiment is understandable. Except for a few islands noted particularly for their unique multiethnic, multi-ingredient styles of cuisine — here I’m thinking about Trinidad & Tobago, Puerto Rico, Cuba and French islands such as Guadeloupe — most visitors know island food only as the overpriced hotel fare that mimics mid-level American restaurant offerings.

So it was that on a recent visit to the tiny island of Anguilla in the Lesser Antilles that I was disappointed but not surprised to find what I thought was a lack of true, native food culture available to visitors. Not blessed with the abundance of produce or even seafood as many of its sister islands, Anguilla is most noted as a semi-private playground for the wealthy and perhaps the best historic example of the resort-type dining experience.

For Caribbean food in Anguilla, skip the resorts and hotels

As a food culture writer and a person of Caribbean descent, this wasn’t good enough. I set about trying to find hidden native food gems to which I could relate. I was fortunate to find some at the modest but lovely Anguilla Great House beach resort on Rendezvous Bay, an old-school West Indies-style hotel, where proprietor Will Fleming served me a traditional breakfast complete with fried salt fish, coconut dumplings and fresh avocado.

But it was in my larger search for truly Caribbean meals that I was surprised at what I found: a vibrant food culture in the most unexpected place, and one that melded a modern culinary trend with the spirit of local culture and vibrancy. A burgeoning of food trucks — in the best Portland, Oregon, style — are helmed by native chefs trained at the island’s best resorts.

What visitors find at these establishments is an eclectic mix of Caribbean flair and world cuisines — everything from barbecue to Mexican to soul food to vegetarian fare. While nearly all the food is imported to the island via boat from nearby St. Maarten, many chefs make use of local seafood, particularly the abundant and succulent island lobsters. It’s not a surprise to see them turn up in everything from tacos to barbecue to soup.

Because Anguilla is small — its capital city, The Valley, can be traversed on foot in less than a half-hour — most food trucks remain in close proximity to each other. Not surprisingly, every third person is someone’s relative or cousin, which makes the island not only refreshingly friendly but immersed in a sense of hospitality that is clearly apparent in the careful preparation and presentation of the food at these roadside stands.

Perhaps best of all is that the food trucks of Anguilla are as equally democratic as their stateside counterparts: What you’ll find is freshly prepared food, unique in culinary styling, at reasonable prices — a great option for those hoping for a taste-filled Caribbean getaway that won’t break the bank.

The number of food trucks grows monthly, among them Meals on Wheels, Rawlie’s Food Van, Wendy’s Food Van and J & S Snoconette, while the early precursor to this moveable feast — the beachside snack stand — is still thriving. All the food trucks take U.S. dollars, as does most of the island. These were among my best finds:

Run by two former resort chefs, Hungry’s Food Van melds traditional island preparations with American food trends. While you’ll find goat soup, bull foot soup and conch soup, you can also choose from an extensive quesadilla menu with fillings ranging from smoked salmon to traditional cheese and vegetables. The best by far is the Lobster Quesadilla, which makes use of local lobster and is a steal at $14 featuring more lobster than any traditional New England lobster roll.

Papa Lash's food van. Credit: Copyright Courtesy of Anguilla Tourist Board

Papa Lash’s food van. Credit: Copyright Courtesy of Anguilla Tourist Board

It’s worth a stop at Papa Lash’s not just for the popular Caribbean patties, a flaky turnover with a vegetable filling, but to meet the dynamic and friendly owner. With extremely reasonable prices, Papa Lash has long served the local foods to schoolchildren, natives and tourists alike.

Most Anguillans will tell you that if you want barbecue, go to Ken’s. The stand, which is strategically set in the center of downtown, is only open on weekends, and those in the know plan their end-of-week activities around opening hours. The ribs are what to order. Wash them down with a homemade ginger beer or sorrel (hibiscus) drink.

While a number of food trucks or “vans,” as they are called in Anguilla, focus on specialized food, such as Chanboo’s, which is noted for soul food, others, like Slyco’s Food Van, are similar to a diner or fast-casual restaurant, but with all the food made fresh to order. Burgers, fries, wings and pasta make up the menu. And you’ll find extremely reasonable prices — a hot dog is $2.50 U.S. and an order of Buffalo wings and fries is $6.

With each visit to a new food truck, I began to reassess my idea of “Caribbean food.” The fact is that the Caribbean, like America, is a settled land — in some cases voluntarily, but not in others. The people of the West Indies have long adapted to making do and making the best of what can be had. The Anguilla food trucks, with their eclectic fare, are doing just that, and made me realize I had found my real Caribbean fare after all.

Main photo: A traditional breakfast at Anguilla Guest House includes coconut dumplings, fried salt cod and fresh avocado. Credit: Copyright Ramin Ganeshram

Zester Daily contributor Ramin Ganeshram is a journalist and professional chef trained at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City, where she has also worked as a chef instructor. She has won seven Society of Professional Journalist awards and been nominated for the International Association of Culinary Professionals' Bert Greene Award. Ganeshram's books include "Sweet Hands: Island Cooking From Trinidad & Tobago," "America I Am: Pass It Down Cookbook" (with Jeff Henderson) and "Stir It Up." Her book "Future Chefs" won an IACP Cookbook of the year award and she is the ghostwriter of the best selling Sweetie Pies Cookbook. Her book Cooking With Coconut will be out from Workman/Storey in December 2016.