Fried jerk chicken.
The Black community and its ties to food run deep into culture and DNA. Providing a common meeting space, food is often the one force that can draw crowds from different backgrounds and ethnicities across the African diaspora. As rich and diverse as the people, the food is a direct representation of each individual country and its take on the flavors of the Caribbean.
Caribbean food is becoming increasingly popular to all those who sample its earthy yet festive flavors. Composed of more than 7000 islands and 25 island nations, the Caribbean possesses some of the most culturally diverse cuisine around. Flavors like ginger, turmeric, paprika and cinnamon all help to give Caribbean foods its signature flavor. Fruit profiles like mango, jackfruit, passion fruit, coconut and pineapple help comprise the sweet flavors of the islands.
Toi Roberts, owner of Rolais’ Caribbean Baking Company, uses island flavors to create vegan donuts. The online company has a kitchen in Livonia, but is featured at the Eastern Market on Saturdays. It is there the owner showcases a unique spin on traditional flavors.
“I started about three and a half years ago with the donuts. I was looking for a donut that would last 36 hours, most donuts go stale,” says Roberts. “As far as the Caribbean goes, I had this grand idea that I would make baked goods that had a Caribbean flair to it. I met a friend and he introduced me to all of these Caribbean flavors because he was from Haiti.”
The self-taught baker then began to experiment with different flavor combinations perfecting each recipe. Offering choices like guava cheesecake, dragon berry, Caribbean spice blueberry and brown butter jerk bacon, each donut is made from scratch and contains no dairy or nuts.
“I do a lot of research and most of the donuts have a Caribbean flair to them and I stayed with that because people began to really like it,” says Roberts.
Opened just before COVID, John’s Jamaica Jamaica on Detroit’s west side, has a history of bringing authentic Jamaican food to the neighborhood. Originally operated for more than 35 years, the restaurant undertook new management but kept the same look and taste of the Caribbean.
“We acquired the business before [COVID] but we shut down for renovations and then we moved forward with opening, staffing and bringing back the island flavor,” says Alethea Walls, manager of John’s Jamaica Jamaica.
With their most popular dishes being curry goat and oxtails, John’s Jamaica Jamaica has several menu options that feature traditional tastes and flavors and items that are geared towards more common American tastes.
“Our menu is authentic Jamaican food, however, some of our dishes do cater to the American palette. Some of our dishes are not as spicy as they would be if we were still on the island. We try to stay authentic to Jamaican food,” says Walls. “All of our chefs are from the Caribbean islands.”
Many ethnic groups help to create Detroit’s thriving neighborhoods and a large part of that is its food scene. With a population of Caribbean natives, Detroit’s food scene is starting to keep up with international flavors.
“Detroit is becoming very, very diverse, almost similar to a small New York if you will. When you think of a city or state that’s surrounded by water, you naturally draw people from islands and different parts of the world. Seeing that, it caters to the pallet of everybody,” says Walls.
To recreate an authentic Caribbean dish at home, ingredients will be a game changer. Shopping at markets which carry true items from the islands will provide staple flavors in at-home dishes.
“We use authentic ingredients, we shop at reputable markets, we make a lot of our things from scratch. We’re not buying Americanized jerk sauces, we make our own with our habanero peppers; we’re using spices, we’re using fresh garlic. We use things they typically use at home,” says Walls.
A base in many dishes, Jamaica Browning is a seasoning mixture used to add flavor to meats, stews and gravies. John’s Jamaica Jamaica makes their own Browning which helps to create the flavor profiles the community has known for three decades.
“You can buy Browning at the store, but it’s better when it’s made at home,” says Walls. “If they were in a restaurant in Jamaica or Barbados they would make their own Browning. We try to stick to those ingredients that are native to each island.”
Cuisines around Black culture cross lines as African Americans continue to travel to various Black nations. Bringing pieces of these places to cities like Detroit, allows cultures and communities to grow and become inclusive of all Black cultures. Through food, clothing and other influences, Detroit’s Caribbean culture is on the upswing.