Though Barbados is world-renowned for having perfected rum, the island’s prowess in the culinary arts is not to be overlooked. Bajan cuisine is known to put its unique spin on traditional Caribbean classics—whether it’s cassava bread, fried conch, or macaroni and cheese—to create a flavor profile that is all its own. The nation’s culinary offerings reflect a diverse mix of influences, from Europe to Asia to the best of the U.S., and our recommendation for the top foods to try when visiting the island is similarly eclectic. From baked macaroni pie to sea urchin, breadfruit to dolphin (which you might know as mahi-mahi), we’ve rounded up the 15 dishes you must try when visiting this island paradise in the West Indies.
Flying fish is an emblem of the island of Barbados, and is an iconic national dish that visitors must try at least once during their vacation. This won’t be hard to accomplish, however, as some variation of the seafood is served at nearly every restaurant on the island—whether it’s a beach-side shack or a fine-dining institution. Speaking of the former (and the latter): For the avid foodie, we recommend signing up for a food tour to sample a variety of these national dishes. The Pigtails and Breadfruite Tour, the Lickrish Tour, and the Lick De Bowl Food Tours all offer immersive excursions into the tastes and smells of Bajan cooking and dining. Their appeal is not only limited to those with a refined palette—guests will walk away with a greater understanding of the island’s culture and heritage, as well.
A hallmark of Bajan cuisine, cou-cou is made with okra and cornmeal. For the uninitiated, cou-cou tastes somewhat similar to polenta or grits. However, the dish is infinitely more delicious when paired with its flying (or shall we say swimming?) counterpart; served alongside flying fish, cou-cou is one-half of the national dish of Barbados. So make sure to order the classic combination at some point before you depart for your flight home to get the purest taste of Barbados.
Another popular Bajan dish, pigtails will redefine street meat for urban dwellers that envision a gyro or sausage. Pigtails, in this scenario, are not a reference to the popular hairstyle but are instead a reference to the Asian influence on the Caribbean island’s cuisine. Crispy pigtails may be all the rage in Thailand, but barbecued pigtails are a sensation in Barbados—you will find the treat everywhere that quick bites are served, from the city streets of Bridgetown to beach-side shacks on the island’s west coast. Pigtails are particularly prevalent during festival season, but you don’t need to wait for a holiday to indulge in this Bajan classic. Keep an eye out for any street vendors, and keep your nose at the ready for the smell of salted pork.
A beloved Barbados ingredient, souse is essentially pickled pork but is sometimes made with chicken or beef. In some parts of the world, you might also hear it called head cheese. Pudding and souse is a favored soul-food pairing that looks like it would be a dessert but is a savory meal. Sidle up to one of the picnic tables at Bay Tavern at Martins Bay to sample some truly authentic helpings of this favored Bajan dish. (Bay Tavern is known for providing some of the best homegrown meals on the island, and the setting overlooking the Atlantic Ocean in the parish of St. John isn’t too shabby, either.)
You may be confused by hearing of an entrée described as "dolphin," but travelers shouldn’t be alarmed: "Dolphin" is the Bajan nickname for the much-less controversial seafood staple known as mahi-mahi. The best place to order this dish in Barbados? Oistins Fish Fry, of course. The Fish Fry occurs every Friday night in Oistins Market—get there early to snag a spot at Angela’s Café, or Pat’s Place, two of the more popular institutions in the market. Though, regardless of where you order your seafood in the market that evening, you’re sure to be satisfied. (But remember to save some room for rum—you will need liquid courage before joining the locals and tourists alike for some dancing in the moonlight afterward.)
For a more exotic taste of the Caribbean, visitors are encouraged to order the sea eggs, a species of sea urchin that dwells in depths of 20 feet beneath the surface of the surrounding waters. Though they were once far more plentiful in Barbados, they can still be found camouflaged in the seagrass beds and shallow reefs of the Caribbean Sea—until they end up on your plate, of course.
A lobster in Barbados is only familiar in name alone. Lobster in the Caribbean is distinct from the New England varietal popular up and down the Eastern seaboard, not only in the way it is prepared but in biology as well. The tropical crustacean doesn’t have any claws though you won’t mind the loss when you taste the delicious dish, which is usually served split and grilled.
Forget plain old rum cake—why not sample some traditional black cake while visiting Barbados on your next visit? While the former is a staple throughout the Caribbean archipelago, black cake is a specialty on the island (and its deliciousness is thanks in no small part to the island’s legendary prowess when it comes to rum). Salivating readers looking to recreate this at home need only find some prunes and dried cherries, a handful of raisins, and a dash of Bajan rum to make the dessert for themselves. Though, nothing will compare to the deliciousness that awaits when you sample the dish in its natural environment in the Eastern Caribbean.
Rice and Peas
A classic in Barbados, and throughout the Caribbean, visitors would be remiss not to include a side dish of rice and peas as a complement to one of their selected entrees. Such deliberate selection may not be necessary though, as the plate often accompanies the main course at restaurants throughout Barbados.
Baked Macaroni Pie
Baked macaroni and cheese is a popular dish through the Caribbean, particularly in the Bahamas, and Barbados is no exception. As with most things in life, the pie version of this carb-heavy favorite is the best iteration yet. Don’t trust us? Order a taste and see for yourself.
Another Caribbean classic, conch is very popular on the island of Barbados, and is offered in a variety of iterations on menus throughout the island. Whether you opt for conch fritters, cracked conch, or conch soup, it’s hard to go wrong when ordering such an island stand-by.
You may have tasted fishcake before, but rest assured that the Bajan fishcake is unique to the island of Barbados. The main difference between a Bajan fishcake and a regular fish cake? It’s all in the seasoning—the spices and herbs that are used in the batter to give the deep-fried concoction its distinct flavor and smell. If you want to go truly local, consider dipping the treat in some hot pepper sauce for an added dose of spice.
Though pelau originated in Trinidad, Barbados has adopted the signature dish of its neighbor to the south as its own over the years. The one-pot recipe, consisting of pigeon peas, rice, meat (typically chicken), and coconut milk, is a trademark of Bajan home cooking in kitchens all over the island. It can similarly be found on the menu of many restaurants and cafes throughout Barbados. Order a hearty serving for dinner for an authentic taste of the West Indies.
Breadfruit, a starchy fruit (hence the name), is used in an endless array of recipes in Barbados and beyond. Though Breadfruit originated in the South Pacific, the taste is now indelibly matched with the West Indies. We recommend ordering pickled breadfruit with your pudding and souse to taste a thoroughly Bajan meal.
Cassava is a Caribbean shrub that has a starchy, calorie-rich root. It's used in an array of dishes throughout Barbados and the West Indies at large. Whether it's steamed cassava, cassava cake, or cassava bread, there are endless choices for how the dish is to be consumed—though we, of course, recommend the cake. When on vacation, after all.