Take Your Passion Cruising

Food is Ann Vanderhoof’s route into Caribbean life

Ann Vanderhoof in Receta's galley
In RECETA’s galley, making a Trinidadian chow, one of my favorite pre-dinner snacks.
(Photo: Steve Manley)

When my husband Steve and I first talked about going cruising, one of the strong appeals for me of traveling on a boat was that I would have my kitchen with me wherever we went.

I love to cook, to try new recipes and experiment, and Steve is a willing guinea pig. And we both love to eat. The name we chose for our sailboat is a dead giveaway: Receta is the Spanish word for recipe; we named Receta’s dinghy Snack.

Still, I didn’t realize this passion would do more than put food on our table. I soon discovered, however, that it could open up routes for us into Caribbean life.

Food launches conversations with strangers

When we moved onto the boat, I left behind not only the conveniences of my land-based kitchen, but North American convenience foods as well. In the Caribbean, fresh produce and fish markets became the new convenience.

Market woman on Dominica rolling cinnamon bark into sticks
This market woman on Dominica is rolling cinnamon bark into sticks. But you wouldn’t hear her call it “cinnamon” — on many Caribbean islands, it’s known simply as “spice. (Photo: Steve Manley)

Many of the items for sale were unfamiliar to us, but our foodie bent meant we were primed to try them.

I’d ask the vendors how they would prepare, say, the christophene (chayote) I was buying; or how I could turn the tamarind pods heaped on their tables into the refreshing tart-sweet drink we had just downed at a nearby food stall; or how I could use an unrecognizable-to-me green herb in my cooking. (One time, in the market in Castries, St. Lucia, the answer was that I should use it to make tea, to get rid of intestinal worms. I wormed out of that purchase and bought the cilantro-like herb chadon beni instead.)

Vendors in the Castries, St. Lucia, market Vendors in the Castries, St. Lucia, market
On every trip to market, I make it my mission to buy something new. Tables overflowing with unusual herbs and greens make it easy in Castries, St Lucia (Photo: Steve Manley) After taking these shots in the Castries, St. Lucia, market, Steve printed them onboard and gave copies to the women on our next trip to town. (Photo: Steve Manley)

Pleased by our interest, the vendors were eager to help. Often, other customers joined the conversation, too, offering their suggestions on how to use a fruit or vegetable. “Would you like me to come home with you and cook them?” the shopper next to me said when I fingered some flat, green, snow-pea-like pods in the market in Port of Spain, Trinidad. With the permission of the vendor, she showed me how to string the seim, as I learned the pods were called, and then mimed cutting them into diagonal strips. “These are very good in curries” she said before heading on her way.

Ann Vanderhoof learning to roll coo-coo on Carriacou
Learning to roll coo-coo on Carriacou (with local cook Leslie Anne Calliste).
(Photo: Steve Manley)

Emboldened by the positive reaction (and the information) our questions brought, we began poking our noses into kitchens, too, whenever we tasted wonderful island cooking on shore.

Invariably, we left with a recipe – albeit one of the “pinch of this, handful of that” variety – which formed the basis of my experiments in our galley afterwards.

When the results brought less than four-star reviews from Receta’s official food critic – that would be Steve – we went back to those who helped us, and asked more questions.

Even beyond markets and kitchens, we discovered food was a conversation starter, giving us a way to meet people. From taxi drivers to local boatmen, from customs officials to strangers we greet as we walk paths and roads, food is a subject that gets people talking. Not only does everyone have an opinion of what they like, but also people are proud of their country’s cuisine and pleased when visitors show an interest in it.

We win on all fronts

- Tuna seared rare with a cocoa-chili crust.
- Octopus stewed in a Creole style with fresh tomatoes, peppers, and thyme.
- Thick, creamy callaloo served as a soup or a side dish with rice.
- Provision – yams, sweet potatoes, green plantains, breadfruit – cooked in coconut milk with fresh herbs.
- Mango-pineapple gazpacho.
- Buttery avocado salad.
- Grilled mahi-mahi drizzled with a passion-fruit and ginger sauce.
- Lentils with sweet pumpkin.

By creating dishes based on fresh, local, seasonal ingredients (and adapting old favorite recipes to include them), we eat extremely well on Receta – in terms of both taste and a healthy diet. (These recipes, and many more, are included in my new book, The Spice Necklace: My Adventures in Caribbean Cooking, Eating, and Island Life; see below.)

Ann Vanderhoof buying greens in Port of Spain
These greens I’m buying in the Port of Spain, Trinidad, market are called spinach, but they’re from a different plant – and are more strongly flavored – than the Popeye variety we ate back home. Slightly bitter and smoky tasting, they’re wonderful sauteed with garlic and ginger. (Photo: Steve Manley)

“Cooking local” also helps the cruising kitty: Foods that don’t have to be shipped in from elsewhere and that are plentiful because they’re in season are invariably less expensive. A locavore style of eating offers a big helping of environment friendliness, too.

But beyond these benefits, my interest in learning to cook as the locals do also gets us involved in island life. It’s a starting point for adventures that inevitably lead us off the beaten tourist and cruiser path. What better excuse to get off the boat and explore an island than going in search of great food?

Our interest in food turns strangers into friends, and connects the dots between people and their history, culture, and traditions

In Trinidad, “Sweet-Hand Pat” let me look over her shoulder as she cooked in her small restaurant kitchen, and a friendship blossomed.(The crabs are destined for the popular Trinbagonian dish, curry crab and dumplins’.) (Photo: Steve Manley)

With food as our starting point, we tracked wild-oregano-eating goats into the cactus-covered hills at the northwest edge of the Dominican Republic, and tasted for ourselves that their meat comes to the kitchen preseasoned.

We joined a seamoss (seaweed) farmer in St. Lucia as she harvested her crop and turned it into potent “island Viagra.”  We made searing-hot pepper sauce in a Trinidadian kitchen – and got an impromptu dance lesson at the same time.

In the mountains of Dominica, we hunted freshwater crayfish at night (their tails rival those of small lobsters) and sipped moonshine out of hidden back-country stills. And at the University of the West Indies in Trinidad, we crammed for a chocolate-tasting test. (It was hard work. Honest.)

There’s no question that my passion for cooking has added a whole different – and unexpected – dimension to liveaboard life and broadened our cruising experience. And it was no surprise that food played a starring role when I started writing about our travels on Receta, first in An Embarrassment of Mangoes: A Caribbean Interlude.

Reciprocating helps launch a friendship

Our fisherman friends Dwight and Stevie
Our fisherman friends Dwight and Stevie keep RECETA well supplied with seafood when we’re anchored off Grenada’s Hog Island. In return, I try to keep them supplied with fresh baking and other goodies from my galley. (Photo: Steve Manley)

When we were first anchored in Grenada, a stranger gave us a bag of mangoes when she caught us admiring her tree. I baked her a pan of brownies to say thank you – which gave us an excuse to meet again, and started a now decade-long friendship.

If someone gives us a gift from their garden or fish from their catch, we try to say thanks with something homemade from the galley; if someone lets us peek over her shoulder while she cooks or invites us to share a meal, we try to follow-up with an invitation to Receta. Along the way, casual acquaintances turn into something more.

While I was back home in Toronto last fall, I called a friend in Trinidad to catch up – we had first met several years ago when I invaded her small restaurant kitchen to watch her cook – and told her I was preparing a couple of her recipes for a Canadian dinner party. “But, honey,” she said, “I just made two of your recipes for my husband’s birthday.” Food and friendship are a two-way street.

Ann’s 11 Tips
for Shopping in Island Markets

Coconut water straight from the shell
A mid-market refresher: coconut water straight from the shell. I also bring a leakproof bottle with me for the vendor to fill, so we can enjoy cold coconut water back on the boat, too. (Photo: Steve Manley)

1. Each time you go to market, look for at least one new-to-you item to buy.

This gives you a “market mission”, a reason to ask questions – and, of course, it expands your galley repertoire. Since buying locally grown seasonal food is cheaper than trying to replicate the meals you ate back home, it’s an inexpensive experiment if you hit the occasional dish you really don’t like.

2. Substitute island ingredients for North American ones in recipes you already know and enjoy.

Try cooking callaloo instead of spinach, bodi beans instead of string beans, pumpkin instead of squash, West Indian sweet potatoes instead of white potatoes. Make your favorite beef stew with goat, and an apple crisp with mangoes. Season with sive (West Indian chives) instead of green onions, chadon beni (culantro) instead of cilantro, and seasoning peppers instead of bell peppers.

3.  Ask the market vendors questions such as:

  • What do you call this [fruit, vegetable, fish]?” Even if you think you know the name, it’s worth asking the question: You may learn a local/regional variant.
  • How do I know when this [fruit, vegetable] is ready to use?” Asking “How do I know when it’s ripe?” can be tricky, as some produce is used in both ripe and unripe stages.
  • How do I prepare this?” Even better, ask “How do you serve it to your family?

4. Have a pad and pen along, so you can jot down the details.

5. It’s easier to engage vendors in conversation on quieter days

Though the bustle and profusion of the week’s main market day (usually Friday or Saturday) make it fascinating and fun, it’s easier to engage vendors in conversation on quieter days, when they’re not quite so busy making sales.

6. Include the following in your going-to-market kit:

  • sturdy carry bags, especially ones you can sling over your shoulder, leaving your hands free
  • an insulated thermal bag (essential if you’re buying fish or other perishables, but even delicate greens and herbs profit from being kept cool)
  • a plastic container with a secure locking lid and/or large zipper-type plastic bags (to decrease the odds of leakage when you’re bringing fresh fish, shrimp, or other seafood back to the boat)
  • if eggs are on your shopping list, a closed plastic camping-style egg keeper. (Have you ever tried to transport eggs in a plastic bag, as they’re sometimes sold in island markets?)
  • I often bring along a leakproof bottle, too, so if I come across someone selling fresh coconut water or fruit juice, I can leap on the opportunity.

7. Carry an assortment of small bills and change
to make doing business in the market easier.

8. Don’t be afraid to try hole-in-the-wall restaurants, small food stalls, and street food. (Size and sophistication are no guarantee of quality, hygiene, or food safety.) Follow your nose – if the cooking smells delicious, it probably is. A lineup of local people waiting for food is also a good sign.

9. Ask residents for recommendations.

But to avoid being sent to an establishment that a local thinks foreigners would like – usually, the typical popular tourist place – try phrasing the question this way: “Where do YOU go for breakfast/lunch/dinner?” If you’re looking for a more elaborate eating place, try asking, “Where would you take your mother for her birthday?

10. Carry a small bottle of hand sanitizer in your backpack or bag.

You never know when you’re going to stumble on something delicious, and it’s good practice to clean your hands before you “take a taste.”

11. Ask before taking photos.

If you get permission, and if you have a printer onboard, print one or two of the good shots and give copies to your subjects. We’ve found this is a great way to break the ice.

About Ann Vanderhoof

Ann Vanderhoof's new book: The Spice Necklace

Ann Vanderhoof is currently cruising the Eastern Caribbean with her husband Steve Manley.

Her new book, The Spice Necklace: My Adventures in Caribbean Cooking, Eating, and Island Life, was published in Canada in January and will be released in the USA on June 23, 2010. It recounts the couple’s adventures on Receta, as Ann follows her nose (and her tastebuds) from island to island, and it includes 71 recipes that grow out of the stories she tells.

Ann’s first book, An Embarrassment of Mangoes: A Caribbean Interlude, was an Amazon Top Ten Book of the Year for Travel and a national bestseller in Canada.

You can read Ann’s blog, see Steve’s photos, follow their travels, and find additional tips and recipes on her website: www.spicenecklace.com

Related articles (on this website)
More info (external links)

What’s your passion? Have you taken it cruising?

Let us know. Email kathy@forcruisers.com or leave a comment below.

Pin It

3 comments to Food is Ann Vanderhoof’s route into Caribbean life

  • Such a good article, Ann! I love the way food connects people and teaches us about history and culture. And the way it’s a two-way street, as you point out: as fast as mangoes and coconuts and papaya fill our cockpit, bread or coffee cake or other items that are new to islanders fly off our boat into new friends’ hands. It’s a wonderful exchange! It’s also almost effortless to eat healthy and support organic, local markets in this lifestyle. You make it sound very appealing indeed — if I weren’t already our here, I’d want to go out and get my own boat and do it too! Congratulations on your new book — it looks very appealing indeed!

  • Kathy mcgraw

    Great article, We have done the same thing in our cruising years and its a lot of fun. I will say however that my husband is not a picky eater, so when it doesnt turn out to be too tasty he doesnt complain, and he does try everything.

  • Clay Lovell


    I read your book a few years back and enjoyed a great deal. I recently donated it to my public library since we were downsizing our home. At one point, I had made a copy of your recipe for Pina Colada Cheesecake. I made it twice and now cannot find it ANYWHERE. Is it possible for you to send me the recipe? Pretty please, with Pineapple on top…

    I applaud you for having the courage to pull up roots even for a short period and sail off into the unknown (basically). Few of us in this world do so. Fair winds and following seas.

    Clay Lovell

Leave a Comment




You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>