The first steps you take on St. Thomas after disembarking from your cruise ship will stay with you forever. The gentle Caribbean breeze winnows across the island whose vibrant port of Charlotte Amalie is nestled like a jewel amidst the lush green vegetation. If ever you doubted whether paradise on earth exists, a visit to St. Thomas will permanently put those uncertainties to bed. So much of a region’s cultural identity is expressed through its local cuisine. St. Thomas is no different. The island has a rich history and the famous dishes we see today are the result of influences inherited from each of the groups who’ve inhabited St. Thomas since it was first settled by indigenous people in the pre-Columbian Americas and there’s no better way to experience the cuisine than through a food tour courtesy of St. Thomas Food Tours, guided by one of the locals.
The strongest influence on modern Virgin Island cuisine is that of Africans who were taken by slavers and brought to the Caribbean to work the sugarcane fields from the 1600s as part of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, until the mid-1800s when slavery was finally abolished. Given its history as a former nexus between the Old and New Worlds, it’s not surprising that salt fish became a staple of the Caribbean diet. Fish would be pickled and salted for the long sea journeys and rehydrated when being prepared for a meal. Today, St. Thomians use salt fish in stews, chowders or fried up as a snack. Locals and visitors alike love stopping by E-Tea’s Green House for their salt fish fix. Although many restaurants carry the traditional dish, at the Green House they put a new spin on it by serving up a one of a kind saltfish quiche. It’s got a little kick of spiciness and is packed with flavor.
By the 17th century, the Danish took control of St. Thomas and remained a territory of that nation until 1917 when it was purchased by the US. The Danes impact on St. Thomas is readily seen in its architecture; many of the buildings still standing on the island were built during their occupation and bear characteristic Scandinavian elements in their design. Nestled inside one of these historic buildings is New York Times recommended Gladys’ Café, where you can feast on fried conch fritters – the perfect snack for strolling through the Royal Dane Mall and marveling at the narrow streets which are framed on either side by the old buildings. These structures in the Mall are a marriage of local stone and imported brick and weren’t for signs of modern life, you could easily believe you’d been transported back in time. Back at Gladys’ if you’re in need of something more substantial than conch fritters, they also serve up kallaloo. The hearty stew is made from leafy greens, okra, meat or fish, onions and spices and served up with another Caribbean staple: fungi. Made from boiled cornmeal and okra, fungi is another dish with origins in the African slave trade.
With a texture not unlike polenta, fungi is a plate fixture for many a meal; with fish but also with other local favorites like oxtail, mutton or goat slow-cooked to perfection, like you can find at Cuzzin’s Caribbean Restaurant. A culinary landmark on the St. Thomas, Cuzzin’s has it all in terms of local fare. The food is rich and flavorful, and features the traditional oxtail and mutton, in addition to a wide range of seafood dishes.
Curry chicken, rice and peas, baked macaroni & cheese and sweet plantation is a favorite, local meal.
My Brother’s Workshop Bakery is a faith-based, non-profit charity organization dedicated to helping at-risk youth through mentoring, counseling, education, paid job training, and job placement. Among the many delicious fresh baked goods they make in house are the delicious local rum cakes made using coconut Cruzan rum. Cruzan is made over on St. Croix, one of St. Thomas’ sister islands. There is nothing in the world like a moist, delectable rum cake – it’s hard to have just one.
As you are guided through the streets of Charlotte Amalie sampling the local fare, your guide will take you to major landmarks such as Fort Christian, the oldest still standing structure on St. Thomas. Fort Christian has housed governors, been a seat of government, a place of worship, and alternatively a prison throughout its long history. Today, the building serves as a museum. From there, as you leisurely wind your way through the town’s streets, you’ll saunter past the Emancipation Garden, which commemorates the 1848 emancipation of slaves who contributed so much to the culture of the Caribbean, including the Virgin Islands.
St. Thomas is a place everyone should visit at some point in their lives. Not only for the unique food and stunning landscape, but also for the warm people. St. Thomians are well-known for their hospitality, generosity of spirit, and of course, they know a thing or two about excellent food.