My first experience with Guadeloupe’s unique blend of culinary influences drawn from France, West Africa, and southern India was at the restaurant of the Auberge de la Vieille Tour Hotel, where a plate of delicately shaved tuna carpaccio, fresh off the boat, and served with lashings of olive oil, salt, and a piquant lemon relish arrived at my table.
It was one of those memorable food experiences that you wish you could have everyday. A French archipelago in the Lesser Antilles, Guadeloupe, I was told, is the Queen of Caribbean cuisine. A recent food tour of its culinary hot spots proved that the title is not just hyperbole.
The most popular street food in Guadeloupe is a fried sandwich called bokit, stuffed with chicken or ham, vegetables, and whatever else the market has to offer.
With a tall glass of cold fruit punch, the island population eats lunch on the run.
But elsewhere things are more leisurely. On the beach in Capesterre-Belle-Eau at the restaurant Le Rivage, I sampled flavorful okra fritters served with long strands of freshly grated pumpkin, coconut, and green papaya.
The okra fritters with their chewy texture and seasoning of chili reminded me of Indian pakoras. Pumpkin is a popular food in West Africa; green papaya comes from Southeast Asia and coconut is a local fruit. There on the plate were all the flavors from faraway that had created island food. A seasoning of salt air from the waves breaking only feet from my table definitely added flavor to the dish.
Walking through Guadeloupe’s markets is an experience in itself. Vendors are happy to explain the exotic array of fruit in their stalls—mounds of starfruit, soursop, red currant, cherimoya, and apra.
Spice merchants arrange their sacks of condiments like painters laying out the colors of their palettes, and every vendor has his or her own line of fruit-flavored rum with handwritten labels and the kick of an angry mule.
At La Case aux Epices Restaurant in Les Saintes, a tiny island group south of Basse-Terre Island, spice, as its name suggests, dominates the dishes. A filet of dorado or mahimahi was served perfectly cooked in a cream sauce flavored with fresh ginger, and the coconut pudding was fragrant with the smell of cinnamon.
One of Guadeloupe’s most famous chefs, Ruddy Colmar, chef and owner of Restaurant Au Widdy’s in Marina de Saint-François, offered to take me shopping and show me some of the secrets of his kitchen. Our first stop was the fish market at the beach, where fishermen come in with the morning’s catch.
The overwhelming variety of fish was bewildering to a nonlocal but Ruddy knew just what would work for our menu. Brilliant turquoise catfish, poisonous lionfish that had to be specially prepared but had a flavorful white flesh, gigantic rock crab, and succulent lobster were soon in the bag.
Then we were off to the vegetable market for spring onions—an island staple—fresh tomatoes, yams, bananas, mangoes, passion fruit, sweet chilies, and locally grown vanilla beans.
Colmar trained in France and cooked the many ingredients in a simple manner, serving a feast of fusion food drawing from the rich traditions of the island’s culinary heritage.
For dessert, he presented the table with his own creation, Chocolat-Phyle, a thin pastry envelope stuffed with a rich volcano of melted chocolate, dusted with powdered sugar and paired with homemade coconut ice cream. It was a feast worthy of the Queen of the Caribbean.
Susan James is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. She has lived in India, the U.K., and Hawaii, and writes about travel, art, and culture.