By trying the food of the Virgin Islands, you taste the region’s history. Enslaved Africans cooked fungi, made rations of saltfish palatable, and turned dasheen, or taro leaves, into filling soups.
Indian workers brought roti, a flat bread filled with curries, and the Danish red grout pudding is still beloved in the USVI.
In the Virgin Islands, locals have long lived by fishing. Try freshly caught spiny lobster, conch, wahoo, mahi mahi, and red snapper.
Here are 17 Virgin Island foods to enjoy.
In many cultures, fried pockets of dough filled with local fare make the perfect snack or meal. In the Caribbean, the tasty finger food is a pate (pronounced pah-tey), and is one of the best local foods to try.
The crunchy dough is stuffed with vegetables, seafood (often salted cod), or ground meat. On Tortola, try the fish pate at Crandall’s Pastry Plus.
In St. Thomas, locals line up early for the pates at Miss Jackie’s food truck parked near the airport. It’s not far from Lindbergh Bay Beach, one of the best beaches on the island.
Fish and Fungi
Fungi, (pronounced foon-ji, and nothing to do with mushrooms) is a cornmeal side dish that’s paired with fish to create a local specialty in both the U.S. Virgin Islands and the neighboring British Virgin Islands.
Locals plate the creamy side dish with red snapper filets or other fresh fish cooked with okra, tomatoes, and onions.
A traditional Virgin Islands food, fish and fungi dates to the slavery era when overseers on St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix were required to provide six quarts of cornmeal and either three pounds of fish or two pounds of salted beef weekly to each worker.
To supplement their diets, slaves grew okra and other vegetables. Fish and fungi is a testament to the endurance and ingenuity of the islands’ enslaved people.
Because fungi requires vigorous mixing to beat the lumps of cornmeal into a smooth pudding-like consistency, the dish can be hard to find at restaurants. In Charlotte Amalie, Le Petite Pump Room Bar & Restaurant typically includes fungi as a side dish to a lunch plate.
Rice and Beans
Popular throughout the Caribbean and Central America, rice and beans is a great dish to try wherever you are, as every island has its own version.
Typically, locals use red kidney beans or pigeon peas, in which case the dish becomes rice and peas. Either way, the satisfying side dish is cooked in coconut milk with peppers, garlic, onions, and seasonings.
You can find rice and beans at many local cafés, including Greengos Caribbean Cantina in Cruz Bay, St. John.
Saltfish, typically cod, stars in many Caribbean dishes, from Sunday breakfast to finger foods.
Cooks rehydrate the dried, salted fish by soaking it overnight in water. The fish makes tasty pates (pah-tays), patties, fish cakes, stews, and a breakfast plate.
Like many dishes in the Virgin Islands, saltfish dates back to the slave trade, as it was a cheap source of protein that didn’t require usurping land for cattle. Families in the islands today take pride in their handed-down recipes.
Conch fritters please islanders’ palates from the Bahamas through the Caribbean. The tastiest fritters start with fresh, not canned conch.
The best time to try the delicious bites is during queen conch season, roughly November 1 through May 31 in the USVI and November 1 to mid-August in the British Virgin Islands.
After tenderizing the conch by pounding, cooks cut the meat into small pieces, then add it to a mix of flour, milk, and egg before frying the batter, often in peanut oil. As with any ubiquitous dish, cooks create their own twists.
Some swear by marinating the conch in lime juice, while others add fiery scotch bonnet peppers. In Tortola, Myett’s Garden & Grille Restaurant gets raves for its crispy fritters.
Created from the heart-shaped leaves of the dasheen, or taro plant, callaloo tastes something like spinach, and is often substituted for more traditional greens. Islanders take pride in their families’ recipes for callaloo, which is served as a soup or stew.
Some cooks add salted pork tail, fried snapper or catfish, diced onions, peppers, celery, garlic, and okra to create a thick and hearty callaloo soup.
Others make a vegan version, adding eggplant, okra, sweet potatoes, and tofu to the leaves. In St. Croix, the soup is often served with fungi.
Enslaved people from West Africa brought the dish to the islands, using wild taro or growing dasheen in their allotted gardens, mixing the greens with other food scraps.
As utilitarian as toast, Johnny cakes appear on plates throughout the Bahamas, the Caribbean, and Central America. Virgin Islanders eat the fried, biscuit-like bread with a crisp crust for breakfast and snacks.
Historians believe Johnny cakes originated with corn-growing Native Americans and were brought to the Caribbean by settlers.
Because Johnny cakes, which are made from finely ground cornmeal, lasted for a while before spoiling, workers took them to the fields, giving rise to the name “journey cakes.”
Locals in the Virgin Islands slather Johnny cakes with butter or jam or fill them with meat or cheese. Either way, they’re tasty.
Mutiny Island Vodka
A unique product of the U.S. Virgin Islands, trying the Mutiny Island Vodka distilled from breadfruit is one of the best things to do in St. Croix.
The environmentally conscious owners chose breadfruit because it’s plentiful on the island, removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and makes a flavorful vodka.
On a tour of the Sion Farm Distillery, view the copper still, watch the master distiller, and sample the vodka, which makes a unique souvenir.
Treat yourself to Caribbean lobster, one of the signature foods in the Virgin Islands. Much of the lobster you eat here comes from Anegada, in the British Virgin Islands.
Unlike the American lobster, also called Maine lobster, the Caribbean spiny lobster features tiny, inedible claws, and the meat is in its tail.
Some lobster aficionados rate the Caribbean lobster meat as tougher and less sweet than that of its northern cousin. No matter; lobster salad with mango, and grilled lobster seasoned with garlic and butter, are succulent Virgin Island dishes.
The distillation of rum on St. Croix dates to 1760 when John-Joseph Merlin, a Belgian, produced rum on the Estate Diamond sugarcane plantation.
Since the 1950s, Cruzan Rum has been overseen by the Nelthropp family, whose Cruzan roots date to the late 18th century.
Rum aficionados praise Cruzan’s aged light rum as well as the company’s earthy Estate Diamond Blackstrap Rum. Cruzan also produces fruity Caribbean rums, key components in St. Croix’s popular cocktail, Cruzan Confusion.
Fresh Caribbean seafood is one of the best things to eat in the Virgin Islands thanks to its abundance. Sample grilled or fried tuna, wahoo, snapper, mahi mahi, grouper, and other local catches as well as spiny lobster and conch.
For lunch in Cruz Bay, St. John, Morgan’s Mango plates a catch of the day, grilled lobster, and a seafood paella. The Landing Beach Bar in St. Croix serves fish sandwiches, a crispy fish Reuben, and fish tacos.
If you like Caribbean rum, then sampling Pusser’s Painkiller is one of the best things to do in the British Virgin Islands, where the drink originated.
The storied history of the cocktail, a mix of Pusser’s Rum, cream of coconut, and pineapple and orange juice, starts in the early 1970s when George and Marie Myrick opened a bar on the BVI’s Jost van Dyke, a popular spot for boaters.
Since the place lacked a dock, patrons swam ashore, getting their money wet. Hence, the name, Soggy Dollar Bar.
The Myricks mixed Mount Gay and Cruzan dark rums for their Painkiller. When bartender Daphne Henderson took over in the late 1970s, she perfected the Painkiller, drawing visitors and locals, including Pusser’s Rum founder, Charles Tobias.
Although Henderson never revealed her recipe, Tobias came up with a nearly identical cocktail whose name and formula Pusser’s trademarked, crediting Henderson as the drink’s inspiration. You’ll be able to try a Painkiller all over the BVI but be warned: it’s deceptively potent.
With centuries-old stone walls, a blackened still, and lush trees, Callwood Rum Distillery exudes history and atmosphere.
For more than 200 years, the Callwood family has been operating the Callwood Distillery on Tortola, producing all-natural Arundel Pure Cane Juice from cane grown at the facility or on the island.
Arundel is the name of the English family that built the distillery, probably in the late 1600s.
Located in Cane Garden Bay, the small-batch rum distillery gains fame as the Caribbean’s oldest continuously operated pot distillery, an early and traditional method of distillation in contrast to facilities that use column stills.
Check for the availability of tours that include a tasting of Callwood’s little aged white rum, and a four- and a 10-year-aged dark rum.
Workers from the Indian subcontinent brought roti to the Caribbean. An unleavened flat bread made from wheat flour and water, roti is cooked on a tawa, or griddle.
The thin wrapper enfolds delicious meat, vegetable, or seafood mixed with vegetables and often potatoes. An easy-to-eat finger food, rotis are inexpensive, and tasty.
Locals like the unassuming Roti Palace in Road Town, Tortola. The Roti King in St. John gets raves for its mahi and shrimp roti.
In Christiansted, Parris Tee’s & Roti sells versions with conch, shrimp, goat, or vegetables. In Frederiksted, try the Roti Master for especially good shrimp or goat rotis.
Sometimes you just want to cool off with ice cream, and in the Virgin Islands, homemade concoctions burst with the flavors of the islands.
At Scoops and Brew, Crown Bay Marina, St. Thomas, treat yourself to delectable flavors from classic vanilla and chocolate to rum raisin, cookies and cream and more.
The mango sorbet is refreshing, and for vegans and the lactose intolerant, there’s vegan coconut and other non-dairy flavors.
The place serves good Turkish coffee and rum cake, too. Locals rave about the flavors and the fresh-made waffle cones at Virgin Islands Ice Cream Company on Main Street in Charlotte Amalie, which is also one of the best places to shop in St. Thomas.
In St. Croix, head to Armstrong’s Ice Cream for homemade traditional flavors plus such goodies as peanut, ginger nut, banana, and pina colada. In Road Town, Tortola, La Dolce Vita serves noteworthy gelato and offers vegan options.
Despite its odd name, red grout is a beloved U.S. Virgin Islands pudding made from guava and tapioca, seasoned with cinnamon and nutmeg, and topped with vanilla cream or ice cream.
The pudding is the islands’ take on the Danish rodgrod, a potato starch-thickened compote of red currants and strawberries.
Popular year-round, the Danish dessert is always served on Transfer Day, March 31. The holiday commemorates the day in 1917 when Denmark ceded the Danish West Indies to the United States.
St. John Brewers started years ago when two college friends quit their jobs in the mainland U.S. to move to tropical St. John.
The company produces and sells craft beers and hard seltzers at their Brewery and Tap Room in Cruz Bay’s Mongoose Junction, St. John, and at their St. John Brewers on the Waterfront Tasting Room in St. Thomas.
At the Tap Room in St. John, choose from Tropical Mango Pale Ale, Chocolate Hole Stout, and several of the Love City fruit-flavored hard seltzers. The tap room also plates burgers, sandwiches, and pizza.
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