Caribbean Food Is Pretty Healthy

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By Arti Patel, The Huffington Post Canada, Posted:07/25/2016

NOTE: Chef Beckford was a member of The Chef Alliance until June 30th 2017.

Food in the Caribbean is diverse from island to island and while most chefs will tell you Caribbean cuisine is healthy for the most part, there are small ways to make it even healthier.

"Most Caribbean [people] will take a conscious approach and say, 'Yes, our food is healthy.' Science plays a key role in what Caribbean culture would define as healthy food, rather than a cooking method and ingredients," says Caribbean fusion chef Ajeen Beckford of Toronto.

Beckford says Caribbean food is highly influenced by other cultures and cuisines. Jamaican food, he says, is highly influenced by African dishes, while other cuisines use similar ingredients or flavours by countries that colonized them.

"Foods such as ackee, okra, pigeon peas, plantains, callaloo, dasheen, yams, [and] breadfruit are all influenced from foods in Africa that was introduced to the region through slaves," he says.

But some foods are fried, cooked in batter, and could be high in fat, Beckford notes, and if you enjoy eating these types of meals, moderation is key.

"Overall, Caribbean food is not that unhealthy, and if something is a bit off, chances are it only needs a minor tweak like trimming the fat or boil[ing] instead of fry[ing]," he says.

In the [list] below, Beckford shows us how to turn five common Caribbean dishes (mostly Jamaican because these are dishes he likes to cook) and how to make them slightly healthier.

The Meal: Crack Conch: This popular dish from the Bahamas is made by deep frying conch with a flour and egg-based batter.
The Swap: Swap the fritters for a stew, chef Ajeen Beckford of Toronto says. "Dice and cook the conch in hot water for about 1.5 hours or until soft. Once soft, add your favourite vegetables and spices," he says. "A touch of tomato paste can help to add a bit of acid and bring the flavours along nicely." Serve with bammy, a form of flat bead made form cassava that can be found in any Caribbean grocery store.

The Meal: Bake and saltfish: This popular Trinidadian meal is a classic Caribbean-style breakfast made with fried dough and salted cod stir fry, Beckford says.
The Swap: Don't fry your dumplings. Instead, swap them for a boiled version, Beckford says. "Use whole wheat flour with cold water... boil for 20 minutes in hot water." Fry the fish with canola oil and veggies, onions and tomato juice if it gets too dry.

The Meal: Stew peas and dumplings:
A popular Jamaican dish made with beef, pig tail and beans, Beckford says it isn't necessarily unhealthy, but can be made a bit healthier.
The Swap: When you're cooking, swap out the pig tail for chicken breast instead, Beckford says.

The Meal: Rundown: This Jamaican stew is usually made with a type of fish (red snapper in this photo) and coconut milk. 
The Swap: For a healthier rundown dish, Beckford says try sautéed mackerel with an abundance of tomatoes and onions.

The Meal: Jerk anything: Jerk chicken, jerk pork, jerk fish — you name it — jerk spice is an essential part of Jamaican cooking. While jerk chicken is more known to North Americans, jerk pork is just as popular for people in Jamaica, Beckford says. "Not the healthiest choice but among the tastiest."
The Swap: "To make this tasty dish a little healthier, trim all the fat, and season and braise it until it is tender," he says. You can also finish off your meat on the grill.

"My specialty is Caribbean-French fusion cuisine"
Chef Ajeen Beckford

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