I’m squeezed into the back of a souped-up van, reggae blasting as the driver tears along the streets of Barbados, hooting on his horn at every bend. Hundreds of these ZR buses — known as ‘reggae buses’ by tourists — traverse this teardrop island for the equivalent of 65p a ride. I’m using them to find authentic Bajan food. Out of the window, I see trees bowed with breadfruit and bananas, rum shop after rum shop and street food vendors offering their wares ‘pon de roadside’ — their cars and vans filled with Caribbean specialities such as macaroni pie and fried flying fish.
Barbados’s western beaches may be dubbed the ‘platinum coast’ — after the credit card most commonly used there — but the high rollers don’t have the best of the place to themselves. At Cuz’s Fish Stand by Pebbles Beach, I queue for a made-to-order fish cutter — a salt-bread roll with fried blue marlin seasoned with Bajan spices. Cuz Junior tells me his father began the business 66 years ago. He points to a stack of 500 rolls: “When they’re done, I’m done; I pack up and go,” he says. Inside the tiny wooden shack, a radio blares and two large pans keep the oil sizzling as Cuz deftly fries fish and fires them onto buns, topping each with salad. The fish is soft, sweet and so moreish I get back in line for seconds.
Near Worthing beach, I try another Caribbean must-have: roti (Indian-style flatbread). Tucked away behind the Nelson’s Arms Pool Bar, Dundee’s West Indian Rotis serves a roti combo plate, with five different curries (goat, chicken, chickpea, pumpkin and potato) and a light, flaky roti.
On the island’s wilder Atlantic coast, I find the Bay Tavern in Martin’s Bay and experience one of its famous Seafood Thursdays at a table overlooking crashing ocean waves, while sprightly cockerels busy themselves around our feet.
And on Fridays? Fridays are for Oistin’s Friday Night Fish Fry — a hootenanny of seafood, rum, beer, dominoes, tea dancing and licentious bump and grind. The long line for Uncle George Fish Net Grill speaks volumes when there are dozens of less well-attended stalls to choose from. At the grill is Uncle George, tongs in one hand, spatula in the other, singing loudly as he flips his fish until it’s charred on the outside yet still bounces to the touch inside. There’s marlin, tuna, swordfish, lobster, shrimp and ‘dolphin’ (mahi mahi, to you and me), all under his flaming control. With a bandana, baseball cap and sunglasses on top of his sweating brow, George holds out a taste of dolphin, sprinkled with spice, on the end of his tongs, and that’s it, he’s reeled me in.
When Bajans get together to party, they talk about ‘having a lime’. It’s easy to have a lime here if you know where to look — and you don’t need a platinum card to do it.
Published in the Jul/Aug 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)