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How the Portuguese Whaling Industry and Slave Trade Led to Caribbean Food in Boston
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How the Portuguese Whaling Industry and Slave Trade Led to Caribbean Food in Boston

Boston may be known for its Irish heritage, but it, in fact, has a large and rapidly growing Caribbean immigrant population. According to a recent survey published by the City of Boston, Dominicans are the largest immigrant group in Boston. They largely moved to the area after the death of dictator Rafael Trujillo, escaping the political and economic uncertainty. A number of Dominican restaurants can be found in the neighborhoods of Jamaica Plain, Dorchester, and Hyde Park. Alex’s Chimis in Jamaica Plain serves rotisserie chicken and the namesake chimichurris or chimis.

Image credit: Fiona Chandra.

Chimis are the Dominican take on a hamburger and it is served on pan de agua, which is shaped like a roll, and topped with tomato, cabbage, onion, and salsa golf (made with ketchup, mayo, and Worcestershire sauce). 

Chimis | Image credit: Fiona Chandra.

At the newer Pikalo in Jamaica Plain, owner José Pimentel puts an American twist on the empanadas he began selling at 15 years old in Dominican Republic.

The Caribbean people have actually migrated to North America even before the rise of the slave trade. They came to work as laborers in the colonial plantations or as sailors on Portuguese whaling ships. The first documented immigration was in 1619 when a group of voluntary indentured workers from Barbados arrived in Virginia. In the 18th and 19th century, New Bedford—a city just one hour south of Boston—became one of the most important whaling ports in the world. Portuguese immigrants dominated the whaling industry, but whaling was not the only industry the Portuguese dominated. They were also a major player of the slave trade and the first to complete a transatlantic slave voyage. Even whaling ships were illegally transporting slaves.

By the late 17th century, Massachusetts traders were actively transporting slaves between Africa and the Caribbean. The British West Indies, including Trinidad and Tobago, was used as a clearinghouse and training ground for slaves from Africa on the way to New England colonies. Caribbean food is therefore largely influenced by African cuisine, as well as the Asian people who were brought to the islands. Even among the diverse influences in Caribbean cuisine, rice and beans (or peas) are a common thread. Rice and beans were a staple in West Africa, and African rice was an important crop in the island colonies.

The food in Trinidad is highly influenced by Indian cuisine thanks to the indentured laborers from India brought by the British. Roti filled with curry stew is widely eaten across West Indies, and Trinidadian roti shops similarly bring a taste of home to Trinidadians living in America. Ali’s Roti in Mattapan is one of the most popular roti shops in the Boston area. The cheap eats mainstay serves large roti filled to the brim with chicken, goat, or oxtail meat and a side of hot sauce made with congo peppers for the brave.

According to Andrew Sharpe, founder of Authentic Caribbean Foundation and radio show host of Caribbean Diaspora Connect, the majority of the more recent Caribbean migration to Boston occurred around the 1960s and in the beginning it consisted of largely immigrants from the British and American territories. “The English-speaking islands migrated to Boston because of the British influence and [the city’s] proximity to New York,” says Sharpe. Many, including Sharpe himself, moved because they had families already living in the area. The Barbadians were the first ones to arrive, followed by Jamaicans.

Jamaican restaurants represent most of the Caribbean restaurants in Boston. The local community knows to go to P & R Ice Cream, not for their ice cream but for some of the best patties in town. During breakfast, Flames Restaurant serves ackee and saltfish. The traditional Jamaican breakfast combines salted cod with ackee, a West African fruit which was imported to Jamaica from West Africa in the 1700s.

Israel “Izzy” Maldonado and his wife, Carmen, moved from Puerto Rico to Cambridge in 1964 because they already had other family members living in Cambridge at the time. They opened the Izzy’s Restaurant & Sub Shop in 1980 and moved to the current location in 1988. 

Image credit: Fiona Chandra.

Currently they run the restaurant with their daughter, Lisette. Skip the normal offerings and subs at Izzy’s. Instead, look for the “Specials” board for goat stew, served with soup of the day which may consist of tripe and vegetables.

Image credit: Fiona Chandra.

There is a large population of Haitians in Somerville, who initially arrived in Cambridge just as the Barbadians did. Increasing living costs pushed the ethnic groups further and the overflow moved to Somerville, which is now home to a few Haitian restaurants such as Highland Creole Cuisine. The restaurant’s owner, Jean Rosmond Falaisé, worked at an American chain restaurant in New Bedford before deciding to open his own place in 1993. Haitian cuisine is a Creole cuisine that blends influences of the native Taino (who we must thank for the original barbecue), Spanish, French, and African. “People come from Rhode Island and New Hampshire for the food,” says Falaisé. They come for the lambi (conch), the Creole fish which is a whole fried red snapper with spicy tomato-based sauce, and the fried goat. 

Lambi (conch) | Image credit: Fiona Chandra.

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These days, living costs in Somerville are also proving too high for the community. Even so, there is still enough of a community to support a new Haitian restaurant. Pikliz International Kitchen opened in 2016. Named after the spicy Haitian pickles, Pikliz is now a popular takeout spot in Somerville’s Winter Hill neighborhood.

Fritay | Image credit: Pikliz

These are but a sampling of the Caribbean restaurants in Boston. More can be found primarily in Dorchester, Roxbury, Mattapan, and Jamaica Plain neighborhoods, which now house most of the Caribbean community and restaurants thanks to a housing act in 1968 which eliminated discriminatory lending practices in these areas.

Header image: David L Ryan/Globe Staff

Alex's Chimis
Pikalo JP
Ali's Roti Restaurant
P & R Ice Cream
Highland Creole Cuisine
Pikliz International Kitchen

About the Author

Fiona Chandra is a food blogger and freelance writer based in Boston. Born in Indonesia, Fiona has a bad case of wanderlust and travels the world to find the best food and cocktails. She eats cake for breakfast.