Cayman Islands cuisine makes the most of the bountiful fruits of the Caribbean sea while giving everything a unique Caymanian twist.
Unsurprisingly, the Cayman Islands, surrounded by deep, crystal-clear ocean waters rich in marine life, has an ingrained seafood culture. Local specialties reflect the bounty that has sustained the population for centuries and offer the visitor, unfamiliar with the more exotic fruits of the sea, an opportunity to sample a few Caribbean fine dining favorites that they are unlikely to find elsewhere.
Here, we look at five traditional Cayman Islands seafood dishes you really should try on your next visit:
Turtle Stew/Steak: Turtle on the menu in the Cayman Islands is the actual turtle meat. The Cayman Islands is home to a turtle farm that breeds and raises Green turtles for release back into the wild as well as to supply meat to the local market. Turtling was a long-time Caymanian tradition that severely depleted local stocks until sustainable farming was introduced. Thanks to farming efforts, the local wild green turtle population is thriving.
Conch: Another exotic dish, ubiquitous in the Cayman Islands but relatively rare elsewhere, is conch (pronounced ‘conk’). Everyone’s familiar with the conch shell, a large stunningly colored spiral, but fewer are familiar with its meat. Conch is often served in stews, salads or fried into fritters and is an integral part of the Cayman Islands dining. Its meat has a mild, sweet clam-like flavor. When preparing conch soup, stew, salad or, best of all, spicy conch fritters, the tough conch flesh is tenderized before cooking. Conch is sometimes erroneously referred to as whelk, which, though related, is a different species (see below).
‘Codfish’: Then there is the catchall term ‘codfish’, which is another popular ingredient in the Cayman Islands cuisine. It refers to salted, dried fish (not always cod, but could be mackerel or similar) often served in a popular local dish, ‘ackee and codfish’. Ackee is a local fruit that is said to look and taste like scrambled eggs and is a firm breakfast favorite among locals.
Mahi-mahi: A local term for the common dolphinfish, mahi-mahi is a fish and not related to the mammal. To avoid this misunderstanding, the Hawaiian name, mahi-mahi, is becoming more widespread. Also called dorado, mahi-mahi is found in warm waters throughout the world. It is a moderately fat, flavorful fish with firm flesh and is usually prepared into steaks or fillets for grilling or broiling.
Whelk: A member of the gastropod branch of the mollusk family, the whelk is a large marine snail. It has a spiraled shell and a tough but delicious foot-like muscle. Whelk is naturally tough and chewy and needs to first be tenderized by pounding. Caymanians stew them in coconut milk seasoned with onion and Scotch bonnet peppers, and a flour dough called ‘Sea Pie’ added to the pot. Sometimes conch soup has some added whelks.
Many of these seafood dishes are firm favorites on the menu at Grand Old House, well-known locally as the finest waterfront restaurant in the Cayman Islands. While seasonal availability has its effects, the variety of seafood on offer at Grand Old House is huge and also includes familiar dishes containing lobster, salt fish, snapper, crab, prawn, oyster, and octopus.
Grand Old House prides itself on offering the best seafood in Grand Cayman and is open weekdays (except public holidays) for lunch and every evening for dinner. Book in advance to avoid disappointment, particularly at weekends.