5 Great Caribbean Taste Souvenirs
Photo by Mat Probasco, all others courtesy of Thinkstock
Had your fill of cheap beach wraps, grinning coconut heads and made-in-China shot glasses? The authentic Caribbean isn't in an air-conditioned souvenir shop. In fact, your local customs agent probably won't even let you take it home. The real taste of this region is growing on the trees.
Not too far from most cruise port vendor plazas, you'll find an older woman at a folding table selling colorful bottles of sweet liqueurs. Somewhere nearby, there is likely a basket or two of the most amazing and strange looking fresh fruit. Eat it!
We couldn't possibly list all the fantastic fruits the Caribbean has to offer, but here are some common yet perhaps unfamiliar ones to try as a starting point (note, if you are prone to fruit-related food allergies, ask your doctor if these are OK to try):
These dark brown pods don't look particularly appetizing, but inside the crunchy shell is a classic treat. Technically legumes, Tamarind are fruit in all but botanical classification.
Break open the shell to reveal a gooey tar-like pulp with tough, stringy veins running the length of the pod. Inside the pulp hide several large inedible seeds. The best way to eat Tamrind is to break open a section of the shell and bite into the pulp with the front teeth, and then pull the whole of the pod away, tugging the flesh away and leaving behind the veins. Sounds weird, but trust me … yum.
You'll find Tamrind on almost every island, where they vary in taste and texture depending on the season and growing environment. Tamarind are also popping up in high-end grocery stores in the United States but it's worth noting these are usually Asian varieties, which are much sweeter than the tangy, sometimes strikingly sour Caribbean seedpods. Shelled and processed, Tamarind is common in sweet pastries and local soft drinks.
Gnip are ping-pong ball-size fruit with a green shell, cream-colored grape-like flesh and large white stone. The shell is thin and pretty easy to open. Typically a shallow bite with the incisors does the job but a thumbnail does just as well. Use the remaining shell as a spoon to hold the fruit inside.
Don't try to take a bite. Pop the whole thing in your mouth. That translucent flesh inside can vary from sweet and gooey to slightly sour or chalky. Chew away the fruit and spit out the stone. There isn't much flesh so you may find yourself eating a lot of these. They make a great walking around snack because they are cheap, very common and not messy to eat. They're also, frankly, a lot of fun.
Gnip come from huge trees ubiquitous around the Caribbean and seem to go by a different name everywhere you go: Genip, Guinep, Skinip, Kenip, Chennette, Quennette, Genepa, Kenepa, Kinnipa, etc.
Here's a real oddity you'll be lucky to find — and brave to try: the aptly named Stinking Toe. It's also known by the more palatable-sounding “South American Locust.” This tree bears a hard brown seedpod so thick it takes some good whacks with a rock to open.
Smell the white powder inside and you'll know why it's called “Oldman Foot” in some areas. But be brave! Pinch some of this powder into your mouth with a little water and it turns into a nutty, citrous cream beyond description. These trees are becoming fairly rare, so keep the seeds and try your luck at replanting (if possible). Some bush doctors claim Stinky Toe is very nearly a “super food” and lacking only one or two elements essential to human dietary needs.
From football-sized to slightly bigger than your fist, soursop are strange-looking fruit. Green and misshapen, the skin has soft, knobby spines — giving it an alien feel. A very ripe soursop will pull apart pretty easily, but usually a small knife helps cut it open.
Inside it's equally weird looking: gooey, creamy flesh, loosely divided into pyramid-like sections speckled with ebony seeds. Fear not! Weird as it looks, it tastes amazing: something like a tangy banana. Similar to its cousins the Sugar Apple and Custard Apple, soursop is commonly made into summer drinks and even ice cream.
READ MORE: Top 5 Classic Bahamian Dishes
Unlike, the others, soursop has well documented bush medicine uses. The center (or “heart”) of the fruit is fed to children to stop bedwetting and the leaves are traditionally steeped into a sedative tea. No, U.S. Customs won't let you bring the leaves home without some serious paperwork.
Another oddity is baobab.
With its long stem and fuzzy round body, the baobab seedpod resembles an opossum at first glance, which can be unnerving for the uninitiated. The baobab is a huge tree that can live for centuries. In Africa, they're sometimes known as Upside Down Trees because of their distinctive look. Both the seed and flesh within are just as peculiar.
The almond-shaped pod is usually covered in a green-brown fuzz. Crack it open with a stone — or hammer, if you happen to have one — to reveal a thick, dryish yellowy flesh with a creamy citrous flavor. The black seeds inside are something of a treasure in themselves. This tree most likely came to the Caribbean from seeds in the mouths of enslaved Africans, who would suck on them to stimulate saliva during the horrific journey.
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