New York City is known as the “melting pot” of the United States, consisting of people of different ethnicities from all over the world. Of course with a large abundance of nationalities, people with different cultures will often mix and try to create hybrid cultures. These cultures consist of a mixture of two or more completely different ethnicities. Hybrid cultures are apparent in food, where oftentimes two or more cultures come together to create dishes that many come to grow and love.
Hybrid cultures are apparent in the New York Chinese food industry. In practically every ethnic neighborhood, there are Chinese restaurants that seem to take on aspects of that specific ethnicity. For example, in Richmond Hill, Queens, a neighborhood with a heavy West Indian population, there are various Chinese restaurants with Caribbean influence. Many of these places sell traditional Chinese food which ingredients have been altered a little to cater to the taste that is unique to the Caribbean.
How China “came” to the Caribbean1
The Chinese had an influence on the Caribbean even before coming to the United States. The Chinese in the Caribbean dates back to the time of British rule during the mid-to-late 1800s. Many countries in the Caribbean have had a history of being under British imperialism. Caribbean countries such as Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica and Barbados were under British control until the 1960s when the countries gained their independences. During the period of British rule, the British created various sugar plantations on many of the Caribbean countries. British Guiana, which is Guyana today, was where most of these sugar plantations were located. In order to provide labor for the sugar plantations, the British brought over indentured servants from both India and China to work. Ever since then, these servants and the descendants of the servants have remained in the Caribbean, especially in Guyana.2
The Indians made up a large number of the indentured servants, forming the West Indian race prevalent in the Caribbean today. However, the Chinese made up about 14,000 of those laborers.3 Some of the Chinese remained in the Caribbean countries. Because of this, the Chinese were able to assimilate into Caribbean life, combining their foods with those found in the West Indies. In Guyana, for example, my grandparents and a Chinese couple are the owners of a Guyanese Chinese restaurant. The West Indian Chinese food came to be because the Chinese were not able to access some of their main ingredients from China and had to settle for what they had in their new country. Nevertheless, the mixing of the Caribbean and Chinese cuisine has become a delicacy for many West Indians both living in the Caribbean and in New York City today.
The Importance of Rice
Perhaps one of the main ingredients used in the average person’s diet is rice. Rice plays an important role in each and every one of our lives, no matter what we eat it with. Rice is the staple food item that links the Chinese and Caribbean food cultures together.
Rice plays an important role in the Chinese culture. In the southern part of China, there is a large abundance of rice plantations due to the flooding this area in China encounters from time to time. Because of this, the Chinese are always exposed to rice. Rice has become a big part of the Chinese diet, whether it is a part of the main entrée or the dessert. Rice is also a huge part of the Chinese Lunar New Year, when it is used to make various dishes ranging from rice dumplings to “Double Nine” cakes to porridge.4 Rice is so important to the Chinese that they brought it over to the Caribbean. Even though the inhabitants of the Caribbean did not initially learn about rice from the Chinese, the Chinese were the ones who popularized the now main ingredient in both Caribbean cuisine and Caribbean Chinese cuisine.
Similar to the Chinese, people from the West Indian countries also place heavy emphasis on rice. In the Guyanese culture for example, we use rice for practically every meal. For example, we use rice in Chicken curry, which is chicken marinated in various Indian spices (including masala) served on top of steamed rice with potatoes on the side. However, we also use rice in rice pudding, which is a sweet that we also eat with roti, which is flat bread. Rice is a main ingredient used in many Caribbean dishes.
Caribbean Chinese Food
In terms of Caribbean Chinese food, I am specifically referring to a blend of Cantonese Chinese and Caribbean. Both cuisines go hand in hand because of the Chinese sauces and spices and the delectable Caribbean meats and side dishes that fit perfectly together. There are many examples of how food that was primarily Chinese and food that was primarily Caribbean came together to form this hybrid cuisine that is known as Caribbean Chinese.
Why are there Caribbean Chinese restaurants? It is like any other hybrid restaurant—to cater to the wants and needs of the people living in the neighborhood.
Some examples of Caribbean Chinese Food
This is an all time favorite among West Indians. This dish consists of fried rice with Chinese style fried chicken on top. This fried rice is different from Chinese fried rice because Caribbean style fried rice uses the scotch bonnet peppers to flavor the rice. They also use shallot and cabbage, two vegetables not commonly used in Chinese fried rice. As for the chicken, it is fried and seasoned with the spices and sauces used by the Chinese such as soy sauce and five spice powder.
Jerk Chicken Fried Rice
If there was something that Caribbean people love more than Chicken in the Ruff, it would have to be jerk chicken fried rice. The fried rice is prepared the same way as mentioned above, although one could add green peppers and even pineapples to the list. However, the star of the show is the jerk chicken. Marinated in Caribbean jerk seasoning, this chicken is spicy and very tasty. The jerk seasoning’s main ingredient is the scotch bonnet pepper, a pepper grown and consumed widely by people in the Caribbean and immigrants living in New York today.
Char Siu Pork Dahlpouri
This dish uses Chinese pork, the small red slices of meat, that is sautéed with peas, pickled onions, and plantains. The plantains are seasoned with geerah, or cumin. The pork and the rest of the ingredients are served on roti made of dried dahl, which are dried lentils.
Caribbean Chinese Restaurants in New York City
As mentioned before, Caribbean Chinese restaurants tend to appear where there is a large concentration of Caribbean people. Ozone Park in Queens is home to many West Indians and hence has a bunch of Caribbean Chinese restaurants. The map below highlights some of those places.
Golden House, Ozone Park
Perhaps one of the best Caribbean Chinese restaurants in the city is Golden House. Located right in the heart of Ozone Park, this restaurant is the go to place for Caribbean style Chinese food. It offers Caribbean Chinese food such as the three listed above. However, it also includes purely Caribbean food such as Chicken Curry, pholourie, which is nothing more than a spiced dough rolled up into a ball served with hot sauce or tamarind sauce on the side, and, of course, roti. Although the owner of the restaurant asked me not to reveal her name, she did offer some insight into her restaurant and what makes her food the best.
The owner started her restaurant in the late 1990s in order to better cater to those in her neighborhood. “Many people were West Indian. You see Guyanese and Trini come and go everyday. I knew that even though there were many Chinese restaurants, but there weren’t any restaurants that had Caribbean style Chinese food that the people would enjoy.” Despite having a rough start due to the number of Chinese restaurants located near her restaurant, the owner was able to attract many customers, especially those of West Indian dissent. In fact, her customer base is mainly West Indian people, which is why she was unable to grow and expand to other parts of the city. However, she likes where she is because she is able to cater to the needs of her people in Ozone Park.
As for the employees, she employs both Chinese cooks and West Indian cooks. Because of this, the food tends to taste differently depending on the day you buy the food. “We tend to have the Chinese cook on the weekends when we have more customers and the West Indian cook on the weekdays.” When I asked why she does not have just one standard cook, she replied saying that she likes the variety and sometimes her customers prefer the Chinese cook over the West Indian cook and vice versa.
In terms of authenticity, she said that even though the place offers a mash of both Chinese and Caribbean cuisine, the restaurant also offers food that is primarily Caribbean such as Chicken Curry and other dishes. The pepper sauce that they distribute to their customers, for example, is not like the traditional red packets but rather a little container that contains a hot, tangy sauce made of the scotch bonnet peppers.