Food: The best part of my travels in Mexico, the Caribbean

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Tony Rerrie is the founder of Scotchie’s, known for its jerk chicken.
Tony Rerrie is the founder of Scotchie’s, known for its jerk chicken.

James Beard once said, "Food is our common ground, a universal experience." I agree.

Food has been as much a part of my travel experiences throughout the Caribbean and Mexico as have site inspections and trade conferences.

Actually, it's been the best part.

I've bitten into pain au beurre (butter bread) hot from the oven at the Club Med La Caravelle in Guadeloupe; crunched on chicatana ants at the Mercado San Juan in Mexico City; sampled octopus in a green sauce at the food festival on Isla Holbox; dipped (sparingly) into a bowl of cow heel soup at a beach shack on Tobago; almost broke a tooth on a nutmeg ball at the market in St. George's, Grenada; wolfed my way through a platter of jerk chicken at Scotchie's in Montego Bay; and unknowingly ate huitlacoche (corn fungus) at Casa Fuerte in Tlaquepaque near Guadalajara, Mexico.

I fished for my lunch in Isla Mujeres, Mexico. Although I didn't catch much, others in my group did, and we later devoured bowls of ceviche, fresh raw fish cured in the juices of several lemons and limes and spiced with aji (chili peppers).

In Cuba, I ate and drank well. I'd expected a lot of rice and beans, the standard dish throughout much of the Caribbean, but I was happily surprised with local lobster served at the state-run French Union restaurant on Havana's Fifth Avenue; a delicious shredded beef dish called ropa vieja (which translates to "old clothes") at El Atelier, a paladare (privately run restaurant) in a Havana neighborhood; and fried plantains as a side dish at the Hotel Brisas del Mar in the town of Trinidad on Cuba's southern coast.

Every lunch and dinner that I enjoyed in Cuba began with a mojito -- I had to ask for bottled water.

Ernest Hemingway's two favorite watering holes in Havana were La Bodeguita del Medio, for its mojitos, and La Floridita, for its daiquiris. Both are in Old Havana, and most visitors, including me, make a stop at each.

At the Best Western Premier in Petion-ville, a suburb of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, there was steak on the menu, but I opted for Haitian beet-and-potato salad with cassava cake for dessert.

Mountain Top in St. Thomas, high above the harbor of Charlotte Amalie, is famous for its banana daiquiris. It's a tourist trap, but it's fun, and the views are fabulous. As are the daiquiris.

I've been to rum tastings in St. Martin, sampled tequila in the town of Tequila in Mexico, done the distillery tour at Casa Bacardi in Catano, Puerto Rico, had mango juice in St. Lucia and Vallarta juice (very thick and full of mushed-up garden greens) in Puerto Vallarta.

I've met bartenders and waitresses, chefs and busboys, market vendors and bodega owners and locals and expats all along the way.

I've learned that to know the food and drink of a country is to know its soul.

I'm getting there. Can't wait to sample the next chili pepper or steamed snapper or goat stew.

This report was published along with Travel Weekly's Focus on Culinary Travel report. Read the entire report here.

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