Mar 25, 2011
Here’s an interesting recipe. Take a big green island and add Spanish and British imperialists and enslaved Africans. Stir vigorously until the aboriginals are extinct. When things boil over to the point where slavery is done, add indentured Indian and Chinese labourers. Let the whole thing simmer for about 600 years and invite the rest of the world over to eat.
That, in a coconut shell, sums up the major influences on Jamaican food. One would not want to have lived through the country’s brutal past, but the positives of the resulting ethnic mix are instantly apparent in the outrageously delicious and diverse cuisine of this beautiful Caribbean country.
I got a chance to visit Jamaica for the second time last winter. My official quest was to find the best, most authentic Jamaican food, but there’s also plenty to do between meals, from riding horses in the ocean, to climbing up a waterfall, to scooting down a mountain through a jungle in a bobsled.
Jamaica’s tourism industry is booming, fueled in part by growing numbers of Canadian winter escapists. Last year Westjet introduced direct flights from seven Canadian cities including Calgary and Edmonton, and the popularity of the north coast’s Montego Bay/Ocho Rios corridor is spurring new investments in resorts and attractions.
I’m pleased to report that Jamaican cuisine is also undergoing a renaissance. Local dishes that were once seen as peasant food are now proudly featured on tourist-friendly restaurant menus. It’s not unusual, for example, to find salted mackerel stewed in coconut milk or braised pork belly on the breakfast buffet of an all-inclusive resort.
It’s nice to find some local treats on the resort buffet, but they don’t satisfy my foodie cravings. So I’m delighted to discover a culinary oasis at Miss T’s Kitchen, a colourful little restaurant in Ocho Rios.
A chalkboard menu in Miss T’s dining area spans pretty much the whole range of Jamaican food, from plantation-era “poor people cooking” dishes like cow foot and bean stew all the way to subtle, delicate, lobster “rundown” in a creamy coconut milk-based reduction. As the other restaurant patrons relax at open-air tables, sipping Jamaica’s ubiquitous Red Stripe beer while they wait for their meals, I talk my way into the kitchen and stand over the cooks’ shoulders as they conjure the big, bold flavours of Jamaica.
Chefs Dervent Smith and Stafford “Jerky” Anderson are swamped with a lunch order that includes almost every dish on Miss T’s menu, which is tough on them, but lucky for me.
The big highlight is watching them prepare steamed whole snapper, gradually building layers of flavour with classic Jamaican ingredients: coconut milk, scallion, fresh thyme, scotch bonnet chile, squash and okra. Jerky tends the fish as if he’s bathing a baby, gently spooning the bubbling sauce over it as it cooks in a big sauté pan. He finishes it with some fried plantain chips and a few slices of bammy, a chewy flatbread made from cassava root flour.
Dishes like bammy can be traced back to the island’s aboriginal peoples, but most Jamaican food is rooted in its more recent colonial past, which began with the arrival of Columbus in 1494. With Spanish rule came dishes like escoveitch, a kind of fried fish that’s doused in a spicy, vinegary sauce and often served cold as a snack. The British brought tea, dark rum-soaked fruitcake and the Cornish pastie, which evolved into the beloved Jamaican pattie.
Over the centuries, African slaves would also have a huge influence on Jamaican food. Runaway slaves called Maroons escaped to the mountains and lived with the dwindling population of aboriginals, who taught them how to season and cook wild pigs over smoldering charcoal on a wooden grate called a barbaca – the progenitor of today’s barbecue.
The aboriginal style of cooking became known as jerk. Its inventors, the Arawaks and Tainos, were eventually wiped out, but the descendents of the Maroons carried on the traditional technique. Thanks to them, jerk cooking and jerk seasonings survived and have become one of Jamaica’s great gifts to the world.
The Spanish were kicked out in 1655 by the British, who used African slaves for another 200 years. Their descendants make up the vast majority of Jamaica’s 2.8 million people. Tree fruits like ackee, plantain, banana and breadfruit, brought over from Africa, are still part of most Jamaicans’ daily diet. The ackee’s curd-like lobes are boiled till tender and then sautéed with salt cod and other ingredients to make the national dish, ackee and saltfish, which has the silky texture of scrambled eggs.
When slavery was finally abolished by Britain in the mid-1800s, indentured workers from India and China were recruited to work on the plantations, and these newcomers made their marks on the Jamaican menu. Ask Jamaicans to name their favourite dish, and many will tell you what they crave the most is curry goat, a gloriously flavourful stew. On the menu of a jerk joint you’ll often also find Chinese-style fried rice with chopped jerk chicken or pork mixed in.
At six days, my visit to Jamaica was too short, but I had a chance to sample local food at several places besides Miss T’s. There were some real standouts. At the Ocho Rios Jerk Centre, which is frequented by tourists and locals alike, I tasted delicious jerk conch (the meat of a giant snail that’s chewy like octopus), and had a steaming hot cup of mannish water, a rich soup made by simmering a goat’s head along with other offal. No matter where you go, you’ll find yummy side dishes like red peas and rice (made with rice, coconut milk and red kidney beans), callaloo (a leafy chard-like vegetable), boiled green bananas, and the fluffy fried doughnut fingers called “festival” served with almost everything.
While traditional foods dominate the local culture, Jamaican cuisine is not standing still. Local chefs are using native ingredients in new ways and fusing Jamaican flavours with countless others. Alongside traditional pastas at Evita’s, a popular Italian restaurant in Ocho Rios, the menu features “Jam-Italian fusion” dishes such as lasagna Rastafari and jerk spaghetti.
Over at Sandals Grande Ocho Rios Beach & Villa Resort, Jamaica-born Executive Chef Donovan Campbell is shaking up the menu of the resort’s Reef Terrace restaurant. “Rather than cooking it the way I was taught, I’ve learned in my travels how to take my culture’s food and fuse it with other cultures,” he says. “At Reef Terrace, we’ll take a traditional yam dish usually served plain and braise it with red wine. It gives it a whole new face, an entirely different flavour. And rather than scalloped potato, we make a very nice scalloped bammy.”
Some things you don’t want to change. Back in the kitchen at Miss T’s, Jerky pulls me aside, pours some of his homemade house jerk sauce on a plate and offers me a taste. I touch it to my tongue. My eyes nearly pop out of my head, and Jerky has a good laugh. His sauce is screamingly hot, tangy, spicy, rich and dark all at the same time. That dense, enticing flavour -- the perfect metaphor for this culturally complex, physically beautiful island -- stays on my tongue for the rest of the day.
This is an easy way to experience the delicious flavours of Jamaica. Miss T’s served it with red peas and rice and some slaw.
1 can coconut milk
1 small onion, halved and cut into ¼ - inch slices
1 carrot, peeled and cut into slices like the onion
1 scotch bonnet chile (no other type will do), crushed lightly with the back of a knife (be careful not to touch the chile with your fingers – it’ll burn if you accidently rub your eyes!)
2 whole scallions, trimmed and gently pounded with the back of a knife
2 sprigs fresh thyme
1 ripe tomato, coarsely chopped (optional)
pinch of kosher salt
1 lb. large fresh shrimp or prawns, peeled and deveined
Put the coconut milk into a saucepan and bring it to a boil. Add the onion, carrot, scotch bonnet, scallions and thyme and simmer them in the coconut milk, stirring now and then, until the onion and carrot are tender and the sauce starts to thicken. Add the shrimp and simmer for a couple more minutes, until they turn pink and curl. Add a squeeze of lime and more salt if needed. Remove the chile, scallions and thyme sprigs and serve over rice with cole slaw or a green salad. Serves 4.