Huts emit savoury smoke from coal fires on which jerk-rubbed meats lie on pimento wood under pieces of zinc fencing. Cookshops fill the air with a bouquet of thyme and spices, their huge pots bubbling with aromatic stews or curries. Vendors roast peanuts as they peddle from pillar to post, their presence announced through the never-ending whistle of steam coming from these factories in motion. Naseberries, star apples, oranges and ortaniques hang from stalls. Packaged juices – pineapple, otaheite apple, june plum, rose apple – even bottles of honey, water, multi-coloured sodas and “box juice” are rushed towards moving vehicles, where outstretched hands give money and in one swoop grab the goods without even slowing down. Ladies sit behind wooden boxes with glass fronts, selling gizzards, coconut bread and cassava pone. Chutneys, hot sauces, jerk seasonings and rubs.
Where are you? Jamaica, of course. That mystical island’s delicious cuisine appears to know no boundaries when it comes to taste, and by names alone conjures up the sense of humour displayed by its people – a people deeply nationalistic about that cuisine.
“Me nah care. Nutting cyan flex like Jamaica food,” I was once told strongly by a gentleman with most of his face buried in a mannish water soup, made from parts of the goat no one should know about – in fact, the reasons for drinking it are also in that category, as the name suggests.
There’s no doubt that Jamaica’s food has been influenced by its history and its exotic ethnic mix of people. But there were some very important ingredients already well in place that would make the big difference: tropical weather that created rich soil from coast to mountains; springs and rivers swarming with fish and crayfish; swamplands hiding birds of all types; forests full of wild animals; seas and reefs teeming with saltwater fish and shellfish. In other words, a veritable paradise.
The Amerindians arrived with cassava, cocoa, dasheen, sweet and ordinary potato, corn, beans, hot peppers, guavas, groundnuts and pawpaw, and farming began. Their love of the wild meats, rivers and seafood led them to use a method of cooking on spits over open wood fires that would not only be the precursor for the barbecue (boucan, brabacot or barbacoa) but also included curing the meat with hot peppers and the indigenous pimento. They made bread from cassava, and called it bammy.
When the Spanish, English, Portuguese, African, Indian, German, Chinese and Middle Easterners – even Jews, who flooded into the country fleeing persecution in Europe – found their way to Jamaica, the island found itself stocked with cattle, pigs, goats, sheep and horses. Honey bees. Sugar cane. Tamarind, ginger, pineapples, black pepper, turmeric, coffee. Date palms, yam, bananas, jackfruit, breadfruit, coconuts, grapes. Figs, limes, lemons, oranges, mangoes, even strawberries and peaches.
In fact, to mention every likkle ting would take a huge book. So let’s just dive into what constitutes Jamaican cuisine today.
When one says Jamaica, there are two things that come to mind: jerk and Bob Marley. Jerk (meats cured the Amerindian way) arrived on the scene when it was brought down by the Maroons from the Portland hills to Boston. These runaway slaves ate jerk, fought the British and won.
With jerk comes jerk sauce. Each jerk hut has its own special secret mixture, which sits on the counter ready to spoon over the jerk, and this is where the real “burn” comes from. The rub/seasoning/marinade put on the meat before jerking consists mostly of pimento, herbs and spices, but the base of that sauce is red-hot peppers.
Laid out on pimento wood over open coal fires, covered by large zinc-fencing panels, meats – pork, chicken, fish, lobster – and jerk sausage are smoked to perfection. Roasted breadfruit, yam or sweet potato, or even festivals (long fried dumplings made of corn and flour, slightly sweet) accompany jerk.
Best: Scotchies in Ocho Rios, Montego Bay and Kingston. B&B Jerk Centre near Moneague in St Catherine. Or just ask a local.
Cookshops can be found island-wide. Open for breakfast and lunch, they serve nothing but traditional fare, using coconut milk and spices like ginger and pimento and herbs such as thyme. Scotch bonnet peppers are placed carefully in the pots for aromatic purposes, not for tastebud fire. Daily choices are written up on the menu board and one can eat there or take away.
Early mornings bring the porridges – purported to renew men’s love lives. From peanut to corn, there’s a type to suit everyone. Although ackee and saltfish is the national breakfast dish, served with “food” – which means green banana, yam, sweet potato, breadfruit, callaloo and johnny cakes – another favourite is mackerel rundown. Cookshops also serve steamed fish with hard (real hard) crackers, escoveitch fish (covered in onions and hot peppers) and bammy.
Breakfasts appear to merge into lunches, with brown stew chicken, beef, pork or fish. Also on offer are pepper steak, liver, cow foot or cow head, pig trotters, curry goat or chicken, and “hoxtail” with broad beans, or gungo (pigeon) peas.
Peas (really meaning kidney beans) and rice accompany all dishes, unless you say, “Mi wan’ food only”. Then your plate contains all the starches mentioned above, plus two boiled dumplings – the kind that sit in your stomach for days.
Best: Mount Diablo, on the way to Ocho Rios, for all of the above and more.
Naturally the Rastafarian influence is very prominent, with special cookshops serving only ital – meaning vegan – food.
Best: Royal Vegetarian Café, Negril.
If mannish water doesn’t do the trick, there’s a myriad of concoctions that purport to “put it back” like “Irishmosh” (sea moss) or John-Get-Up-And-Stand-Stiff, made with sarsaparilla; Wheel-Up-And-Come-Again, containing herbs such as chainy root, nerve wisp, strong back, duppy gun root, iron weed, raw moon and medina, is another. Added for extra measure at times are Wray & Nephew’s Overproof White Rum or JB Overproof 60 per cent (commonly known as “jahncrahbatty”). Best not to drink the latter near any open fires!
It would be most remiss to forget the Jamaican patty. Flaky bright-yellow pastry filled with seasoned beef, chicken, fish, lobster or vegetables, this is a meal in itself, always washed down with a “box-juice”. Two things are a must-try: a patty embedded in a coco bread from Tastees, and a Power Patty from Mother’s with cheese – divine interventions.
Best: Mothers and Tastees, found island-wide.
At night the pan-chicken men appear on the street corners of Kingston as well as most towns and villages. They offer seasoned chicken barbecued over grills in home-made pits made from old oil drums. It’s served up with thick slices of hard-dough bread and mounds of ketchup and hot sauce.
Soups, sold in many cookshops in the day, are plentiful at night, from fish tea to conch to gungo pea or chicken.
Best: Knutsford Boulevard, Kingston, or Red Hills on the outskirts. Yallahs, in St Thomas, on a Friday night.
If you’re not one for hunting down good jerk huts or cookshops, there’s always the opportunity to taste traditional food in a comfortable, more up-market ambiance. It’s always best to ask a local, but if you happen to be in Kingston, two great places come to mind: Suzie’s on Avenue Road in Kingston – a café that serves breakfast and lunch, with super in-house baked desserts – and Grog Shoppe at Devon House, Kingston, where the late Chef Norma Shirley left her legacy behind, and where it will continue to shine. With indoor and outdoor dining for lunch and dinner, and great traditional cuisine taken up a notch, Grog Shoppe is a must for lovers of Jamaican food.
For fabulous daily high teas and Sunday brunch, visit the Terra Nova Hotel. If you like gambling, you must visit their casino, where all night long little “Jah-bites” from shrimp to jerk to red peas soup are served.