Eating Well in Jamaica
The multicultural values embodied in Jamaica's national motto, "Out of Many, One People," serve equally well to describe its melting-pot cuisine: a savvy, savory fusion of African, Asian, Arawak-Taíno, and European influences, ingredients, techniques, and traditions.
Even the humble patty blends African peppers, Chinese soy sauce, and Cornish pasties. Sizzling Scotch bonnet peppers are indigenous, as are pimento—from which allspice is produced (Jamaica produces 80% of the world's supply), and the liberally used native ginger is stronger in Jamaica than elsewhere. Aspiring Anthony Bourdains should try beachfront or roadside vans, kiosks, and shacks dishing out darkly bubbling grub from cow foot to curried goat. They offer authentic fare such as succulent slow-cooked jerk with heaping helpings of rice 'n' peas (beans) and provisions (tubers such as yam and cassava).
Arguably Jamaica's most famous export after reggae and Olympic-caliber runners, jerk (usually chicken or pork but now including goat, fish, and even conch) is marinated for hours in a fiery blend of peppers, pimento, scallion, and thyme, then cooked over an outdoor pit lined with pimento wood. Low, slow heating retains the natural juices while infusing the meat with the flavor of the wood and spices and ensures that the meat lasts in the tropical heat.
The Culinary Jerk Trail spans the island from Negril through Mo'Bay and Ocho Rios to Kingston and Port Antonio. The attraction features 10 of the hottest jerk spots, where diners can interact with chefs and learn the origins behind jerk cooking. For more information, go to www.visitjamaica.com/jerk.
Ackee and Saltfish
The British brought salt cod with them as a cheap, long-lasting foodstuff for sailors and slaves alike. Ackee, a red tree fruit introduced to Jamaica from western Africa via Britain, is actually poisonous in its natural state. Once the pear-shape fruit's tough, toxic, ruddy membrane is removed, however, the boiled, yellowish, pulpy arils surprisingly resemble scrambled eggs in taste and texture.
Exotica (to Some)
Goat figures in incendiary curries, as well as in "mannish water," a lusty soup, believed to be an aphrodisiac, that's traditionally served on wedding nights, wakes, and other festive occasions. The soup includes the head, brains, and other organs slow-cooked with various seasonings and tubers. Oxtail is a culinary constant from Italy to Indonesia. Jamaicans serve it stewed, braised, or in soup; inventive chefs might toss it with pasta in rum-cream sauce or use it to stuff quesadillas.
Freshly caught fish—including snapper, tuna, wahoo, grouper, and marlin—is often served as escoveitch, aka escoveech (fried to a golden crisp then topped with pickled hot peppers, onions, chayote, carrots, and pimento). Despite the linguistic and gastronomic similarity to ceviche and escabeche, escoveitch is rarely served cold, though it is usually marinated in vinegar and lime juice before it is cooked.
Farmers traditionally cultivated carb-rich crops that could furnish energy for islanders' hardscrabble heavy labor without requiring refrigeration. Pumpkins, coconuts, plantains, breadfruit, sweet potatoes, cassava, yams, and other "provisions" (root and gourd vegetables as well as some fruits) became staples, sometimes replacing expensive imported ingredients (chayote was used in mock-apple crumble). Most homeowners still have kitchen gardens; the Olympic sprinter Usain Bolt credits yams from his native Trelawny Parish for his speed. Today lots of sophisticated chefs here are returning to the "grow what you eat" locavore ethos.