A Jamaican menu

A Jamaican menu

As a country, Jamaica appreciates its carbohydrates and food. Sonia Nazareth gives us a peek into the country’s unique culinary offerings

Hampden Estate,a working distillery.

In Jamaica, food is national treasure. No overstatement here, considering the fact that right from my maiden breakfast at the Pegasus Hotel in capital city Kingston, I’m accosted by a spread so sumptuous, it has me wishing I’d worn pants with an elastic waistband.

The first dish that greets me is stewed fish in brown sauce, proof if any was needed, that here’s a society that lives by and off the water. The welcome mat to most local breakfasts is the ackee and saltfish. Savoury with the consistency of scrambled eggs, salt cod is sautéed with boiled ackee, a fruit distinguished by its soft yellow flesh. Scotch bonnet peppers, onions, and spiced tomatoes complete the dish.

What becomes abundantly clear from this initial feast, is how much the nation appreciates its carbohydrates. The ackee and salt fish comes accompanied with callaloo, a spinach-like green and an abundance of johnny cakes, or cornmeal flatbread. Within the breakfast buffet, other permutations of starchy treats include — an array of yam, breadfruit, bammy (cassava flatbread) and steamed bananas (plantain).

A session about coffee at Craighton Coffee Estate.

A tropical island without its fruit, would be like Italy without its pizza. While every buffet hosts an abundance of coconut, banana, papaya and mango offerings, it pays to be adventurous with your taste buds and seek out a flavour less familiar. Naseberry (sapodilla) that tastes a bit like a peach and guinep (tastes like a blend of strawberry and fig) — are seasonal possibilities. Then there’s guava, that makes its way into just about everything — from ice-cream to jam. Guava jam, I learn, as I layer the gooey stuff thickly on to my Johnny cakes, is like no other.

A snowballing interest in epicurean travel has worked in Jamaica’s favour and Kingston unfurls a banner of restaurants that serve up all permutations of world and local cuisine. At Devon house, a classic Jamaican Great house built by George Stiebel, Jamaica’s first black millionaire, I follow my nose into the Grog Shop Restaurant. One look at the menu

establishes the magpie approach that the homegrown cuisine takes, a fusion of the diverse tastes of the ethnic groups that settled here. 

On the menu is Escovitch fish, brought in by the Spanish Jews. Goat curry came in with the Indians. Yam, rice, stews, bammy and smoked meat with the Arawaks, a group of indigenous people from South America. An array of spices came with the African slaves. Roasts and stews, meat pies and buns followed years of British Rule. Spoiled for choice, I settle on the Fish Escovitch, a spicy version of ceviche. The marinade is made from vinegar, onions, lime and Scotch bonnet peppers. Later at the stylish Red Bones Rooftop Restaurant, to go with the grandiloquent city views, I order Oxtail. Tender and falling off the bone as a result of a long stewing process, this succulent meat is best had with rice and butter beans.

Belinda’s serves pre-ordered
fresh, local and seasonal fare.

What becomes immediately clear from these early forays into the Kingston food scene, is that despite the world cuisine offerings tumbling in, the food-culture has simultaneously preserved an identity uniquely its own. Standing up to global fast food chains, are the popular patty shops, a leftover of colonialism and migration. I pop into Juici Patties and am confronted by a litany of choices. The pastry, while traditionally filled with ground beef, could also contain chicken, lamb, veggies, shrimp, or lobster. For many Jamaicans, the flaky outer shell needs a boost of additional carbohydrate, to be truly satiating. My driver Krishna squishes his patty into a split-in-half Coco bread — a hearty starchy-sweet loaf made from coconut milk and smiles blissfully.

On any food trail in Jamaica, it’s worth taking the 45-minute drive from Kingston into the Blue Mountains. I follow my nose after the alluring aroma of coffee to the Craighton Coffee Estate. It’s here that I sample the famous Blue Mountain coffee, known the world over for the quality of its bean. Descriptors that follow a tasting experience, revolve around words like mild, creamy and smooth with a hint of sweetness. Besides being used in a brew, the coffee is also used in liqueur —Tia Maria for starters. 

But the food experience that forms the welcome mat to most rituals of hospitality is jerk. I drive two hours, to Boston Bay for a Jerk lunch, its traditional home. Jerk refers to a style of cooking, in which the main ingredient (most often chicken or pork) is coated in a tongue-searing marinade or spice-rub, and slow cooked over a grill. Amid a litany of jerk stores, we settle on the Gurley Aston Grill. The seasoning for the meat, made from a combination of scotch bonnet peppers, pimento, nutmeg, garlic, ginger and thyme, gives the meat a spicy, sweet and savoury kick. Sides commonly ordered are usually fried bammy, sweet potato wedges, a litany of corn bread fritters — called festival and rice and peas. Peas are not of the garden variety, but rather beans. Historians argue that this tradition of cooking came in with the African slaves. 

Jerk pork

At the end of a week in Jamaica, there are many culinary memories that I take away. An ‘Ital’ meal at a Rastafarian-run restaurant for starters. ‘Ital’, a take on the word ‘vital’ is how the cuisine, that perambulates around natural, organic, fresh and non-chemically modified foods —that generate vitality or life energy —got its name. Think an abundance of soups, salads and tofu dishes. Rum history is also essential to any experience of this island, that produces the widest variety of rums — from white to dark to flavoured to overproof. I follow my nose into Hampden Estate, a working distillery, to learn about the creation of rum. A tiny sniff gives me an idea of how potent the overproof rum is. For me, relishing a shot of the clear white rum, ends up being mixed with Ting, a local brand of grapefruit soda.

But here’s the experience that means the most. I’m floating down the Rio Grande on a raft. We stop for lunch at Ms Belinda’s. This lady serves pre-ordered fresh, local, and seasonal fare, much like her mother Ms Betty did in the past. Under a palm frond roof, she lays out the fish and chicken that we’ve pre-ordered. Her smile is as wide, as her servings are generous. She laments that she doesn’t have her special crayfish on hand. I haven’t ordered the curried goat, but she urges me to try some anyway.

For me, it is this spirit of warm hospitality that makes any culinary trail here, greater than the sum of its parts. 

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