Jamaican cuisine: A delightful tangle of cultures

| April 5, 2013 | 0 Comments


Grilled jerk chicken

Joyfully vibrating to the beat of reggae, Jamaica is a lush tropical island paradise and, understandably, a popular tourist destination. While exploring the culinary history and culture of the island, I also learned of its uniqueness and delighted in the evolving historical puzzle that became more complex with each wave of new arrivals to its shores. The result? A lively mix of cultures and traditions.
The third largest island in the Caribbean (after Cuba and the island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Jamaica has extensive agriculture, which makes it self-sufficient in foodstuffs, while offering variety to the island’s cuisine. Indeed, the vast tracts of tillable land have played a significant role in the unusual and ever-broadening ethnic makeup of Jamaica’s population and thus its food history and culture. To better understand it, one must first consider the origins of each ethnic group.

An old oil barrel, fired with hardwood charcoal, for making Jamaican jerk fish and chicken.

In about AD 1000, the Arawaks — Amerindians from South America’s Orinoco region on the eastern coast of Venezuela — paddled to the island they named “Xaymaca” meaning “wood and water,” both of which featured prominently in the lives of these settlers. Indeed much of Jamaica is limestone, providing a safe and natural filtration of drinking water that so impressed the Arawaks.
For nearly 500 years, the Arawaks hunted, fished, farmed and revelled through an annual series of festivals. However in 1494, Christopher Columbus laid claim (for himself and for Spain) to “the fairest land ever eyes beheld.” The Arawaks were forced into hard labour, which along with European infections such as the common cold, wiped out the entire Arawak population within 50 years. Despite the introduction of sugar cane and African slaves to do the cultivation, the Spanish allowed the island to sink into poverty for more than 150 years. Finally, in 1655, frightened by the arrival of British sailors and soldiers, the Spanish made a hasty departure.
The British ruled the island for the next three centuries and Jamaica flourished. British sugar barons prospered thanks to slaves they brought from Africa to work the plantations, and Jamaica became the world’s largest sugar-producing colony. The slaves were harshly treated, provoking slave uprisings that were inspired by the Maroons, descendants of escaped slaves from Spanish times. The Maroons lived in the mountains, defying and out-smarting the British authorities until they received some autonomy in 1739, which still exists today. When slavery itself was abolished in 1838, former slaves no longer wanted to work on plantations, prompting waves of cheap “immigrant” labour (first from Germany and Ireland, then India and China). As one ethnic group advanced from the lowest level of society, another followed.
Jamaica’s cuisine is a product of this cultural heritage, with food portraying the story of its people. As High Commissioner Sheila Sealy-Monteith acknowledges, “Jamaican cuisine, which is vibrant in colour and bold in taste, is an integral part of the expression of our culture.” It’s a mixture of flavours, spices, cooking techniques and influences from the Arawaks and those who followed. Other dishes are a fusion of tradition and techniques, using ingredients native to Jamaica and those that have been introduced.
The Spanish brought pigs to the island along with a number of dishes including the vinegary escovitched (marinated in lime juice) fish. To provide a cheap food for the slaves, ackee (a favourite breakfast fruit) arrived on slave ships from West Africa as did yams, breadfruit and several root vegetables. Citrus fruits and bananas were introduced by Europeans. The Irish not only introduced Jamaican Guinness Stout Punch, but also the notorious drink, Irish Moss, prepared from a Jamaican seaweed that originally was found in Ireland. Mostly men consume both drinks to increase their vigour (libido). New arrivals from India contributed spicy curries for which their British masters had already developed a passion. The Chinese added their own culinary specialties, such as sweet and sour pork. And so, the evolution of a dynamic Jamaican cuisine took hold.
Integral to the diversity of Jamaican cuisine is the Rastafarian influence. Most Jamaicans classify themselves as Christians; however, Jews, Hindus, Muslims and other religions also comprise significant portions of the population. Rastafarianism, a religion created in Jamaica, has a serious following. In brief, the Rastas consider themselves one of the tribes of Israel and believe late Ethiopian emperor, Haile Selassie, is the Messiah. They are strict vegetarians and eat only food grown locally without commercial fertilizers. (Although most Rastas do not eat meat, some do eat fish and chicken.) No salt, sugar or oil is used in cooking; manufactured food is avoided; pork and alcohol are forbidden.
As such, the Rastafarian approach to preparing food, cooking and eating, has introduced unique vegetarian dishes and has richly contributed to Jamaican cuisine. Particularly tasty are their crisp, raw vegetable rolls, green beans glazed with honey, mustard and sesame seeds, and Irie salad consisting of sweet potatoes, corn, apples, onion and the juice of grated kola nuts.
The Maroons, meanwhile, brought the island their “jerk” technique of pork preservation, which has been elevated to the status of a national treasure and has inspired cooks around the world. Originally, to avoid smoke being seen by British authorities, the meat was pierced with small holes, stuffed with a highly flavoured mixture of peppers and spices, wrapped in plantain leaves and buried in a pit filled with hot stones. Recipes and techniques have been modified over time from using pit fires to old oil barrels fired with hardwood charcoal to enhance the spicy, smoky flavour. However, today many cooks simply rub chicken, pork, fish, shrimp and even lobster with a jerk seasoning (or marinade) and grill it. High Commissioner Sealy-Monteith gently warns: “It is not for the faint of heart, rather, it is for the palate that desires a taste that is rich, spicy and unforgettable.”
In terms of meals, eating traditions established during British control saw the day begin with a cup of coffee, chocolate or tea (an infusion of some sort of local herb), with breakfast served later in the morning. A “second breakfast” was served at noon and dinner in the late afternoon or evening.
Today, Jamaicans still enjoy their early morning cup of coffee or tea before a breakfast usually consisting of saltfish and callaloo (the leaves of taro root, similar to collard greens) or saltfish and ackee, plus yams, roasted breadfruit, boiled green bananas or fried dumplings.
Lunch generally features national dishes such as stewed peas, curried goat, oxtail, escovitched fish, brown stewed fish (pan-fried before simmering in brown sauce flavoured with spices and hot pepper), steamed fish or a satisfying “one-pot meal” type of soup.
Jerk meat, stewed beef, fish, fricasséed chicken or oxtail and beans are on the dinner menu. Rice, yams, green bananas, plantain and avocado are among the accompaniments. For dessert, favourites include fried sweet dumplings, ice cream (mango and soursop), puddings (sweet potato, bread and Christmas), cakes (often toto and grater coconut cakes) and tarts (plantain and coconut gizzada), banana fritters, duckoono (a mixture of cassava and coconut milk poached in banana leaves) as well as an array of tropical fruits including otaheiti apples. The high commissioner adds, “and no Jamaican meal is complete without the world-renowned Blue Mountain Coffee. Of course, the crowning glory for many is the Appleton Jamaican rum. How much better can it get?”
Recently, Jamaica is experiencing yet another phase in its ever-evolving culinary scene as exciting new fusions are being created by island chefs determined to marry traditional flavours with new ingredients.
Now, for a taste of Jamaica, please enjoy my “not too spicy” version of jerk chicken. Bon Appétit!

Grilled Jerk Chicken

Makes 4 servings

1 tsp (5 mL) each of dried thyme (crushed), ground allspice, minced fresh garlic and grated fresh gingerroot (peeled)
1/2 tsp (3 mL) of cayenne pepper and crushed black peppercorns
1/3 tsp (2 mL) each of ground cinnamon, ground nutmeg and kosher salt
2 tsp (10 mL) brown sugar
2 tsp (10 mL) lime juice
1 1/2 tbsp (23 mL) each of olive oil, red wine vinegar and soya sauce
3 tbsp (45 mL) orange juice
1 tsp (5 mL) finely chopped Scotch bonnet pepper (seeded)
1/4 cup (60 mL) finely sliced green onions
4 boneless chicken breasts, skin on (each: 6 oz or 175 g)
2 cups (500 mL) Black Bean Mango Salsa* (optional)
1/3 cup (80 mL) sour cream (optional)

1. To make jerk marinade, in a medium-sized bowl, combine thyme, allspice, garlic, gingerroot, cayenne pepper, crushed black peppercorns, cinnamon, nutmeg, salt and brown sugar. Whisk in lime juice, olive oil, vinegar, soya sauce and orange juice. Mix in Scotch bonnet pepper and green onion.
2. Place chicken breasts in a glass baking dish, bathe with marinade and refrigerate for at least a few hours or up to 24, turning breasts occasionally.
3. Allow chicken to come close to room temperature before placing it (skin side down) over indirect medium heat on a well-oiled preheated grill.** (Keep hood down.***)
4. After 10 minutes, baste as required with remaining marinade from chicken and discard the rest. Turn chicken over and continue cooking. For the last 5 or 10 minutes, grill chicken (skin side down) over direct medium heat until an instant meat thermometer placed in thickest part of the breast registers 170°F or 77°C and juices run clear when pierced with a fork. (Total time: 20 to 25 minutes.)
5. Serve with black bean salsa, rice and vegetables of choice (e.g., baked squash) and a generous dollop of sour cream to balance the spicy flavours.

* To make the Black Bean Salsa, combine 1 cup (250 mL) each of fresh diced mango and canned black beans (rinsed and well drained), 1/4 cup (60 mL) of each of minced onion and chopped fresh coriander leaves, 2 tsp (10 mL) lime juice, 1 tsp (5 mL) liquid honey, 1/2 tsp (3 mL) minced Scotch bonnet pepper, as well as salt and crushed black peppercorns to taste.

** Alternatively, grill chicken on a well-oiled preheated grill pan (or skillet) over medium heat. If desired, increase the crispness of the cooked chicken by placing it (skin side up) under a preheated broiler element for 1 or 2 minutes.

*** If using a “hoodless” grill, cooking will take a little longer.

Margaret Dickenson wrote the award-winning cookbook, Margaret’s Table — Easy Cooking & Inspiring Entertaining. (www.margaretstable.ca)

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Category: Delights

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