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While jerk is an integral part of Jamaican cuisine, and plain old finger-licking delicious, on this visit I wanted to find out how other chefs are playing with the traditional island flavors. Jacqui Sinclair, food columnist for the Jamaican Observer, treated me to a feast at her home that was distinctively Jamaican, but with delicious, healthier twists. The goal of Jacqui’s column, “The Juicy Chef,” is to inspire Jamaicans to cook more healthfully. “Everyone has the right to good, clean, healthy food, but right now, the cost of healthier foods can be prohibitive to the average Jamaican,” she said, noting that obesity, diabetes and heart disease are increasingly common on the island. “I try to create recipes that can be easily made with pantry items and inexpensive fruits and vegetables that are in season. If people can’t afford to go out, I still want them to be able to create an interesting meal at home.”
Soups are very popular in Jamaica, particularly ones made with pumpkin. Jacqui topped hers with a dollop of rum-scented cream, a nod to the liquor distilled on the island. A velvety curried fish seemed more Indian than Jamaican, until she explained that curry has been a popular flavoring since Indians were brought to Jamaica as indentured servants in the 1800s. Jamaican curries are often prepared with goat, but Jacqui lightened hers up with fresh fish. We satisfied our sweet tooths with sweet potato pudding, a dense, slightly sweet dessert with a hint of coconut. You’ll find my version that I adapted to American ingredients on page 69. Jacqui loves using fresh fruit as a healthful garnish, so she served it with caramelized slices of star fruit, in season from July through February.
Now that I’m back, the rich flavors of Jamaica still haunt me. And luckily the perfect time to make some of my favorite dishes is right now, when the dark, cold days of winter settle in. Vegetables that thrive in cooler weather, such as dark leafy greens and sweet potatoes, are integral to piping-hot pots of soup. Spices you might normally associate with baked goods and desserts, such as nutmeg, cinnamon and allspice, combine seamlessly with Scotch bonnet peppers and scallions in soul-warming savory dishes, like jerk chicken. So now my favorite way to warm up on a particularly chilly winter’s night is to whip up a Jamaican feast, turn on some reggae and have a little island getaway right in my own kitchen.