By Carolyn Malcoun, January/February 2010
The one common theme strung through all of my trips to Jamaica has been jerk—jerk chicken, jerk pork, jerk goat, jerk fish, jerk everything. You’ll be hard pressed to travel very far on the island and not run into a jerk hut or shack. They’re on the side of the road, on the beach, in city centers, lining the outside of the farmers’ market. The process of jerking started out of necessity centuries ago by the Maroons, escaped African slaves who evaded capture by the British by fleeing deep into the Blue Mountains of Jamaica. The beauty of jerk lies in the spectacularly hot and flavorful marinade. Its reliance on salt and hot peppers helped preserve any wild game the Maroons caught while on the run. Tangy lime juice, fresh scallions and fragrant thyme, allspice, cinnamon and nutmeg add heady flavor to the meat. It’s downright addictive.
On a recent trip, I came across a popular jerk joint called Scotchies, right on the highway in Montego Bay. Kelly Rerrie, the manager and owner’s daughter, brought us around to the back of the restaurant where the outdoor grills were. Moving through the billowing, fragrant smoke, the two cooks tended the grills. Shorty, the brains behind their jerk paste, and King Kong, a quiet guy who instinctively poked and turned the hunks of meat on the grill. The grills aren’t what you would typically envision. Long slender logs of pimento wood (pimento is the Jamaican name for allspice) hold the meat over a slowly burning fire. Thick sheets of corrugated zinc are laid on top of the meat to trap the smoke, which adds a deeper flavor to the jerk. After trying—very unsuccessfully—to pry a jerk marinade recipe from Shorty (he mumbled a few key ingredients as he stared down at his shuffling feet), we sat down on pillow-topped kegs at round tables in the shaded courtyard to a feast of jerk pork and chicken, roast fish, festival (think slightly sweet hush puppies), steamed yams and sweet potatoes, and ice-cold Red Stripe.
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.
More commonly referred to as amaranth in the U.S., callaloo is the ubiquitous cooking green in Jamaica. Some farmers consider it to be simply a weed, but if you’re lucky to find it in bunches at your farmers’ market or a Caribbean market, snap it up! It has a texture somewhere between that of collard greens and spinach, both of which are fine substitutes.
One of the hottest chile peppers, Scotch bonnets come in vivid shades of red, orange and green and are used throughout the Caribbean. Though they look similar to habaneros, Scotch bonnets have a citrus note that makes them undeniably different. You can control the heat of a dish a little by discarding the membranes that hold the seeds, which are the spiciest part of chile peppers, along with the seeds themselves. Be sure to wash your hands thoroughly after handling hot peppers or wear rubber gloves. If you can’t find Scotch bonnet peppers, habaneros can be substituted.
Carolyn Malcoun is associate food editor. She began working at EatingWell when she was a student at New England Culinary Institute.