“Diana, what exactly do you do with these green bananas?” I asked. Diana looked at me with inquisitive eyes, in a what-do-you-mean-you-don’t-know way.
“I bought these green bananas by mistake, thinking they’d ripen. But they haven’t.” She smiled sweetly and proceeded to show me how to cook them. “Slice the top and bottom, make a lengthwise incision, peel each banana under running water and boil them in salted water. Mash them with more salt and butter and serve them as you would Irish potatoes.” “Irish potatoes?” “The white ones.” Ah! Regular potatoes.
My husband’s job took us to Jamaica. Not the romantic-white-sand-turquoise-sea Jamaica, but the everyday-urban-chaotic-gritty Kingston. I tagged along for a couple of weeks. We stayed in a serviced apartment and did our own grocery shopping, hence the green banana fiasco. Diana, the housekeeper, came to the rescue. Thanks to her, I learned more about Jamaican food in one conversation than a regular tourist does during a two-week resort holiday.
Staying in a non-touristy area, where food isn’t catered to international tastes, encouraged me to try as many local dishes.
My introduction to Jamaican cuisine was a plump, juicy beef patty. It reminded me of the beef empanadas of my native Argentina. The patty pastry is different, though. It’s golden yellow thanks to the addition of egg yolk or cumin and deliciously flaky. I tried spicy curried chicken patties and ackee patties but beef was my favorite filling.
Some people like to sandwich their patty inside a coco bread. Coco bread is a soft, white bun made with coconut milk. Since it’s slightly sweet, it balances out the spicy patty filling.
Bun and cheese
I happened to stop by the Devon House Bakery three days before Easter. There was a constant stream of people buying large sweet loaves known as Easter buns, traditionally eaten around this time (follow links for recipes).
Easter buns evolved from the Easter hot cross buns, a soft round pastry made with raisins or currants and introduced by the British colonizers in the 17th century. Jamaican Easter buns are made with molasses, raisins, citrus rind, spices such as cinnamon, allspice, and nutmeg, and are shaped like big loaves. The result is a dense, cake-like, sweet bread.
Bun and cheese is a popular snack that consists of a slice of tin cheese (Jamaican processed cheese sold in round tins) sandwiched between two slices of Easter bun. The saltiness of the cheese complements the sweetness of the bun and brings out the spices.
Jerk chicken with rice and peas and festival
I ate jerk chicken a few times. I loved the sweet, spicy, sticky sauce made with brown sugar, cinnamon, ginger, garlic, hot peppers, and allspice. And because the chicken is grilled over a low fire, the meat is tender with a lovely smoky flavor.
It is said that the word jerk derives from the Spanish term charqui, which means dried meat. At the time of the British invasion, Spanish-owned African slaves fled to the mountains. They hunted wild boars, cured and salted the meat with spices to preserve it, and cooked it over hot rocks or makeshift grills. Nowadays, cooks prepare jerk chicken in smokers and sell it in jerk huts on the side of the road and in restaurants.
Rice and peas and festival usually accompany jerk chicken. Rice and peas is made with rice and pigeon peas (or sometimes kidney beans) cooked in coconut milk with thyme, garlic, and scallion. I love rice and beans so this side dish was perfect.
I became addicted to festival. These Jamaican fried dumplings made with cornmeal and nutmeg are crispy outside and soft inside and slightly sweet. I usually ate one with the chicken and another as dessert. What’s not to like about fried dough?
Along with the green bananas, I bought a bag of shredded callaloo simply because I found the name impossible to resist. Callaloo, or amaranth leaves, is Jamaica’s staple leafy green vegetable. This slightly bitter veg has versatility: I had it sautéed, as a tasty patty filling, and in a gorgeous quiche. Callaloo also refers to a side dish made with said vegetable, scallion, garlic, thyme, scotch bonnet peppers (or habaneros), and coconut oil.
Ackee is Jamaica’s national fruit. If consumed unripe, it can be poisonous. Only its pale-yellow flesh is edible. Once cooked, it has a soft texture, like that of scrambled eggs, and a subtle flavor. The ackee patty I had in Negril was among my favorites. Ackee is also one of the components of the most popular dish on the land: ackee and saltfish (salted cod fish).
After the abolition of slavery, thousands of East Indian indentured workers came to toil on the plantations. Over time, their culinary tradition, especially curry, became part of the Jamaican heritage. Goat curry was traditionally eaten on special occasions, although it’s more common now. I ordered mine with basmati rice. It was fragrant with spices, pleasantly gamey, and not too hot. I learned to look out for small bones and splinters pretty quickly.
Food reflects the history and culture of a country. Jamaican cuisine reflects its West African, Spanish, British, and Indian heritage, among others, and pays homage to the country’s motto: “Out of Many, One People.”