Move over, Cajun. It's Jamaica's turn.
It seems that Jamaican food is the food to be eating, to be meeting, to be talking about.
And it caters to a most popular taste bud.
"It's so very spicy," says Inid Donaldson, a Jamaican Julia Child, in town to promote Jamaican spices and sauces. "We have jerk pork, rice and peas, curried goat and curried chicken."
Donaldson, who is featured once a week on Jamaican television as a culinary expert, explains, "We live on a tropical island, so before refrigeration we needed to use spices and salt to preserve the food. We just came to like our foods that way, very spicy."
Spices include hot pepper, ginger, nutmeg, allspice and cinnamon. And lots of each. "I see our food as a giant melting pot of many nationalities that have come to Jamaica. The English brought with them the idea of the roast and so the Jamaicans got accustomed to meat, not in a casserole but in big pieces, and slices. With the Chinese culture we have a lot of sweet-and-sour dishes and vegetables and the Indians brought their spices and curries."
Some of their favorites are available here, like the plaintain, and the pickapepper sauce. Some others are not. There's ackee; a fruit, that the Jamaicans treat as a vegetable which Donaldson says "tastes like scrambled eggs, but better, you know."
Salt cod is very big and, when coupled with ackee is as popular as hot dogs are to Americans. Why salted? "We don't have cod here, and salting was the only way to get the cod to Jamaica. We imported it from Canada."
And then there's breadfruit. "It resembles, I think, potatoes with flour. It is not as soft as the potato, it has more of a bite." Breadfruit can be roasted or boiled. "It's delicious as a salad with a vinaigrette." It takes some getting used to.
Even their curries are special. And it's not so much the spices, says Donaldson: "We have very little lamb. We use goat mostly. It's very good."
Until these specialties make it across the Caribbean Sea, however, we can rely on a number of Jamaican restaurants in the area and the increasing stock of Jamaican sauces and glazes on grocer's shelves. Give it a shot. Jamaican food is colorful, tingling with spices and dishes like pawpaw and callaloo, and it provides an excuse to go buy yet another kind of oil, coconut this time.
If you do serve these treats, don't forget the Jamaicans' most enduring custom. "You cannot leave a brunch at a Jamican home without being offered a big cup of rum punch. And the measurements are so important. We say one of sour, two of sweet, three of strong and four of weak." Donaldson is referring to lime juice, a mixture of sugar and syrup, rum and water.
Below is a typically Jamaican dish, perhaps too vinegary for some tastes, but this can be taken care of with the addition of more water. An unusual dish, it can be served piping hot or chilled.
EXPRESS LANE: green bell peppers, onions, carrots, fresh ginger, whole allspice, vinegar, coconut oil, red snapper ESCOVITCH (4 main course servings, or 8 first-course servings)
This is an old Spanish dish that Jamaicans have transformed with their own method and spices.
3 green bell peppers, seeded and sliced
2 medium onions, thinly sliced
3 carrots, scraped and thinly sliced
1/2-inch slice fresh ginger, finely chopped
Generous amount of black pepper to taste
1/2 teaspoon whole allspice
Salt to taste
1 cup water
1/2 to 1 cup white vinegar
1/4 cup coconut or corn oil for frying
2 pounds red snapper
Olives for garnish (optional)
Combine peppers, onions, carrots, ginger, pepper, allspice and salt with water. Cover and simmer for 30 minutes. Add the vinegar and simmer for about 5 more minutes.
Heat the oil in a large, heavy frying pan and saute' the fish fillets until lightly browned on both sides. Drain the fish and arrange in a warmed serving dish. Pour the hot sauce with vegetables over the dish and serve hot. Or chill the fish in the sauce and vegetables and serve cold with optional garnish.