Recipes Articles Book Reviews Shopping Forum Contact

Jamaica Me Crazy

by Roberta Roberti

Jamaica has been a hot spot for sun-worship and water sports for years. The sand is clean, the water is undulating shades of turquoise and green, and the palm trees sway seductively. Maybe you're a fan of reggae, the island's national music. Many people don't realize, however, that Jamaica has great food, too. Jerk chicken, you say? Yes, of course, there is jerk chicken, but there's more to it than that.

Since it is the most well known of Jamaican dishes-and with good reason-I will begin with jerk. Jerk is a seasoning blend of cinnamon, ginger, allspice (which Jamaicans call pimento), cloves, thyme, garlic, onions, and most importantly, chiles-that is what gives jerk seasoning its kick. Secondary ingredients vary across Jamaica and the blend is used as both a dry rub and as a paste. It is most often used on chicken and pork but is also applied to other meats, seafood, and vegetables.

Self-respecting Jamaicans will make their own jerk from scratch, which means buying the spices whole and grinding them. After the spices are ground, they are mashed with the chiles, aromatics, and whatever else the cook likes in a mortar and pestle (traditionally) or in a food processor, and rubbed generously onto meat. The meat is allowed to sit for several hours to overnight and then is barbecued. (In the case of vegetables, the jerk seasoning is applied just before cooking.)

Jerk was invented to preserve meat in the tropical Caribbean heat. The term jerk is believed to have derived from an Arawak word, charqui, referring to the process of turning meat over a fire (and it is also related to jerky). The actual origin of jerk is a bit disputed but the popular theory is that it began with the Maroons, a group of black slaves freed by Spanish landowners when they fled from invading British troops.

Up until my trip to Jamaica, I had only sampled a small quantity of jerk, toned down to accommodate American (i.e., feeble) palates, so I was eager to experience the real thing at its source. Now, I knew jerk was spicy. Jamaican friends spoke fondly of their national dish and I knew that they liked it with octane. But I was not prepared for the complete and utter annihilation of my taste buds. The first bite was spicy but not overwhelming. The second bite, hotter but still tolerable. By the third bite, the spices of the first two nibbles had settled across my tongue and in the back of my throat. My glands began to heat, and it radiated up through my head. I thought I was going to die. I shoveled globs of rice into my mouth. I sucked down half my margarita in hopes of squelching the fire. After a minute, I felt better. Then I ate some more jerk and repeated the whole process.

Here's the thing: You may find chiles unbearably hot, but they are addictive. This is the tenet held by chile connoisseurs. Chiles have a chemical called capsaicin, which irritates the pain receptors in the mouth, nose, and throat, causing the familiar burning sensation. To counteract this pain, the brain releases endorphins, creating a natural high. This is why chile lovers go to extremes to spice up their food, and anything less than fiery seems bland. Jamaicans' chile of choice is the scotch bonnet. Along with the habanero, it is the hottest pepper in the world and most Americans could probably not handle it. To give you an idea of just how hot a scotch bonnet is, I'll compare it to the very common jalapeño pepper. Chiles (of which there are over 200 varieties) are rated by the Scoville Scale, invented in 1912 by Wilbur L. Scoville. On the mild end are such specimens as mexi-bells and anaheims. Towards the middle of the scale are jalapeños and serranos. On the extremely hot end are cayenne and tabasco chiles. A jalepeño has a Scoville rating of 4 (3,500-4,500 units); a scotch bonnet-all the way at the end of the scale-has a rating of 10 (350,000-550,000 units), 30 to 50 times hotter than a jalapeño!

Beyond Jerk
Jamaica has other national dishes to offer, however. An appetizer that has become popular in the U.S. is the Jamaican beef patty, which is a meat mixture enclosed in a dough pocket, similar to Latin empanadas. What makes the Jamaican version distinct is the use of Jamaican curry powder. Jamaican curry powder is different than Indian curry powder but was inspired by it. Curry was introduced to Jamaica by the influx of Indians who came as indentured servants after the slaves were freed in Jamaica in the 1830s.

Jerk Barbecue Barrel

If you ask a local what a true Jamaican dish is they would most likely say curried goat. Curried goat-a uniquely West Indian preparation-is eaten on special occasions and holidays, much like a turkey at our Thanksgiving. This is also believed to be an influence of the Indian population who missed their traditional lamb terribly and settled for goat, which was abundant on the islands.

Pepper pot soup is a spicy hodgepodge of various meats and vegetables, making more of a stew than a soup. It will almost always contain calalloo, a Jamaican staple. Unless you go to an ethnic market (or an extremely diverse supermarket), you are not likely to find calalloo in the U.S., except in Jamaican restaurants and the occasional canned variety. Most of the stuff I've read about calalloo likens it to spinach but I personally feel it is more like kale in both appearance and texture. As a side dish, calalloo, is chopped up and braised with onions, seasonings, and of course, scotch bonnet chiles.

Speaking of side dishes, a staple of most Jamaican meals is rice and peas. Don't be confused by the name; rice and peas in Jamaica really means rice and beans. For this dish, kidney beans or pigeon peas (also known as gungo peas or, in Latin cuisine, gandules) are cooked in coconut milk and mixed with rice and seasonings. Ubiquitous throughout the Caribbean, johnny cakes are also standard on the side. Unlike the cornmeal-based American version, Caribbean johnny cakes are griddle cakes made from flour, water, salt, and baking powder (occasionally, cornmeal is mixed in). They are to West Indians what biscuits are to American Southerners.

Jamaica is pretty much the only country outside of Africa that eats the strange-looking fruit known as ackee. Other island nations view the tree as ornamental and, indeed, it is pretty-and fascinating-to look at. An ackee is bright red on the outside and, when ripe, it bursts open to reveal three or more large, shiny black seeds and pale yellow flesh. Cooked ackee looks like scrambled eggs and it is often eaten with or without eggs for breakfast. It is commonly mixed with saltfish (codfish), onions, and tomatoes. An ackee will open up by itself when it is ready; before that, an ackee is toxic to humans. Where ackee is used in savory dishes, soursop, another popular fruit on the island, is used mostly in sweet preparations. Known as guanabana among Spanish-speaking countries, soursop is used to make a popular drink (simply known as soursop drink), as well as frozen desserts. Sometimes, if it is particularly good, it is eaten raw.

Personally, I feel the most remarkable Jamaican contribution to the World table is black cake, the traditional holiday dessert. Similar to the dreaded fruit cake, it is a dense, dark cake soaked with rum and port wine and allowed to sit and ferment for several weeks or months. Also referred to as Christmas cake, plum pudding (indicative of British influence), or simply rum cake, this confection symbolizes unity. It is unheard of, and considered downright rude, if you visit someone's home at the holidays and are not offered a piece of cake with a glass of sorrel juice. (And if you do go visiting, do not expect pound, angel food, or any other cake-it will always be black cake). It is also served at weddings and special occasions.

My friend, Valrie Mason, originally from Kingston, Jamaica, was kind enough to offer me her Black Cake recipe, which I pass on to you. She suggests making the cake at least four weeks in advance because the longer it sits, the better it becomes. I think this is one fruit cake that will not get passed around year after year... you'll be lucky if it lasts through Christmas!

Christmas Cake (Jamaican Black Cake)
4 cups mixed dried fruits (raisins, currants, prunes, citron, cherries, dates)
3 cups port wine
3 cups white rum (preferably Appleton)
1/2 lb. butter
1/2 lb. granulated sugar (brown sugar is traditional but Valrie says granulated dissolves quicker)
6 eggs
12 oz. all-purpose flour
2 tbsp baking powder
1 tbsp browning
1 tsp Benjamin vanilla extract
1 tsp almond extract
1 tsp nutmeg
1 tsp ground allspice
2 tsp lemon juice

Preparing Fruits for Baking: Wash fruit well. Soak fruits in 2 cups port wine and 2 cups rum for at least 4 weeks before baking.

To bake the cake:
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
2. Grease a 10-inch baking tin with butter or margarine. Line the tin with wax paper.
3. Mix butter and sugar until light and fluffy.
4. Add eggs, one at a time, and continue beating until mixture is smooth.
5. Add flour and baking powder and continue to mix.
6. Blend in browning, vanilla, almond, nutmeg, allspice, and lemon juice.
7. In a blender or processor, grind fruits and add to mixture.
8. Add 1 cup rum and 1 cup wine and mix well. Place in oven.

Cake is baked when a knife is inserted into center of cake and comes out clean. Check cake after an hour. This will make approximately 4 lbs. of cake. If you're baking it weeks or months in advance, continue basting it periodically with wine.

Copyright © 2008 Epicurean.com
All rights reserved