Jamaica: A Culinary Journey



 

5 delicious staples of the Caribbean island
Recently, we joined the Visit Jamaica for a four-day excursion to the third-largest island in the Caribbean. While your idea of Jamaica may be sandy beaches, boozy punch and Bob Marley, the nation’s food culture equally as important, and rooted in tradition. While we certainly managed to squeeze in some fun in the sun during our stay, our trip was all about meeting new friends and breaking bread with them, partaking in some of the island’s most popular fare. Below, we’re sharing five culinary staples of Jamaica… and a few spots where you can sample the best of the best!

Ackee
Our first taste of ackee—which is one-half of Jamaica’s national dish, ackee and saltfish—was at the Belcour Lodge near the Blue Mountains, where we were treated to an at-home breakfast by Robin Lumsden. Her gorgeous home, built in the 1820s and located on the land of an old coffee plantation, was the perfect location for a meal with a large group of new friends. With her Jamaican, French and Chinese heritage, her recipes were certainly a fusion of cultures. So alongside fresh hardough bread, homemade pineapple jam, stewed guava, cured pork, callaloo, and mackerel rundown, our first ackee experience came in the unique form of a quiche, with the eggy texture and nutty flavour of the fruit blending nicely into the savoury pie.

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The next day, while on the road to Saint Elizabeth Parish on the southern coast from Kingston, we made a stop at the Ashman Food factory, which is owned by a lovely family who divides their time between Jamaica and Markham, Ontario. The company, which bottles the likes of jerk sauces, scotch bonnet pepper sauces and various jams and jellies, also processes and cans ackee. We got a glimpse of the method from start to finish, and saw the pear-shaped fruit up-close, which splits open during the ripening process, revealing black seeds and the soft, yellow flesh within, which is used in cooking.

Coffee
While many associate coffee production to countries like Brazil and Colombia, Jamaica’s Blue Mountain region is actually well known for its coffee, which is mild in flavour, and goes down smooth.

A visit to the Craighton Estate took us to the home of Jamaica UCC Blue Mountain Coffee. The location, whose Great House was built in 1765 and acted as a state house in the 1800s, offered us a great glimpse at the history of coffee production, which began in the country when slaves arrived from Haiti as freemen and brought the skills with them.

Our knowledgeable tour guide, “Junior”, spoke to us about the ideal location and elevation of the Blue Mountains (2,000 feet above sea level), making it 5 to 7°C cooler than the rest of the island, and making for a better quality coffee. With 65% of coffee production done by small farmers, he also spoke openly about how education needs to continue, so that growers feel a sense of pride and connection to the final product. With nearly 300 years since coffee was first introduced to Jamaica, we say that that’s an honorable goal.

Fresh seafood
When visiting an island, it’s only natural to have a taste of what’s swimming below in the nearby waters. Seafood in Jamaica is a must, whether you sample it in Kingston, the nation’s capital, or when visiting along the coastline.

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Our first sampling of underwater delicacies happened at Gloria’s near the historic Port Royal in Kingston. Bumpy roads at night led to this charming and rustic location, nestled by the water as the city sparkled across from us. Fresh and delicious, we started our meal with fish tea. The name is admittedly deceiving: it is rather a fish soup, spicy, seasoned, and flavourful. And then come the main dishes: the menu is plentiful, from their lobster to their shrimp dishes (we opted for the curried fish), served alongside staples like bammy, a cassava flatbread that can be enjoyed either steamed or fried, and festivals, fried dumplings that you can’t help but over-indulge in.

As for our trip along the south coast, a stop to the popular Little Ochie was the highlight of our culinary journey. Located in the fishing village called Alligator Pond in Saint Elizabeth, our table was an elevated boat right on the beach, the crashing waves heard but unseen in the darkness. The menu is all fish and crustaceans, so we sampled a little bit of everything flavourful, with a side of rum punch. You can enjoy your shrimp every which way, from fried to garlicky, but it was the spicy peppered shrimp that was particularly big on taste. (And, as always, bammy and festivals were in abundance!)

Jerk cooking
Jerk cooking is probably the most well-known Jamaican culinary fare, a staple in any and every Caribbean restaurant near you. It isn’t for the faint-of-heart—perhaps only for those who appreciate a kick to their meal.

Jerk is likely most associated by many to chicken and pork, but everything from lamb to seafood can be made using a classic jerk seasoning, whether in a dry or wet rub. Typical ingredients include (but aren’t limited to) allspice, scotch bonnet peppers, green onions, and nutmeg, which clearly pack a punch… and a touch of heat.
One of the most popular restaurants in Jamaica is Scotchies. While it does fall under the “chain restaurant” category (there are locations in Kingston, Ochos Rios, and Montego Bay), don’t be fooled: you get an authentic laid-back experience, with tasty food at a very reasonable price. Simply order the amount you prefer, such as a 1/4 or 1/2-pound, and it’s served bundled up in foil. We say toss aside the knife and fork: dig in with your hands! And if you like some added heat, the squeeze-bottle of pepper sauce lets you kick things up a notch to your liking. You can cool down with some Red Stripe, but we preferred to wash down our jerk chicken with some refreshing limeade for a winning combination.

Rum
Ah, the alcoholic beverage made from fermented sugarcane known as rum… It is a staple in many at-home bars here in Canada, and the majority of the world’s rum is produced in the Caribbean. So our visit to the Appleton Estate was certainly an exciting one, giving us a glimpse at the history of the drink, as well as its production from A to Z.

A tour guide took us through the estate, showing us both old-fashioned ways rum was produced (i.e. using a donkey to help press the juice from the sugarcane) to its more modern facilities. Five months of harvesting (which yields about 380,000 pounds of sugarcane) leads to a distillation process that runs from January to September. The “old” distilling method using pot stills is still in use, which leads to a more flavourful rum, as are column stills for rum with a higher proof. The rum is then aged in barrels—it gets its colour from the wood, its aroma from the flavonoids, and its sweetness from the cellulose—stores in a cool, dry place.
This tour is pleasing for both rum fans but also anyone curious by the production process. And, at the end of the tour, there is of course a chance to sample various rums. Bottoms up!

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