Taste of Jamaica
Top things to try:
- Jamaican Patty
- Jerk Meat
- Ackee and Saltfish
- Pepperpot Soup
- Scotch Bonnet Pepper
- Blue Mountain Coffee
Tales of a ChronicFoodie
If there is a West Indian country that has become a place of comfort food to me, it has to be Jamaica. When I was in grade 4 to grade 8, I lived in a neighbourhood where there was a good community of West Indians and more specifically, Jamaicans. One of my closest friends in grade school was Jamaican. I remember visiting his home and the smells of the food seeping all over the house was amazing. A smell quite foreign to me but I was fortunate to have been able to try some of the food my friend was brought up on and as I often say… I’ve never met a mom who didn’t love feeding me. One other benefit I had living where I did was that there was a Jamaican pastry shop and a place to get jerk chicken. Yes… I was a very fortunate kid.
What is a West Indian?
A West Indian is a native or inhabitant of the West Indies often synonymous to the Caribbean but you can differentiate it by the language spoken: English. For more than 100 years the words West Indian specifically described natives of the West Indies, but by the 17th century Europeans had begun to use it also to describe the descendants of European colonists who stayed in the West Indies. Some West Indian people reserve this term for citizens or natives of the British West Indies. To read more, click HERE
Whenever I travel for any extended period of time outside of Canada, I have two major cravings that I need to remedy when I return home: Mom’s food and Jamaican. I really don’t know why but it has been a tradition of mine that whenever I arrive home after a long trip, I find myself digging into Jamaican delights and there is something about the savoury flavours of Jamaican food that feeds my soul.
Jusep’s Favourite Places in Toronto
Click the links to learn more about this places to get your fix:
Mr. Jerk (the one at the Peanut Plaza near Don Mills and Finch)
Jusep’s Go to dish:
Jerk Pork on Rice and Beans covered in ox tail gravy, side of coleslaw, side of fried plantains, order of dumplings or festivals and all washed down with a bottle of Ting. Oh… you can’t forget the scotch bonnet pepper sauce to amp up the heat!
There is so much to try and discover if you’re not familiar with the cuisine of this amazing island in the Caribbean. Flavours that will delight and if you are ready to discover, below will cover some of the basics and I assure you, this is just scratching the surface of all that Jamaica has to offer the hungry foodie.
Here’s a list to get your appetite started!
If you’ve been on my Kensington Market International Food Tour, you have had the pleasure of tasting one of my childhood treats: Jamaican Patty. This yellow tinted flaky pastry filled ground beef and of course I do prefer mine spicy. Nowadays, the fillings can vary where you can find it with chicken, veggie versions and my favourite… goat. As a kid between 9 years to around 13, I lived in a neighbourhood in the North end of Toronto where there was a great Jamaican pastry shop that was and still is famous for their patties: Allan’s Patry. For $2.00CAD, I was able to buy a Jamaican patty in Cocobread with a drink. If there is one thing to try if Jamaican food is new to you, this is where I would recommend you start.
For those not too familiar with Jamaican food, the one thing that people would be familiar with if anything would be the amazing world of “jerk”. But what is jerk?
There is an assumption that jerk is a spice mix but make no mistake, jerk is not just about the spice mix. It is a style of cooking but the spices are a very important piece of the big picture. Jerk was derived from a way of prepping meats by poking it with holes so that the flavours could be absorbed better throughout the meat. The two meats most commonly “jerked” is chicken and pork but you can also jerk fish. The spice mix nowadays can be found in all sorts of things like shrimp, lamb, beef, but let’s not make any mistake… Jerk is best known with chicken and pork.
How the meat is cooked is a very important part of the jerk tradition. The process has changed over time from using open pit fires but nowadays and probably the most preferred way is using modified oil barrels with hardwood charcoal. Smokey and delicious!
If there is a dish or food to wet your appetite in your journey in the the world of Jamaican food, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed in what your tastebuds will discover.
Ackee and Saltfish – National dish of Jamaica
For those who are looking to go a bit deeper into a dish that is a bit unusual for most, I would recommend you venture into a plate of Ackee and Saltfish. A favourite for breakfast but can and is eaten any time of day.
What is Ackee?
Ackee is a fruit that was brought to Jamaica from Ghana, Africa in the 1700s. It is a pear shaped fruit that grows on a tree and it is the National fruit of Jamaica. Be warned, the fruit is toxic to consume if eaten before the fruit has rippend so this is not something you simply pick from a tree, peel and eat. Leave the preparation to the professionals!
Traditionally, the saltfish used is Cod from the North Atlantic. That may sound strange to you that a National dish of a Caribbean Island has fish that comes from the North Atlantic but when you hear the story, it makes the food even more intriguing. Europeans discovered that they could preserve whitefish by salting them back in the 1700s and when the practice was introduced to Jamaica, it completely changed the dietary landscape. Cod was often traded with Jamaicans for their rum and fruits and over time, the combination of an African fruit, North Atlantic fish found its way together to become the dish that is foundational to the the Jamaican diet. Nowadays though, the fish used for this dish can vary from other whitefish that is low in oils.
What does it taste like?
The ripe ackee when prepared is boiled first and then can be pan fried and dressed the way the cook desires. The salted fish is a bit of process as it needs to be soaked for a while to wash out as much of the salt as possible. Then the two are combined and sauteed together and most commonly eaten with rice but I like mine complimented with rice and peas.
Some describe the taste and look of cooked ackee like scambled eggs and I would agree (kinda) that the texture does resemble it and I’ve even enjoyed a plate of eggs and salted fish which is a poor man’s version of the dish. The salted fish can be quite salty and would be quite difficult to eat a whole plate by itself. Hence the value of the compliments that go with it like ackee and rice which acts as a way to temper the intense flavour of the saltfish.
If you’re in Jamaica, or happen to find yourself in a Jamaican restaurant, don’t just go with the Jerk. Stretch out and give this delicious dish a try. It’s a food story that can connect you to a childhood favourite of Jamaicans.
Other Stuff to Try
There is still so much to discover and share but that is not the purpose of this blog. From hosting food tours and discovering that the vast majority of my guests have never had a Jamaican beef patty tells me that there is much for people to discover. Other things that I would highly recommend you dig into and discover:
This is a dish and not a plant as some mistaken. This is a plant leaf dish that is very common and popular in Jamaica. Please note that callaloo in Jamaica is not the same as the ones you may find in Trinidad or other West Indian countries. Jamaican’s traditionally use the leaves of the Amaranth plant where they sautee it with onions, garlic and even tomatoes. This is a compliment that is eaten with meals just like how many would have mashed potatoes with their steak. The flavour is deep and some describe it to be similar to collard greens when stewed. I love Jamaican callaloo and even like it with saltfish which is quite common but definitely a nice to have with your jerk meal too.
Jamaican Pepper Pot soup is a blend of callaloo, with okra, ground provisions (root vegetables) and optionally, you can add meat but the veggie option is equally delightful. I’ve also had this with coconut milk mixed in the soup and it gives it a nice mild sweet hint and makes it a bit more creamier.
A wonderful treat to have alongside any meal is to have “Festivals”. This mildly sweet deep fried bread is absolutely delicious and compliments the strong flavours of Jamaican cuisine. Best with jerk meats though…
I haven’t run into many Jamaican places that do not have Festivals to go with your meal so be sure to ask for one when the opportunity arises.
Scotch Bonnet Pepper:
The scotch bonnet pepper or aka: “bonney pepper” is the hot pepper of choice for Jamaicans and for someone who loves their food hot, this has got to be one of my most favourite peppers for its sheer flavour and heat. Be warned and don’t let the size fool you. These little devils pack a wicked punch. For those who like the heat, this popular pepper of Jamaica will definitely light a fire and bite twice… once going in and once going out. LOVE IT!
If you like soda pop and grapefruit, you will love Ting! I grew up drinking this and there is no better compliment to a Jamaican meal than an ice cold bottle of Ting. This drink can be easily identified by its name and green bottle (or can now) and it is a wonderful sweet and tart beverage that everyone should know and discover. Over the years, I have also discovered that they also have a “pink” grapefruit version which is equally good and when available, I will often choose the pink over the green. A must try!
Jamaican Blue Mountain Coffee
If you love coffee, I have to say that there has been very few cups of coffee that compares to the rich, smooth and deep deliciousness of Jamaica’s Blue Mountain Coffee. When I first had it back almost 20 years ago, it was expensive but nowadays, this is one of the most expensive coffees on the planet… and for good reason. Grown in the Blue Mountains of Jamaica has garnered quite a repuation over the years and has become the coffee of choice for Japan where the vast majority of its exports ends up on that island nation. I have several Jamaican friends and whenever I know they are heading for a visit, I always give them money to promise to bring back a kilo of the stuff for my own personal consumption. Keep an eye out for it and make no mistake, you will savour it right down to its very last drop.
Dig into it! All over the world, foods that have found their way to mainstream and staple often has a remarkable story that involves tastes and flavours from other parts of the planet. Jamaica and much of the West Indies is no different. From the times of the slave trade to incorporating foods from around the world with indigenous flavours, there is no shortage of some awesome eats, especially Jamaica. The country can brag about much: Sprinters, raggae (Bob Marley), Rastafarianism, rum but you cannot forget about the food. It’s a whole lot of yummy and if you explore, you will discover that Jamaican food is very suited for the vegan and vegetarian.
‘Till next time… Stay hungry my friends.
Jusep – The ChronicFoodie