Island Foodie

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Type of Post: 
Beyond New England
Destination: 
Kingston, Jamaica
Best of Show: 
everything with old friends
Palm in the Rain

It was a dark and stormy night...

I went to Jamaica for a weekend to attend the wedding of an old friend's daughter. I had never been to Jamaica (or anywhere in the Caribbean) and I had not seen Fitzroy in 21 years so I was ready for an adventure of the unknown!

That's a good thing because there was a tropical depression in the neighborhood that built into a hurricane while I was there; fortunately for the bride and the rest of us it passed to the north leaving Jamaica with only much-needed rain. 

Kingston Harbour

When I arrived at the Norman Manley International Airport in Kingston, Fitz picked me up and within minutes we were talking like we'd seen each other yesterday. As we made our way around the big harbor from the airport to the city, we got right back to the old business of solving the problems of the world.  

A gate into the Trenchtown housing project

Jamaica is a beautiful island, but Kingston is not a beautiful city. Attractive parks and fine buildings are surrounded by terrible poverty, like the infamous Trenchtown housing project that produced Bob Marley and other brilliant artists.  I posted an album of photos of the Trenchtown area over at my Facebook page.

I saw Trenchtown and some other part of the city on Saturday morning during a two-hour drive in a JUTA taxi attached to the Knutsford Court Hotel, where I was staying. I really wanted to see the Coronation Market, a big, busy open market downtown, but I could not get in there because my driver (Noel) said I would get lost and then he would not get paid. 

Pickled Pigs' Tails

I still wanted to explore the Jamaican foodways, so he took me to the John R. Wong market, a sort of Whole Foods in the comparatively upscale New Kingston part of town. There I found pickled pigs' tails, scores of tropical fruits, baskets of Scotch Bonnet peppers, Tang (remember the drink of astronauts?), and the nearly-extinct Old Tom style gin made locally by Wray & Nephew.

Ackee & Saltfish, Bammy, Calaloo, and GreenBanana

I actually did pretty well during my few meals there to hit the highlights of Jamaican cuisine. Here we have: 

  • Ackee & Saltfish on the far right
  • Bammy is the white stuff across the top and fer left
  • Steamed Calaloo is the leafy green in the middle 
  • Boiled Green Banana is the thing that looks like a sausage. 

This was a great little lunch but I would have been totally lost without help from Debra-Ann and Hugo, the bride and groom. Honestly, the whole foodie angle was in great peril without their expert and considerate attentions, for which I am very grateful!

On the night I arrived I had the celebrated Jerk Chicken with Festivals, but that photo came out too dark and many of us know what Jerk Chicken looks like. I'll see what I can do about the Festivals.

Braised Oxtail

Another classic Jamaican dish is the braised oxtail. This is similar to an Italian osso buco, slow-cooked rich meat with many flavors. Because it is rich, it responds well to the ubiquitous spicy Scotch Bonnet peppers. I had this at the Pegasus hotel, considered by many to be the best in Kingston.

When I asked for it spicy, the server provided me with an entire pepper (not the seeds) shredded on a side dish so I could add as much as I liked. That was a sensible way to do it, but I ended up eating it all. Now I am curious to try the peppers with that osso buco

Those Scotch Bonnet peppers are everywhere in Jamaican cooking, but not so common in New England markets. If you do decide to cook with them, wear gloves and wash your hands very well. Those peppers are merciless to the uninitiated!

Jamaican Blue Mountain Coffee

Of course Jamaica is known for its celebrated Blue Mountain Coffee. The soil, climate, and elevation combine to create a terroir that makes this coffee the favorite of many aficionados.

I was disappointed to learn that iced coffee is unknown on that tropical island. As far as I could tell, most Jamaicans drink the coffee black, but I could not claim anything more than casual observation to back that up. 

You can tour the coffee estates, but I did not have the time to do that because I was there only for the weekend and the wedding. I hope to return to Jamaica one day and tour the coffee estates and...

a rum cocktail

Jamaica is also known for rum. Port Royal, across the harbor from Kingston, was once "the wickedest city on Earth", a lawless pirate haven.

The rest of the island was dominated by sugar cane plantations, of which molasses is a byproduct. People learned to ferment the molasses to produce rum, and Jamaica has been famous for the stuff ever since. 

I noticed though that it is almost always consumed as a punch or with a soft drink, or neat. The cocktail culture of the US has not made it to Kingston, and many bars do not stock bitters and other essentials. I think the best bartenders are employed in the resorts at Montego Bay on the north side of the island.

Steam Fish

Between the wedding and the reception we were treated to another classic: Stamp-and-Go, an irregularly formed fishcake like our Yankee fishcakes, but made with wheat flour instead of mashed potato. I'll make those someday. 

Another classic Jamaican dish is Steam Fish. (I plan to have a Jamaican feast this winter, and I will post all these recipes at that time.)

I got to sample that at Strawberry Hill, an elegant and beautiful hotel-restaurant complex owned by Chris Blackwell, founder of Island Records. It sits high atop a hill overlooking Kingston and the harbor. The road up was steep and treacherous, with many blind turns. To make matters worse, it was raining. Fitzroy navigated it without plunging us down the mountainside, and the dinner was spectacular. 

Kingston at night from Strawberry Hill

In addition to the delicious food and the fine Blackwell rum (neat), we had a natural show. It was sundown, but rainy. The clouds in the west were pink and orange through the rain. The rain became a dramatic thunderstorm with lightning all around us and deafening thunder. By the time we finished eating, the storm had passed and the sky cleared, revealing the lights of Kingston far below. 

A Jamaican Chicken Patty

I had hit almost all the Jamaican classic foods, but for two: the Escobeitch Fish would have to wait for another time, but I was able to sample a Jamaican Patty filled with curried chicken at the airport as I was heading home. It was light and crispy, flavorful but not too spicy, and delicious. It made a fine farewell breakfast with more of that Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee!

I forgot one Jamaican treat!

I also had Stamp-and-Go, a fishcake now described above the bit about Steam Fish. I should have taken a photo, but by then I was thoroughly distracted by the beautiful bride and her dashing groom!

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