Flavors of Jamaica
Flavors of Jamaica
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Jamaica's history is told by the food Jamaican's eat!
Rich and spicy as the pepperpot soup that originated with the Taino Indians, Jamaican cooking is a culinary melting pot that combines a hint of Spanish, a dash of English and a heaping teaspoon of Indian and Chinese with a cup or two of African ingredients to serve up the Caribbean's most creative cuisine.

Jamaica's history is told by the food Jamaicans eat. The cassava the Arawaks grew is used today as "bammie," a toasted flat cake eaten with fried fish. The Maroons, always on the run, devised a way of spicing and slow cooking pork that they called "jerking", today's visitor tastes jerk chicken and fish as well. To feed the slaves cheaply and well, the ackee fruit was brought from Africa, as were breadfruit and a variety of yams and root vegetables.

The Africans carried their own culinary secrets with them, including duckunoo, a steamed pudding made of green bananas and coconut. Breadfruit arrived on the island courtesy of Captain William Bligh, of Bounty fame. And the ubiquitous meat patties sold by roadside vendors are a direct, but much spicier, descendent of English meat pasties. Curried goat, a popular island dish often served with rice and peas, dates to 1845 when -- following the abolition of slavery -- plantation owners began importing indentured laborers from India and later China; the new arrivals quickly added their own contributions, including curry and other spices, to the island's expanding palette of exotic flavors.

In addition to indigenous vegetables like cho-cho, which tastes a little like squash, and callaloo, which is similar to spinach and used in pepperpot soup, Jamaica's lively markets are piled high with bananas, coconuts and pineapples, as well as the more exotic guineps, pawpaws, sweetsops -- and the star apple that, when mixed with oranges and condensed milk, makes a delicious dessert called "matrimony."

The native pimento tree, the source of allspice, adds itself to numerous Jamaican dishes. So do ginger, garlic, nutmeg and Scotch Bonnet peppers, considered the hottest on earth. These may or not be a key ingredient of the island's famous Pickapeppa Sauce -- the recipe is a closely guarded secret -- but they're essential when it comes to making the mouth-searing jerked pork, chicken and fish for which Jamaica is equally famous.

A technique thought to originate with the Maroons, descendents of slaves who escaped from their Spanish masters to the island's most remote mountain areas, "jerked" meat is marinated for hours in an incendiary mixture of peppers, pimento seeds, scallion, thyme and nutmeg, then cooked over an outdoor pit lined with pimento wood. The low heat allows the meat to cook slowly, so it loses little of its natural juices while becoming saturated with the flavor of the wood.

Jerk stands can be found all over the island. Rastafarian I-tal, or vegetarian, meals abound in Negril. In the Middle Quarters area of the South Coast, dried peppered shrimp are sold by the bag. Delicacies like Stamp and Go (saltfish cakes eaten as appetizers) and mackerel Run-Down (whole salted mackerel simmered in coconut milk, tomatoes, onions, scallions, thyme and hot peppers, and served with boiled green bananas or yams) can be enjoyed island-wide.

100% Jamaican Coffee
Majestic peaks enshrouded in shadowy mist is an appropriate description of the Blue Mountains. Waterfalls spring from the rock along the roadside and hills are covered with farms, jungle, or masses ginger or hydrangea. The world famous Blue Mountain Coffee also originates here.

The coffee industry on this Caribbean island began in 1725 when its governor brought seedlings from Martinique and planted them on his estate. About 60,000 Jamaican farmers now grow coffee, some producing as little as five pounds of green beans each year.

Mountains cover four-fifths of the country, with the Blue Mountains, in the east, reaching a height of 7,400 feet. Coffee is planted on terraces on the mountains' slopes, 1,500 to 5,000 feet above sea level, and is often shaded by avocado and banana trees. Harvesting of the crop--which is all arabica coffee--occurs in August and September.

Illustration: Ackee Soup (top); Sloppy Joes (above); drawing by Shan Kelly Cecilio called Ackee and Roti.

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