Burt Wolf's Table: Jamaica - #209

BURT WOLF:  Jamaica, the land of relaxation, romance, reggae, and really great food.  We'll discover a 300-year-old cooking technique that is becoming a hot food fad in the U.S.  Meet the Prince of Reggae, Ziggy Marley, discover some easy down-home Jamaican recipes and check out a fruit that could come to haunt you if you don't open it properly.  So join me in Jamaica at Burt Wolf's Table. 

BURT WOLF:  The first people to live on the island of Jamaica were members of the Arawak tribe who had sailed over in their canoes from South America.  They did that in the mid-600s.  They were a seafaring people, they made their homes along the shores and they lived off seafood, roots and fruits.  Because Jamaica actually came out of the sea in a giant volcanic eruption, everything that grows on this island was brought here either by human travelers or dropped off by birds.  After the Arawaks, the Caribes came in.  Then the Europeans.  First the Spanish, then the English.  Europeans brought in the Africans.  There were also large immigrations of Arabic communities, Chinese and East Indians.  The national motto is "Out of Many, One People."  True, one people, but many pots.  Each of these ethnic groups arrived on the island, took their traditional recipes and adapted them to the local foods.  And there are some foods that are traditionally Jamaican.  Probably the most famous is Ackee.  Ackee is a fruit, red on the outside and yellow on the inside.  It has three large black seeds set between the yellow meat.  The meat of the Ackee is used to make the national Sunday morning breakfast dish, Ackee and Salt Fish.  The Ackee tastes a little like well-done scrambled eggs.  Ackee can only be eaten after the skin opens by itself and it's cooked.  When an Ackee is closed, and you can't clearly see the black seeds, it's poisonous.  There's also a Jamaican fruit called an Otaheite.  It looks like a pear and tastes like an apple.  It got its name because the first European to see it, looked at it and said, “Oh, Tahiti is where I saw a fruit just like that.”  And so everybody calls it an Otaheite.  I got that story from one of the leading authorities on Jamaica history.  I did not make it up. 

But you can make up a pot of Blue Mountain coffee.  The beans come from a small area in the Jamaican Mountains and are often thought to be the finest on the planet.  There is, however, a rather limited supply of authentic Blue Mountain coffee and last I heard, most of it was going to Japan, which is rapidly becoming a nation of coffee drinkers.  Another Jamaican specialty is the ortanique; it's a cross between an orange and a tangerine and it was developed by a local grower.

One of my favorite Jamaican specialties is called the jackfruit.  I was told that it's very important when you're picking one out to have the seller cut it open for you.  Otherwise, a Duppy Ghost will follow you home.  And if you're going home in a car or on a bicycle, the Duppy Ghost will give you a flat tire.  It's an interesting custom because the only way that you can tell if a jackfruit is ripe is to cut it open.  The superstition forces the seller to do the right thing. 

Jamaica is also well-known for its excellent bananas.  Some historians believe that the banana may have been the first fruit cultivated by man.  Though in reality it was more likely cultivated by a woman.  During the earliest times in our history, it was the lady of the cave that did the cultivation.  The banana is actually a giant berry that grows on a giant herb.  The banana starts out as a large purple bud.  As the bud develops, it opens up to reveal rows of tiny fingers.  Each of these fingers grows into a banana.  The fingers are clustered together into hands.  Several hands make a bunch.  Only one bunch grows on each plant during an entire year.  Side shoots are cultivated for next year's crop.  They're called daughters and granddaughters.  The banana is one of the most nutritious foods available.  It's low in sodium and low in fat with only about 100 calories in each.  It contains vitamin A, C and B6, iron and potassium.  These days, a number of medical authorities are suggesting that we increase our intake of potassium as part of an anti-high blood pressure diet.  Bananas are a good way to do that.

Jamaica also has a special relationship with the pineapple.  When a new food arrives on the shores of the foreign country, it usually takes many years before that food becomes a regular part of the local diet.  Often 200 or 300 years will pass before it becomes a basic food.  An outstanding exception to that rule is the pineapple.  Pineapples have grown wild in South American and the Caribbean for thousands of years.  The first Europeans to see a pineapple were the men who sailed here to Jamaica with Christopher Columbus on his second voyage.  They saw it, tasted it, loved it and brought it with them.  New World explorers would take pineapples aboard their boats to feed the sailors.  Pineapples are high in vitamin C and that protected the crews from scurvy.

When sailors would arrive in a new land, they would plant the pineapple crown to see if it would grow.  If it did, then they'd put down a crop in the hope that on some future voyage, they'd be able to return to that spot and the pineapples would be available to them.  Within fifty years, pineapples were growing in every major tropical area on the planet from Jamaica to Java.  The pineapple is a symbol of hospitality, especially here on the island of Jamaica.  It shows up on the country's coat of arms and there's a pineapple watermark on Jamaican money.  Interesting currency.  A source of funds and a shopping reminder all rolled into one.

Now, whether you're eating in a particular neighborhood or a particular nation, what you eat in that place is always the result of its economic and political history.  There are two keys to the contemporary cooking in Jamaica.  One is the wars that took place during the 1600s and 1700s between the European colonial powers, and the second is the introduction of the African people.  In the middle of the 1600s an English fleet attacked the Spanish colony on Jamaica.  The Spanish felt that they could not defend their position and withdrew to the safety of Cuba.  As they were leaving Jamaica, they freed and them armed their slaves.  The plan was to have these freed men wage guerilla war against the English until the Spanish could return with more troops.

Well, the Spanish never returned, but the freed slaves became such a powerful military force that eventually they were given a form of self- government.  The group was called the Maroons and even today they represent a distinct cultural group on the island of Jamaica.  For hundreds of years, the Maroons lived up in the mountains and harassed the British troops.  When they took a break from that, which wasn't very often, they'd go out hunting wild boar.  Some of the boar was cooked and eaten right on the spot where it was found.  But most of the boar was preserved in a secret recipe of hot spices and cooked between the battles.  Well, that recipe and that cooking technique eventually evolved into what today we call Jerk Pork.

As you drive along the roads of Jamaica, you are regularly confronted with the rich, pungent odor of outdoor cooking.  They're like patches of aromatic fog that have settled on the highway.  After a while, you realize that what you are smelling is a nearby jerk hut, a complex of simple shacks that form a gastronomic necklace around the island.  The central structure will be a circular counter with seats around the outside.  Nearby will be another building with the seasoning tables and the cooking pits.  Pork, chicken, fish and sausages are the usual menu.  The food is covered with a seasoning mixture and left to marinate.  Each Jerk chef believes that his or her seasoning is the best and keeps the recipe as a family secret.

The quantities vary from chef to chef but the basic ingredients in the seasoning is usually pretty much the same.  Nutmeg, thyme, hot peppers, scallions and onions and allspice.  While the meat marinates, a pit dug into the earth is lined with the wood of an allspice tree and set aflame.  When the wood is burned down to a bed of hot coals, the meat is put onto a grill about a foot and a half above the coals.  The meat is protected from the direct heat by aluminum foil.  As a result, the food is really cooked by the hot smoke.  Sheets of zinc roofing go on top to help contain the smoke.  At the end of the cooking time, which runs about thirty minutes for a whole fish, and 3 to 6 hours for large pieces of pork, the roofing is taken off and the meat receives some of the direct heat in order to give it a crisp outside surface.  Moist on the inside, crisp on the outside and great flavor.

The Jerk is always served with things that are bland or sweet in order to cut down on the impact of the spice.  Most often it's a sweet donut-like dough called “festival.”  There are always a few bottles of a local soft-drink type of grapefruit soda known as Ting.  But where did this word “Jerk” come from?  Well, some people feel it's a description of the constant turning or jerking around of the boar while it's cooking.  Other people think that it's a word used to describe the pulling apart or jerking apart of the pork just before it's served.  A third group thinks it's just a word that grew up to describe only the sauce.  I personally feel that it is the perfect word to describe what I would feel like if I came to Jamaica and didn't have some to eat.

The Enchanted Garden is a resort in the Ocho Rios area of the island of Jamaica.  It's set on twenty acres of tropical garden.  The structures are so cleverly placed that you can barely see them.  Twelve magnificent waterfalls run through the Enchanted Garden property and their gentle sound lulls you into a state of relaxation.

The objective of the management is to produce an environment that refreshes the soul.  A place to recharge and rejuvenate.  One of the things they did to achieve that was to set up a system where all the food and drink is included in the cost of the day.  From fruit punch in the pool, to the five-course dinners in the dining room.  You can eat what you want when you want.  And that can have a rather positive effect on your diet.  Instead of eating two or three very large meals, you end up with five or six smaller meals.  You spread them out throughout the day and you eat many more different foods.  Scientists are telling us that that is healthier for us and of course it makes perfectly good sense.  Throughout most of our history, we hunted and gathered our food.  That meant little bits throughout the day.  Find it, eat it.  Only when we moved to a more industrialized society did we develop our breakfast, lunch, and dinner mentality.  Great for industry, not so good for individuals.  You're better off spreading the food out throughout the day.  A piece of advice I think I'm going to take right now and spread out for a bowl of pumpkin soup. 

Enchanted Garden chef Patrick Rogers starts by cutting the rind off of a fresh pumpkin.  And he cuts the pumpkin meat into cubes.  If fresh pumpkin isn't available, you can use canned pumpkin or any fresh squash that you like.  Peel a large potato, cut it up into small chunks, then put the pumpkin and the potato into a pot of simmering chicken stock.  The recipe calls for equal amounts of pumpkin and potato and enough chicken stock to fully cover them in the pan. 

Pumpkin is a squash with a bright orange color and that orange color tells us that it contains beta carotene.  Beta carotene is a material that our bodies turn into Vitamin A.  And scientists are finding out that it's very important to our health.  It looks like it's a cancer blocker so the more fruits and vegetables that we get into our diets that have a bright orange color, the better off we are.

Next, we pop in a minced onion, a few cloves of minced garlic, a little thyme, and a bay leaf.  This is a local Jamaican chile pepper called the Scotch Bonnet and it has about the same heat as the surface of the sun. 

CHEF ROGERS:  That’s right.  And don’t cut it when you put it into the soup; you've got to put it in whole because it's got lots of power.

WOLF:  Put it in the soup whole?

MAN:  Right.

WOLF:  I can do that.

The Scotch Bonnet or Jalapeno goes into the pot and everything simmers for twenty minutes.  Then the bay leaf comes out.  That's very important.  The spine in the leaf is like a fish bone.  You don't want to get it caught in your throat.  The peppers come out.  The soup goes into a blender, then back into the sauce pan to heat up for a moment.  Finally, two ounces of buttermilk made from skim milk. 

What I love about this soup is it has a rich, creamy texture, but it is almost fat-free. 

Into a serving bowl with a garnish of fresh coriander and it's ready to go.

And to follow the pumpkin soup, the chef has a recipe for Jamaican chicken. 

Two tablespoons of vegetable oil go into a pan to heat up.  A mixture is made from a tablespoon each of cumin, turmeric, and coriander.  Also a stick of cinnamon.  The seasoning mixture goes into the hot oil.  The technique of heating dried seasonings in a little oil before adding them to a recipe is an old Indian method of increasing the flavor of the spices and it works well.  That cooks together over a very low flame for a minute.  Then in goes a cup of chicken stock.  That's brought to a boil and boiled for a minute.  An ounce of coconut milk goes in.  A clove of garlic is minced and added, plus some minced ginger, salt and pepper.  Chicken breasts with all of the fat and skin removed are given a light coating of oil to keep them from sticking to the pan.  Salt and pepper.  A little oil into the pan, in goes the chicken, thirty seconds of cooking on the first side, a gentle turn, and three minutes on the second side.  The chicken goes on to a serving plate, the sauce, some rice and peas and it's complete.

For centuries, the public art of Jamaica was an imitation of the art of Europe and Great Britain.  The classic woodcuts, etchings and paintings.  Representation of a significant event.  The local landscape.  Portraits of important people.  But after 400 years of suppression, on the walls of the buildings in one of the most economically depressed parts of Kingston, Jamaican art began to burst out.  The 1930's marked an incredible period.  In poetry, in literature, in music, in art, in sculpture.  Jamaica began to find its own voice.

In the Tivoli Garden district of Kingston, local artists began covering the walls of the buildings with wonderful, bright paintings of Jamaican life.  The tradition is called Yard Art and it is packed with powerful images for the community.  The Yard Artists evolved into a group of very talented painters.  They have a down-home, realistic vision of their country and they present their pictures with great honesty.

Just to the east of White River, along Jamaica's north shore, you will find Harmony Hall, a plantation great house built in 1886.  Today it is a restaurant downstairs and a gallery for artists upstairs.  Jamaicans love their local artists and turn out for their presentations.  They talk, they look and they buy.  Supporting your local artist and craftsman is important. 

The party that's taking place here is for Jonathan Routh.  He's an Englishman who spends half of each year in Jamaica.  There's a slightly wacky vision of food and his most recent paintings are fixated on fried eggs.  There is "The Day It Rained Fried Eggs on Port Antonio."  "Queen Victoria, Present At The Return of Jamaica's Great Fried Egg".  “A Simple Ocho Rios Egg Herder Minding His Flock."  Here's "Christopher Columbus Taking His Pet Fried Egg For A Walk On The Beach In Jamaica."  And "Ladies Washing And Ironing Fried Eggs on Jamaica's White River."

JONATHAN ROUTH:  If somebody would come along and explain uh, to me that it's absolutely wrong to paint eggs or “you're doing well, boy, paint the eggs,” uh, I'd love to hear what it’s all about.  Somebody got very near it the other day.  They said that “I’m no good at painting people, am I?”   And I said no, I don't know how to paint people.  I'm a sort of self-taught artist.  I cannot paint you, I cannot paint a nude ... a reclining nude.  And they said “ah ha, ah ha.  The egg is a reclining figure.  It is your substitution to being unable to paint a reclining nude.”  And I said really?  You mean hundreds of them at a time?  And um, because normally there are, at the minimum, nine eggs in any of my egg paintings.

BURT WOLF:  You focused on fried eggs as opposed to all of the other cooking forms you could have chosen.  Why was that?

MAN:  I think it's best for a beginner before you go on to something sophisticated like a scrambled egg.  A scrambled egg now ... to paint a scrambled egg is madness.  I don't think anybody's done it.  Ever. 

WOLF:  How many egg paintings did you do?

MAN:  I must have done ... I have no clue.  Let's say 100 just for the sake.  But one of them uh ... has got something like 5,000 eggs in it.  It's a tiny, tiny, tiny.  It's the one of eggs falling over on a place called Port Antonio here in Jamaica.

WOLF:  Have there been other foods that have inspired your paintings? 

MAN:  Yeah, pasta.  Pasta quite a bit.  I like the idea of pasta coming down great hills and engulfing villages and ... nobody gets hurt, mind you, but they just stay to eat it.

WOLF:  I find paintings like these extremely informative.  Not only are they interesting works of art, they suggest what's for lunch or dinner.

Chef Raymond Duthie at the Enchanted Garden must have been looking at these paintings.  He's preparing a roast loin with pasta. 

Pork loins are seasoned with salt and pepper and sauteed in a little vegetable oil for about two minutes on each side.  Turn them as they cook.  You want to get a nice brown surface all over.  Then cover and cook for about five minutes.  While the pork is cooking, some fresh ginger is peeled and sliced and minced.  Some scallions are cut up into small pieces, the pork loins come out of the pan, the excess grease is poured off, the ginger goes in.  The scallions, a tablespoon of white vinegar, and an optional ounce of white wine.  It boils down for a few minutes until you have about a tablespoon or so of liquid with a highly concentrated flavor.  And a pint of beef broth goes in.  Three tablespoons of honey, and a half cup of minced carrots.  Ten more minutes of boiling and the sauce is thick and ready.  The pork is sliced, fanned out on the serving plate, pasta in the center, sauce on top of the pork, and a green onion garnish. 

More than anything else, what makes Jamaican food Jamaican is the use of certain spices and chili peppers.  The most notable spice on Jamaica is all-spice.

When most people first see a jar marked allspice, they think it's filled with lots of different spices.  Not so.  Allspice is actually the hard, small, round berry of the pimento tree.  Pimento trees got their start in South America and the Caribbean and they grow particularly well here on the island of Jamaica.  When European colonists first saw the pimento tree, they took one whiff of it and decided that it smelled like cinnamon cloves, nutmeg and pepper, all rolled into one.  And so they called it allspice. 

Jamaicans use it in pies, cakes and cookies, but it's also a basic flavoring agent for pork and chicken dishes. 

When it comes to chili peppers, the superstar in Jamaica is the Scotch Bonnet.  It's actually the most popular chili in the Caribbean.  If you're handling hot chilis and you have sensitive skin, use a kitchen glove and don't put your hands near your eyes or your face until after you've washed them very carefully.  Chilis are hot stuff.  And from a nutritional point of view, so is the Jamaican favorite, peas and rice.

We don't call them peas in the United States.  We'd actually call them beans.  But whatever you call them, this is a great dish.

Half an onion is minced, then a green onion is sliced, little thyme, little garlic, and a hot pepper.  Jalapeno will do fine.  All that goes into a saucepan with four cups of boiling water.  A cup of beans go in, and a little vegetable oil.

Beans are actually the seeds of plants in the legume family.  And there are a couple of dozen varieties that have been growing all over the world for thousands and thousands of years.  They're a great source of iron and the B vitamins and they are packed with dietary fiber. 

Everything simmers together for forty-five minutes at which point two ounces of coconut milk are added in.  If you can't make coconut milk, or find a coconut milk or cream in your market, just go right on.  The dish will still taste great. 

Next a cup of uncooked rice is added and some freshly ground black pepper.  That simmers for twenty minutes.  The pepper comes out and it's ready to serve.

Nutritionists at the American Dietetic Association are telling us that we should get more beans into our diet.  They're packed with valuable nutrients and very low in fat.  If you're picking out beans in the market, try and get the ones that are raw, uncooked.  They have many more nutrients than those that are canned or frozen.  And it's really very easy to cook beans. 

Sort through the beans and make sure that no pebbles or twigs have come along from the harvest.  Place the beans in a large pot and cover them with water.  The water should come up at least two inches above the beans.  Bring the water to a boil, cover and cook for two minutes.  Then uncover and let the beans soak for an hour.  This is a much better system than letting the beans soak overnight.  With this method, you preserve many more of the valuable nutrients.

Next, you drain off the old water, cover the beans with fresh water and let them simmer for thirty-five minutes or until their tender and that's it.  Put those beans together with whole grain brown rice and you will have a nutritional package that has the same quality protein as you would find in meat, fish or poultry. 

BURT WOLF:  Reggae is the music of Jamaica, and these days one of the international stars of reggae is Ziggy Marley. 

He's very serious about what he eats and has been a vegetarian for a number of years.  To keep up his carbo power I thought that a suitable follow-up recipe would be a local specialty called Rasta Pasta. 

A little vegetable oil goes into a saute pan to heat up.  Add a clove of minced garlic.  That cooks for a minute and in goes a sliced onion.  A few more minutes of cooking and here come the ingredients that make the pasta Rasta.  These are peppers in the colors of the Rasta flag:  green, red and yellow.  Various local and imported herbs and seasonings are added according to your taste.  We used oregano, basil and tabasco.  Curly pasta is cooked, drained and added to the pan.  Curly pasta is very important.  It's a reference to the dreadlocks of the Rastas.  Tomato sauce goes into a serving dish and the pasta on top. 

BURT WOLF:  Ziggy did say he was allowing a little seafood into his generally vegetarian diet; in response to which I'd like to suggest this shrimp dish. 

A little vegetable oil goes into a pan to heat up.  Then a pound of shrimp with the shells off.  A little pepper, cook the shrimp for about two minutes, turning them as they cook.  When they're pink, take them out to a holding dish.  Then the shells that you took off the shrimp go into the pan.  Plus a chopped onion, a few cloves of minced garlic and a cup of sliced celery.  Time for some thyme, a bay leaf, a few tablespoons of tomato paste, a half cup of white wine and two cups of fish stock or just plain water.  All that simmers together for twenty minutes.  At that point, the sauce is strained.  It goes back into the pan and is joined by a series of bite-sized vegetables.  Potatoes, carrots and yams.  Add the shrimp.  Stir the sauce up to cover everything, let the mixture reheat, then onto a serving plate, garnish of tomato strips and a sprinkling of fresh parsley.

The people on this island are very friendly.  They have a great sense of humor and they've developed their own national cuisine that tastes great.  Please join us next time as we travel around the world looking for foods that taste good and are good for you too.  I'm Burt Wolf.