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Jamaica Fi Real

FULL TITLE: JAMAICA FFI REAL – Beauty, Vibes and Culture

PRICE: Paperback US$30.00; Hardback US45.00


Beautiful; aggressive; exuberant, talkative; humorous; resourceful; unpredictable – Jamaica brings many adjectives to mind, but boring is not one of them. No other country so young and so small has had such global cultural influence as the land of Marcus Garvey, Louis Bennett, Bob Marley and Usain Bolt. Jamaica Fi Real ponders this present in the context of the past, and highlights the threads of continuity. Here is today’s Jamaica from a Jamaican point of view, giving an in-depth look at its people, history, music, sports, religion and culture. It’s the good, bad, ugly and pretty – a vivid twenty-first century portrait of perhaps the world’s most fascinating island.

Lavishly illustrated with over 200 images featuring places to go, foods to eat, religious practices and cultural and historical icons, no other book on or about Jamaica provides such an in-depth, honest and creative representation of Jamaica than Jamaica Fi Real. It will appeal to the Jamaican Diaspora, persons wanting to visit Jamaica, and persons generally interested in Jamaican history, culture and lifestyle.


Kevin O’Brien Chang is the author of Reggae Routes: The Story of Jamaican Music. He is columnist with the Jamaica Gleaner for over ten years.

Excerpt from Jamaica Fi Real: Beauty, Vibes and Culture
Food: A Little Bit From Everywhere

Full-bodied, bold and sassy, there has never been anything shy about Jamaica, or its food. Our passion shows in the sizzle of our sauces, the exhilarating aroma of Blue Mountain coffee, the voluptuous succulence of mangoes, and the knee-buckling potency of our rum. Not to mention scorching scotch bonnet pepper, intoxicating ginger root and titillating pimento (all spice).

Our cuisine is as distinctive as our culture. Practically all corners of the globe, including Africa, South East Asia, India, Canada, Spain, Brazil, and Britain, have contributed their little bit to pleasing the local palate. The end results are the delicious birthrights of the Jamaican belly: ackee and salt fish, curry goat, curry chicken, stew pork, tripe and beans, oxtail and beans, stew peas, mackerel rundown, escoveitch fish, jerk chicken, jerk pork, liver and onions, calalloo and salt fish, cabbage and salt fish, okra and salt fish, cornmeal porridge, peanut porridge, plantain porridge, banana porridge, hominy corn porridge, fried plantain, patties, coco bread, plantain tart, gungo or kidney bean rice and peas, mannish water, cow cod soup, pepperpot soup, red peas soup, pumpkin soup, fish tea, stamp and go, johnny cake, toto, gizzada, grater cake, plantain tart, blue drawers and tie leaf, festival, bammy, seasoned rice, turn cornmeal, sorrel, ginger beer, soursop juice, coconut water, busta, asham, jackass corn – and a whole lot more.
In its typically intrepid style, the island has wed ackee (though feared by others in the Caribbean), to salt fish (codfish) as the national dish. While Haitians who practise voodoo are awed that the bitter-tasting susumber (gully beans) they use in their ceremonies, are devoured by Jamaicans.
Lately the world has been smitten by jerk, the process of slowly cooking highly seasoned meats and vegetables over pimento wood. Jerk has become such an international hot commodity, that not long ago British celebrity chef Ainsley Harriott told BBC viewers to make jerk one of the 50 things they eat before they die.
Restaurateurs in foreign lands like Guatemala and India, who would be hard-pressed to tell a pimento from a peppercorn, are now luring patrons with the promise of jerk dishes to make the taste buds sing. Yet jerk, say those who know, is only jerk when it uses authentic Jamaican grown fresh ginger, thyme, scallions, scotch bonnet and pimento wood.

The Birth of Jerk

The name jerk derives from charqui, the Spanish version of the Quechua word charki, meaning dried meat. Legend says jerk evolved from Maroon earth ovens and Taino wood stick barbeques – barabicu means ‘sacred fire pit’ in Taino. Some speculate that the runaway male slaves who became Maroons interbred to some extent with Taino women, leading to fusion cuisine and otherwise.
In her book Eat Caribbean, Virginia Burke plausibly theorises that the Maroons’ mobile guerrilla warfare required portable, non-spoilable food, and spicy jerk seasoning was their method of curing the meat of wild boars. Since smoke was a giveaway to pursuing British soldiers, cooking fires had to be covered. (Intriguingly, she says friends from Ghana claim the roots of jerk can be found there – and of course the original Maroons were Coromantees, who came from what is the present day Kromantse in Ghana).
After Emancipation, Maroons would go to rural markets and carry with them portions of ‘jerk pork’, sold from specially constructed pouches called intetehs, woven from palm leaves, but for a long time jerk remained a Maroon secret. It was only about 50 years ago that a version of jerk recipe came out of the mountains, and started to be prepared openly. This first happened in the lowland Portland hills below Maroon Town. As late as 1977, according to Kenneth Bilby, only two places outside Maroon communities sold jerk pork – Boston Bay and a spot across from the Port Antonio market. Colonel C.L.G. Harris says the proliferation of jerk stands across the island started when Maroons began to live outside the settlements.
Virginia Burke points out that the development of bottled seasoning such as Walkerswood, a by-product of very early government sponsored research in Portland, has revolutionised jerk’s access and appeal. Once jerk seasoning was available in a jar, everyone could make some version in the kitchen, leading to a quantum leap in the development of cuisine using jerk.

Ackee and Salt Fish

Jamaicans love their belly, but a plateful of ackee and salt fish, with boiled bananas, fried dumplings, roast breadfruit, and an enamel mug of steaming Jamaican chocolate tea, positively sends them to heaven. Ackee paired with salt fish may be permanently embedded in the Jamaican psyche, but creative cooks are doing their best to pry the two apart, wooing customers with tantalising new offerings like ackee ice cream; ackee pizza; ackee quiche; curried ackee soup; peppers, breadfruit and chicken stuffed with ackee; and even ackee punch.

Ackee is originally from West Africa, but only the bold Jamaicans have taken to eating the ripe yellow flesh, which is said to look like scrambled eggs when cooked. Due to its high levels of toxin hypoglycin when unripe, the ackee fruit pod must naturally split along the seams before it can be safely eaten.

Traditional Favourites

Good old-fashioned Jamaican dishes are rich in coconut milk, heavy on stick-to-your-ribs ground provisions, and come unapologetically laden with calories and warm memories. Beyond jerk and ackee there are salacious goodies like mackerel rundown, otherwise called dip and fall back, oozing with coconut milk and spiced with onion, thyme and other seasonings.
One of the island’s most famous soups, pepperpot, dates back to the Tainos. It is often made with callaloo, okra, kale, pig’s tail (or salt beef), coconut meat, yams, scallions, and hot peppers. Versions of this soup are also found in other Caribbean islands.
Then there is the sweet delight of cornmeal and sweet potato puddings. Done the old-fashioned way, usually on Saturday nights for Sunday dinner, the pudding was baked in a puddin’ pan on a coal stove with burning coal on top and underneath. Hence the phrase ‘hell a top, hell a bottom, halleluiah inna middle’.
Holidays bring their own scrumptious traditions. Baking black cake, a throwback to the British plum pudding, is a solemnly observed annual ritual. Serious bakers soak their fruits in rum for months or even a year. The cake is made just before Christmas, and is doled out at Christmas dinner and to visitors in thin slices, to stretch it through the season. Of course the great Jamaican Christmas drink is sorrel.

Easter is bun time, with everyone having a favourite brand among the huge variety available in supermarkets. For some Jamaicans abroad, Easter without bun and cheese is like Sunday without rice and peas, so many have relatives at home ship the baked goodies to them by post or courier. Easter bun derives from the English tradition of Hot Cross Buns at Good Friday. They are still eaten at Easter time in England, and some Yorkshire buns are even today indistinguishable from the local variety.
Jamaica’s most well-known bread is the dense white variety called hardough, whose origin is unknown, but possibly Cuban. The dough break machine, important in its achieving the right texture, is utilised only in Jamaica, Cuba and Haiti. Norma Benghiat says that on a 1986 visit to Andalusia in Spain, she encountered bread identical to hardough, but made into rolls instead of loaves.
Now traditionalists may grumble, but fast food places like KFC and Burger King are massively popular with Jamaicans. Some even joke that Kentucky fried chicken is the new national dish! Yet dabble as they might with foreign fare, Jamaicans are never going to give up their yard food. After all, where would our Olympic gold medalists be without their regular performance enhancing doses of yam, banana, sweet potato and dasheen?

Places to Eat

Kingston and the Corporate Area

Sure there are fancy restaurants in Kingston and in swanky resorts along the north coast and Negril. However, to ‘taste the hand’ of Jamaica, it’s best to follow the trail of locals who can point the way to the best fried dumpling shop, pudding stop and porridge place.

Porridge-loving Kingstonians flock to Juicy Black in Maverley, just above Washington Boulevard and Molynes Road. On Sundays, cars line both side of the streets for his blend of cream of wheat and peanuts and hominy corn. Norma on Whitehall Avenue serves cheap, down home meals. While Rotty, described by cookbook author Rosemary Parkinson as the ‘king of cookshops,’ serves up traditional Jamaican fare from his cramped outpost in Stony Hill, north of the city.

Under the huge billboards, on the south east side of the Cross Roads square, Fatty (Curline Pitter) serves up heapings of boiled bananas, dumplings, brown stew chicken, callaloo and porridge while most of the city slumbers. Exotic dancers, entertainers and partygoers on their way home, or workers on the early shift, know they can get a hearty breakfast at Fatty’s from as early as 3:30 a.m. When the barmaid is on time, regulars get into the spirit of things before the break of dawn.
Great pan chicken and pork can be found at the corner of Northside Plaza on Old Hope Road, on Red Hills Road, and on Mannings Hill Road. The Habour View roundabout has seafood on the go, with fish, oysters, mussles, crab, conch, lobster and shrimp all available at reasonable prices. For delicious seafood in a relaxing on the waterfront atmosphere, Port Royal is the place to be. The once ‘wickedest city’ is known for places like Gloria’s, Y-Knot and Fisherman’s Cabin, where you can get any edible sea creature cooked in whatever style you want.

For a kick to the mojo, there’s harry Joseph and Sons health Juice Centre on Grove Road. In this little corner, a stone’s throw away from the buzzing Half Way Tree square, Harry (real name Morgan) packs a powerful punch with his ‘Magnum’ drink. Old-timers and dancehall DJs say a single shot of Magnum’ levels the playing field of love. Other roots drinks on Harry’s long list include ‘Front-end Lifter’ and ‘Summer’.

Along the North Coast

A well-known roadside eatery in Lucea, Hanover is Tapa Top Food Hut and Bar, whose hardy cookshop provisions includes cow foot and brown stew pork. A good ital breakfast can be purchased from the Rasta on the corner the Montego Bay Bus Park.
Just Cool on the roadside in Priory, St Ann (between St Ann’s Bay and Runaway Bay), is the hot spot for sweet potato pudding. On any given day there are up to 25 puddings baking on the coal stoves, says owner Edgar Wallace. Not far away, in Salem, Runaway Bay, the Ackee Tree’s Irish Moss provides a smooth, rich pick-me-upper. Midway between Kingston and Ocho Rios is the Faith’s Pen collection of food shops that serve a very wide variety of popular Jamaican dishes.

Over in Portland, Dickie’s Best Kept Secret is housed in a blue hut with yellow trimming, but don’t look for a sign – there is none. This little restaurant, hanging over a cliff, coming from the St Mary side towards Port Antonio, serves up a robust Jamaican breakfast of fresh fruits, hardough bread, ackee, eggs and steaming tea sweetened with honey.
Closer to Port Antonio, just past the Blue Lagoon, the rich and famous quietly slip into Woody’s Low Bridge Place for fish cake and fritters (stamp and go). Taxi drivers and those in the know make the trek up to the hills above the town for a late night snack at Jah T.

Along the South Coast

Sunday mornings find many Kingstonians driving to Hellshire beach in St Catherine to kick back and feast on fish, festival and bammy. Heading west, if it is mango time, you will see the mango vendors of Toll Gate, who have every variety available from East Indian to Julie to Bombay to Tommy Atkin. Just past the Clarendon–Manchester border, you encounter the fruit vendors of Porus, famous for ortaniques, tangerines, navel oranges, bananas, pineapples, papayas, star apples, naseberries, sweet sops and sour sops. Nearby Mandeville, the smoky huts of Melrose yam park beckon to passersby, where vendors boast that they sell the best roast yam and salt fish anywhere.

In Mandeville the excellent Bloomfield Great House Restaurant has a lovely view and very tasty food at reasonable prices. A nice excursion is lunch at Bloomfield, followed by a drive through the scenic Mile Gully and Devon region, and evening tea at the quaint Villa Bella Hotel in cool Christiana.

West of Manchester past Holland Bamboo in St Elizabeth, a row of pots bubble under the zinc roofs at Howie’s, starting with porridges in the mornings, and continuing through the day with hearty fare like peanut soup and fish tea. A little further on is Middle Quarters, famous for its peppered shrimps, with Billy’s Grassy Park serving some of the best. Located 14 miles out at sea off the coast of Parottee is Floyd’s Pelican Bar. Owner, Floyd Peck, says he was instructed in a dream to build his establishment in the sea. The collection of shacks at Scott’s Cove Park near ‘Border’ between St Elizabeth and Westmoreland serve seafood of all varieties.