1 GEOGRAPHIC SETTING AND ENVIRONMENT
Jamaica is the third-largest island in the Caribbean Sea, about 90 miles south of Cuba. The island is comparable in size to Connecticut (in the United States) and is made up of coastal lowlands, a limestone plateau, and the Blue Mountains. Jamaica's size and varied terrain allow for a diversity of growing conditions that produce a wide variety of crops.
The northeastern part of Jamaica is one of the wettest spots on Earth with more than 100 inches of annual rainfall. The island is also susceptible to hurricanes and suffered more than $300 million in damage when Hurricane Gilbert hit in 1988.
The tropical climate of Jamaica (averaging around 80°F) and its miles of white beaches make it one of the most alluring islands in the Caribbean for tourists. Another popular attraction for vacationers is the island's more than 800 caves, many of which were home to the earliest inhabitants.
2HISTORY AND FOOD
Before Christopher Columbus landed in Jamaica in 1492, the original inhabitants of the island were a Amerindian tribe called the Arawaks. They grew the spinach-like callaloo, papayas (which they called pawpaws), and guava. They also produced two crops each per year of maize (corn), potatoes, peanuts, peppers, and beans.
The Arawaks roasted seafood and meat on a grate suspended on four-forked sticks called a barbacoa, which is the origin of Western barbecue.
The closest neighboring Amerindian tribe was the Caribs, who were the most feared warriors of the Caribbean. They ate more simply than the Arawaks—mostly fish and peppers.
The Spanish invaded Jamaica, then called Xaymaca ("the land of wood and water") in the late 1400s. They were responsible for importing many of the plants for which Jamaica is now known, such as sugar cane, lemons, limes, and coconuts. They also imported pigs, cattle, and goats. The Spanish turned to trading slaves from Africa's West Coast for labor. The slaves brought with them ackee (a tropical tree with edible fruit, now the national fruit of Jamaica), okra, peanuts, and a variety of peas and beans, all considered staples in the modern-day Jamaica.
Jamaica is now an English-speaking country, although it has a Creole dialect called patois, which is influenced mostly by West African languages. Ninety-five per cent of the population is of partial or total African descent. Nearly the whole population is native-born Jamaican.
Rice and Peas
Kidney beans may be substituted for Jamaican peas (usually pidgeon peas).
- 1 cup canned red kidney beans
- 2 cups rice
- 1 cup coconut milk
- 4 cups water
- 1 stalk of fresh thyme, finely chopped (or 2 teaspoons dried)
- 2 green onions, chopped
- ½ cup onion, chopped
- Hot pepper flakes, to taste
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- Combine beans, water, coconut milk, thyme, green onions, and onions over medium heat until just boiling.
- Add salt, pepper, and hot pepper flakes to taste.
- Add rice, cover, and simmer over low heat for 25 minutes until rice is tender and liquids have been absorbed. Check after 15 minutes and add more water if necessary.
- Serve warm.
Serves 8 to 10.
3 FOODS OF THE JAMAICANS
Jamaicans eat foods that are flavored with spices such as ginger, nutmeg, and allspice (pimento). Allspice, the dried berries of the pimento plant, is native to Jamaica and an important export crop. (This is different from pimiento, the red pepper used to stuff green olives.) Many meals are accompanied by bammy , which is a toasted bread-like wafer made from cassava (or yucca, pronounced YOO-kah).
With the warm waters of the Caribbean Sea surrounding the island, seafood is plentiful in the Jamaican diet. Lobster, shrimp, and fish such as red snapper, tuna, mackerel, and jackfish are in abundance.
Ways to Prepare Plantains
- Sliced, pan-fried into chips, and eaten with salsa.
- Baked and seasoned with margarine, lime juice, and a sprinkle of cayenne pepper.
- Mashed with cooked apples or butternut squash.
- Pureed and added to soups as a thickener.
- Cut in chunks and put into soups and stews.
- Sautéed in long strips and served with chicken or pork.
- Oven-baked with brown sugar, then served with pineapple chunks and vanilla ice cream as a dessert.
Fruits grow extremely well in Jamaica's tropical climate. Mangoes, pineapple, papaya, bananas, guava, coconuts, ackee, and plantains are just a few of the fruits eaten fresh or used in desserts. Ackee is the national fruit of Jamaica. It is a bright red tropical fruit that bursts open when ripe, and reveals a soft, mild, creamy yellowish flesh. If the fruit is forced open before ripe, it gives out a toxic gas poisonous enough to kill. Plantains look like bananas, may be up to a foot long, and have the consistency of potatoes when unripe. Unlike bananas, when the skin turns black, some people think they taste the best.
- 1 coconut
- To dry and open the coconut: Preheat oven to 400°F.
- Poke a metal skewer through two of the "eyes" and drain out the liquid from the coconut. Reserve the liquid for another use or discard.
- Place the coconut in the oven on a cookie sheet and bake for 15 minutes.
- Remove the coconut and wrap in a clean kitchen towel. Carefully crack it open with a hammer.
- After removing the flesh from the shell, remove the brown skin with a knife, and cut into thin strips. Wash and drain.
- Turn oven down to 350°F.
- Place the coconut on a greased cookie sheet and bake until lightly browned (do not over brown).
- Sprinkle with salt. Serve as you would nuts.
The national dish of Jamaica is ackee and saltfish. Saltfish is dried, salted fish, usually cod, which must be soaked in water before cooking. The ackee fruit is fried with onions, sweet and hot peppers, fresh tomatoes, and boiled saltfish. It is popular to eat for breakfast or as a snack.
Other staples include brown-stewed fish or beef (Jamaicans are fond of gravy), curried goat, and pepperpot soup, made from callaloo (greens), okra, and beef or pork.
- 6 fish fillets
- 2 onions
- 2 tomatoes
- 2 green onions
- 1 carrot
- 1 green pepper, cut into chunks and seeds removed
- 3 Tablespoons vegetable oil
- Fish stock or water
- Heat about 3 Tablespoons of oil over medium to high heat and fry the fish until golden brown.
- Remove the fish and set aside. Drain nearly all of the oil from the pan.
- In the oil that is left in the pan, sauté the onions, tomatoes, green onions, and other vegetables.
- Add enough fish stock or water to cover the vegetables.
- Bring to a boil, then turn heat to low and add the fish.
- Turn the heat to low, cover, and simmer until the sauce thickens to a gravy-like consistency. Serve.
"Jerking" is a native Jamaican method of spicing and slowly cooking meat to preserve the juices and produce a unique, spicy flavor. First, a seasoning that usually contains hot peppers, onions, garlic, thyme, allspice, ginger, and cinnamon is rubbed all over the meat. The jerked meat is then cooked over an outdoor pit lined with wood, usually from the pimento.
- 1 pound skinless chicken breasts
- 1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and diced
- 3 Tablespoons water
- 2 Tablespoons lime juice
- 2 Tablespoons lemon juice
- 2 teaspoons allspice
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 small onion, chopped
- ½ teaspoon ginger, ground
- ½ teaspoon cumin, ground
- ¼ teaspoon dried thyme
- Combine all ingredients except the chicken into a blender and blend to a paste.
- Pour into a shallow baking dish or sealable plastic bag.
- Add chicken and turn to coat.
- Cover and place in refrigerator to marinate for at least 2 hours, or overnight.
- Remove chicken from marinade and pour marinade into a saucepan. Bring to a boil.
- Chicken may now be cooked on a grill or baked in the oven. To grill, preheat the grill. Remove chicken and place chicken on a grill. (Ask an adult to help with the grilling.) Cook approximately 7 to 10 minutes per side until done, basting with boiled marinade.
- To bake: Preheat oven to 350°F. Place chicken in a baking dish and bake 20 to 25 minutes. After 15 minutes, baste with remaining marinade.
Serves 4 to 8.
4 FOOD FOR RELIGIOUS AND HOLIDAY CELEBRATIONS
The majority of Jamaicans, more than 80 percent, are Christian. Most holidays and celebrations center on this religious theme. Christmas in Jamaica naturally has a tropical flavor, ranging from the food to the Christmas carols.
Christmas carols are the same ones popular in the Western world, but their versions are set to a Reggae style, the syncopated style of music for which Jamiaica is famous. Christmas dinner is usually a big feast. It includes the traditional jerked or curried chicken and goat, and rice with gungo peas (a round white pea, also called pigeon pea).
Gungo peas are a Christmas specialty, where red peas are eaten with rice the rest of the year. The traditional Christmas drink is called sorrel. It is made from dried parts of the sorrel (a meadow plant), cinnamon, cloves, sugar, orange peel, and rum and is usually served over ice.
Preparations for the Christmas feast start days, even months ahead by baking cakes like the traditional Black Jamaican Cake. To make this cake, fruits are soaked in bottles of rum for at least two weeks. After the cake is baked, allowing it to sit for up to four weeks is common to improve its taste.
Jamaican Christmas Cake
This is an easy version of the traditional cake.
- 1½ cups flour
- 1 cup (2 sticks) margarine or butter
- 1 cup sugar
- 4 eggs
- 1 cup raisins
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon salt ½ cup cherries
- 1 cup prunes, chopped
- 1 cup wine (or substitute water)
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 1 lemon or lime rind, finely grated
- 2 Tablespoons browning (see below)
- Preheat oven to 350° F. and grease a 9-inch round cake pan.
- To make browning: in a saucepan, add ½ Tablespoon water to brown sugar and heat over medium to high heat until the sugar is burnt. Let cool.
- With a beater, beat butter, sugar and browning until soft and fluffy.
- Add eggs, one at a time, to butter mixture. Add wine or water and mix well. Add fruits.
- Add dry ingredients, stirring just to comine. Do not over-beat when mixing. Pour batter into a greased 9-inch round cake pan.
- Bake for 1½ hours, checking after one hour. Cake is done when it begins to pull away from the sides of the pan.
Serves 12 (or more).
Independence Day, celebrated on the first Monday in August, commemorates Jamaica's independence from Great Britain in 1962. During Independence Day festivities, Jamaicans celebrate their island culture and cuisine, with dancing, feasting, and exhibitions of artists'work. Local street vendors showcase native foods such as sweet sugar cane, boiled corn, jerked chicken and pork, and roast fish. Ice cream vendors with pushcarts offer ice-cold jellies, fruit smoothies, and ice cream to the crowd.
Jamaican Fruit Drink
- 2 cups orange juice
- 1 ripe banana
- 1 ripe mango
- 1 apple
- 1 peach
- 2 slices pineapple
- 1 pint vanilla ice cream
- 1 slice ripe papaya
- Peel and dice all of the fruits into small pieces.
- Place into a blender and blend in until smooth.
5 MEALTIME CUSTOMS
A Jamaican meal is usually a relaxing, social time. The dishes of food are set on the table at once, and everyone takes whatever they like. Table manners are considered less important than enjoying the food and the company. In rural areas families usually eat dinner together each day after 4 p.m., while families in urban areas might not have a chance to eat together except on weekends. A prayer is often said before and after meals. Eating outdoors to enjoy the warm weather is popular, especially in gardens and on patios. Jamaicans usually eat three meals a day with snacks in between. Breakfast and dinner are considered the most important meals.
A popular breakfast dish is the national one: ackee and saltfish. While it looks similar to scrambled eggs, the taste is quite different. It is usually served with callaloo, boiled green bananas, a piece of hard-dough bread (a slightly sweet-tasting white loaf) or a sweet bread called Johnnycake . Other popular morning dishes include cornmeal, plantain or peanut porridge, steamed fish, or rundown make with smoked mackerel. Rundown is flaked fish boiled with coconut milk, onion, and seasoning.
Roadside vendors are very popular in Jamaica and sell a variety of foods and drinks that can be eaten on the go, which is typical for a lunch in Jamaica. Fish tea (a broth), pepperpot soup, and buttered roast yams with saltfish are just a few examples. "Bun and cheese," which is a sweet bun sold with a slice of processed cheese, can be a quick lunch. Ackee with saltfish is a common snack sold at a stand, but the best-known snack are patties. Patties are flaky pastries filled with spicy minced meat or seafood.
Native rum and beer are popular, but there are a variety of non-alcoholic drinks as well. Refreshing fruit juices are also available. A roadside stand may have what is called ice-cold jelly. The vendor opens a coconut with a machete (a large, heavy knife) and the milk is drunk straight from the nut. The vendor will then split the shell and offer a piece of it so you can eat the soft coconut meat inside. Sky juice (cones of shaved ice flavored with fruit syrup) is also popular along with Ting, a sparkling grapefruit juice drink.
This recipe makes a drink very similar to the popular Jamaican soft drink, Ting.
- 1 bottle grapefruit juice
- 1 bottle lemon-lime soft drink (such as 7-Up or Slice)
- Crushed ice or ice cubes
- Fill a drinking glass with crushed ice or ice cubes.
- Pour in equal parts of grapefruit juice and lemon-lime soda.
It is customary for all Jamaican hot drinks to be called "tea." Jamaican coffee is popular. One particular Jamaican brand is among the best and most expensive in the world and is one of the country's main exports. Hot chocolate is usually drunk with breakfast, but is more complicated to prepare than the Western version. It is made from balls of locally grown cocoa spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg and boiled with water and condensed milk.
Dinner is usually peas and rice with chicken, fish, or sometimes pork. Chicken is usually jerked or curried (flavored with curry spice). Fish can be grilled, steamed with okra and allspice, or served in a spicy sauce of onions, hot peppers, and vinegar. Festival , which is a sweet, lightly fried dumpling, is another native dish.
- 1 to 3 pounds boneless, skinless chicken
- 2 Tablespoons curry powder
- 2 to 3 Tablespoons lemon juice
- 3 to 4 Tablespoons cooking oil
- 2 cups cooked white rice, with peas added if desired
- Dash each of onion powder, thyme, garlic powder, pepper, and salt
- Cut chicken into small pieces and let sit in lemon juice for at least 1 hour.
- Remove chicken and season with spices and seasonings.
- Let rest for 5 minutes.
- Heat cooking oil in a frying pan on medium to high heat.
- Add chicken and cook about 7 to 10 minutes per side, or until thoroughly cooked.
A fresh piece of tropical fruit may be the perfect refresher to top off a spicy meal. Many Jamaican dessert recipes are centered on fruit as the main ingredient. A simple sauce is sometimes its only accompaniment.
Baked Ripe Banana
- 4 large ripe bananas
- ¼ cup butter or margarine
- 1 to 2 Tablespoons honey
- 4 Tablespoons lime or orange juice
- ½ teaspoon allspice
- Preheat oven to 200°F.
- Peel the bananas and slice into two pieces, length-wise.
- Grease a shallow baking dish with a little of the butter or margarine. Arrange the bananas in the dish.
- In a mixing bowl, mix together the honey and lime or orange juice.
- Pour the mixture over the bananas slices and sprinkle with the allspice.
- Place dots of the remaining butter or margarine on top. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes.
- Serve warm.
Serves 4 to 5.
This dessert is also called "Pinch-Me-Rounds" because the edges of the pastry are pinched together.
Ingredients for pastry
- 1 cup flour
- 6 Tablespoons butter
- 1 Tablespoon sugar
- 2 Tablespoons milk
- Combine all ingredients into a mixing bowl and mix to form dough.
- Roll out dough on floured surface with a rolling pin into a thin sheet.
- Cut into rounds (with knife or cookie cutter) and fit them into greased muffin tins.
Ingredients for filling
- 1 cup grated coconut, fresh or packaged
- ½ cup brown sugar
- ½ teaspoon cinnamon
- ¼ teaspoon nutmeg
- 1 teaspoon almond extract
- 2 teaspoons water
- ½ teaspoon lime juice
- Mix all ingredients in a mixing bowl.
- Fill the pastry bases half full, and pinch the dough together at the top.
- Bake for 15 minutes or until pastry is golden brown.
Serves 8 to 12.
6 POLITICS, ECONOMICS, AND NUTRITION
About 11 percent of the population of Jamaica is classified as undernourished by the World Bank. This means they do not receive adequate nutrition in their diet. Of children under the age of five, about 10 percent are underweight, and more than 10 percent are stunted (short for their age).
Children's rights are protected by the 1951 Juvenile Act. This law restricts children under 12 from being employed, except in domestic or agricultural work, and provides protective care for abused children. However, a lack of resources prevents this law from being fully applied. Children under 12 can be seen peddling goods or services on city streets.
7 FURTHER STUDY
DeMers, John. The Food of Jamaica: Authentic Recipes from the Jewel of the Caribbean . Boston, MA: Periplus Editions, 1998.
Donaldson, Enid. The Real Taste of Jamaica . Kingston, Jamaica: Randle Publishers, 1993.
Goldman, Vivien. Pearl's Delicious Jamaican Dishes: Recipes from Pearl Bell's Repertoire. New York: Island Trading, 1992.
Walsh, Robb & Jay McCarthy. Traveling Jamaica with Knife, Fork & Spoon: A Righteous Guide to Jamaican Cookery . Freedom, CA: Crossing Press, 1995.
Willinsky, Helen. Jerk: Barbeque from Jamaica . Freedom, CA: Crossing Press, 1990.
About.com. [Online] Available http://altreligion.about.com/religion/altreligion/gi/dynamic/offsite.htm?site=http%3A%2F%2Fhome.computer.net%2F%7Ecya%2Fcy00081.html (accessed April 4, 2001).
Bella Online. [Online] Available http://www.bellaonline.com/society_and_culture/ethnic_culture/jamaican_culture/articles/art965771528017.htm (accessed April 4, 2001).
The Global Gourmet. [Online] Available http://www.globalgourmet.com/destinations/jamaica/ (accessed April 4, 2001).