Jamaican Villa Cuisine
Of the many pleasures of villa life in Jamaica, perhaps the best of all is the food. It is an accepted fact in Jamaica that the best food in the island is prepared by the villa cooks. These cooks, many of whom do not have formal training as chefs, but learn their skills through a kind of apprentice program, can usually prepare a wide variety of dishes, ranging from Jamaican to European and North American cuisine. Jamaican cuisine has its roots in the cooking of Europe, Africa and India.
When you first arrive at your villa, you should let your cook know your culinary preferences. This will help her in planning your menus and selecting cooking methods and seasonings. Remember that if you tell your cook you like hot and spicy foods, Jamaican food can be very hot indeed, the pepper of choice on the island is the Scotch Bonnet (Habanero). This pepper is not your run-of-the-mill hot pepper, but is many times hotter than any other pepper you have ever tasted. Hot peppers aside, you will find that your cook is skilled at creating many dishes to please your palate.
I recommend that if you are unfamiliar with Jamaican cuisine, you should ask your cook to make some Jamaican style meals for you, but tell her to be moderate with the hot peppers. After sampling the initial meals, you can decide if you want more, or less spiciness to your food.
Some Jamaican dishes are made from familiar ingredients, but prepared in different ways from what you are probably familiar with at home, others are made from ingredients you more than likely did not even know existed. Also, because of the diets of the local livestock, you will notice a difference in the flavors of meats such as pork and chicken. Jamaican chickens in particular have a wonderful flavor you will not find in those at home.
The national dish of Jamaica is not the renowned Jerk Pork or Jerk Chicken, but Ackee and Salt Fish. Ackee is the fruit of an African tree brought to Jamaica by the infamous Captain Blygh as food for the slaves. The appearance of the dish is somewhat like scrambled eggs, but there the resemblance ends. Although ackee itself is fairly bland in taste, the combination of the salt cod and spices give it a flavorful and distinctive taste. Some people find the taste of the salt cod too strong for their liking, so ask your cook to be moderate with her use of the cod. Bacon or salt pork may also be added as flavoring for the ackee. A word of caution; unripe ackee can be poisonous. It is very easy to tell if the ackee is ripe, and ready for eating. When ripe, the bright red pod opens to expose the yellow fleshy edible section of the ackee. Your experienced cook will have no trouble selecting ackees that are ready to be eaten, and any she will buy in the market will be edible.
Jamaican breakfasts tend to be more substantial and varied than the typical North American fare of cereals or eggs. One of our favorites is Bully Beef and Johnny Cakes. Bully Beef is actually a spicily seasoned version of corned beef hash: the name comes from a brand of canned corned beef that was popular in Jamaica, but you can use your favorite brand instead. Recipes for Johnny Cakes vary widely according to the tastes of the cook; the one included here is a typical representation of these hearty biscuits.
Other typical breakfast foods include Calaloo, a leafy green that has the appearance of spinach, but with its own distinct flavor. Calaloo is usually served sautéed with onions, peppers, salted cod and spices, but may also be used a filling for omelets. Standard accompaniment for sautéed calaloo is boiled green bananas. Green bananas are simply regular bananas that are eaten before they are ripe. These need to be cooked, and may be used as a replacement for potatoes or other starches.
Although I have not included recipes for Jerk Pork or Chicken, there are a number of excellent commercially available Jerk seasonings available both in Jamaica and most major North American cities. I have included a simple recipe for Jerk Seasoning if you would like to try your hand at making.
Over the years of staying at my favorite villa, I have developed my list of favorite dishes as prepared by our cook. No doubt, your cook will have her variation for many or all of the following dishes, have her make some of them for you.
For the seafood lover in you, try the Escovitch Fish, in this dish, the fish is fried then marinated in a spicy vinegar sauce, and may be served either hot or cold. Another seafood favorite is Curried Lobster, spicy and flavorful, with a strong East Indian influence.
Jamaicans eat a lot of chicken, and have many wonderful ways to serve this mainstay. Sampling of the Curried Baked Chicken is a must. The preparation is not that alien to how we would do it at home, however, the subtle differences in spices result in a unique taste experience. The Fricassee Chicken is truly one of the great Jamaican contributions to the art of chicken preparation. The chicken is browned then braised in a flavorful liquid which is then used to make a gravy. You may also want to try the [Curried Chicken], one of the many Jamaican dishes of East Indian origin.
Jamaican style Pork Chops is another dish that is a variation on familiar North American fare. These pork chops are seasoned, browned and then braised. An excellent accompaniment for this dish is the famous Jamaican Rice and Peas. Another rendition of Jamaican pork chops is the recipe we got from Hyacinth, the cook at Almond Tree Villa in Mammee Bay. The Honey-Ginger Pork Chops demonstrate the variety in Jamaican cuisine, and have their roots in Chinese cooking, which has a surprising influence on Jamaican cuisine.
Our cook Delma, introduced us to this unusual Pork Pot Roast. Flavorful and spicy, but not too hot, this dish makes a wonderful alternative to the standard beef pot roast.
Those of you with a sweet tooth will be pleased to know that desserts are not overlooked in Jamaican cooking. Your cook can provide you with many familiar favorites, or some unusual ones like Mango or Soursop Ice Cream, both well worth trying. One of my favorite desserts is the Sweet Potato Pudding. The Jamaican version differs from the American version in that is made with coconut milk. This adds a richness to the flavor you will not find in your traditional recipes. The version shown here has all the normal ingredients, however the method takes advantage of modern kitchen tools. Jamaican cooks usually grate the coconut and potatoes by hand. I have found that although you can use almost any variety of sweet potato, the New Jersey variety comes closest in taste to the Jamaican ones.
The ingredients for all the recipes here should be readily available at your local supermarket. Try them sometime to recreate the memories of your Jamaican villa vacation, or simply to surprise your friends with the wonderful flavors of Jamaican cuisine.