Jamaican cuisine is unique because of its isolated roots and the way that it has preserved its core flavorings throughout centuries of outside influences.
— By John Jacobs
If you’re reaching for a glass of water in Jamaica, chances are you are just getting started with the local Scotch Bonnet peppers. Rated as one of the hottest peppers in the world according to the Scoville scale, they are commonly used to add flavor. You won’t be the first they’ve taken by surprise, and as Jamaica’s traditional organic cooking traditions spread their heat around the world, you certainly won’t be the last.
Jamaican cuisine is unique because of its isolated roots and the way that it has preserved its core flavorings throughout centuries of outside influences. The Tainos welcomed Christopher Columbus to the island with seasoned meats that made him sweat, and despite the incoming Spanish cooking traditions, those seasonings provided to be the true Conquistadors. They’ve held up against not just the Spanish, but also Hakka, African, and British influences over the years. The net result is an island cuisine flavored like none other, and a historical cooking tradition that Jamaicans can embrace as uniquely their own with pride.
With the rising tide of processed food imports and “junk” food choices, this strong cooking tradition is more important than ever to preserve. Traditional food choices offer low calorie and low fat alternatives to pizzas, burgers, and fries, while the spicing helps keep portions in check. Add in a preference for uniquely Caribbean fruits and vegetables, and a taste of Jamaica will satisfy on multiple levels.
Historically Prevalent Organic Food Choices
Jamaicans’ food choices throughout history have been influenced by the ecological bounty of the island itself and the crops brought in by foreigners over the years. From the island itself, Jamaicans have embraced seafood, bananas and plantains, peas, kidney beans, and allspice. From incoming forces, Jamaicans have acquired the African based ackee fruit, vinegar seasoning from the Spanish, and curries from the East Indian and Hakka settlers.
Most of the traditional foods in the Jamaican diet are fresh or lightly processed meats, fruits, and vegetables that are then richly seasoned. One of the most dominant and uniquely Jamaican spices is allspice, which was once believed to grow only on the island, though it is now grown in warm regions throughout the world. Containing taste elements of cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove, allspice also contains eugenol. When eaten, eugenol has antimicrobial properties and is credited with helping to relieve indigestion and gas.
Embracing the Power of the Jerk
One traditional organic dish stemming from Jamaica that dates back to the indigenous Tainos is the Jamaican Jerk. Jerk, a dry rub for meats and seafood, was the singular flavor that gave Columbus pause after months at sea. Thanks to its uniquely Jamaican blend of ingredients, it’s a singular flavor that continues to be an island signature.
The main ingredients in Jamaican Jerk are the nuanced allspice and the blazingly hot Scotch Bonnet Peppers. Other common ingredients in the spice rub include sea salt, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, scallions, thyme, garlic, and black pepper. This spicy blend is then applied to chicken or pork, although modern versions also apply it to all seafoods, red meat, and tofu.
To cook traditional Jamaican Jerk, the marinated meat needs to be smoked. The wood of choice for the most traditional version of the recipe is allspice wood itself, as the flavoring from the wood further enhances the elements of the spice on the meat. The final product is a protein-rich dish covered with spices that enhance gut health and fight disease causing microbes.
Spreading the Benefit
As diners around the world seek out unique flavors that remind them of distant locales, Jamaican Jerk is gaining popularity. The spice rub can be bought as a pre-blended mix, appealing to harried home cookers seeking a bit of simplicity. With its powerful punch and distinctive taste of the island, there is no mistaking that something different is on the menu for a change with serving Jamaican Jerk.
Modern variations of the dish also no longer call for the meat to be smoked over specialty wood. On the island, a steel drum-based jerk pan is used to make Jamaican Jerk, but those far from Jamaica can simply grill out with a different rub. This is appealing to backyard barbeque kings and their variety-seeking kingdoms alike.
Since the flavor power of the dish comes from simple spices, it is also easy to make Jamaican Jerk a part of heart-healthy and diabetic diets. There’s no deep frying or butter, and those watching their salt intake can make or buy blends that don’t include the salt. With minimal prep time (rub and done), simple cooking options, and the ability to fit into diet-conscious lifestyles, Jamaican Jerk can be found on menus around the world as well as in shakers on mainstream supermarket shelves.
Opening the Way for Jamaican Food Worldwide
As Jamaican Jerk makes inroads on supermarket shelves and restaurant menus, it opens the door for those who are interested in exploring other traditional island dishes. Many of these dishes are lightly processed, based on fresh produce and spices, and can be quickly assembled by novice cooks. Not all of them are as hot as true Jamaican Jerk, either, freeing more hesitant palates to indulge in island flavors.
The variety of unique flavors in common Jamaican dishes further invites people into the island cuisine. They can opt for more richly flavored dishes like goat curries, Coconut Rundown, and Grapenut ice cream, or they go for simpler staples like the Jamaican Coat of Arms, rice and peas stewed in coconut milk, or escabeche, a poached fish in a vinegary sauce. Each offers its own flavor profile while not being unduly complex for amateur chefs.
Island staples like Jamaican Jerk offer an appealing alternative to the same old meat flavorings. The healthful benefits of the dish also make it an attractive alternative to buttery sauces or mysterious liquid marinades. With minimal preparation or culinary skill needed to turn out a tasty version, diners around the world are preparing their palates for more and more of the same unique flavors that Columbus so vividly remembered.