Featured Country of the month: Jamaica

Once again I took to Instagram for inspiration, and this time I was looking in particular for a country which would inspire me to want to cook, despite the sweltering heat. A culinary trip to the Caribbean was in order as this month we will be exploring the cuisine of Jamaica.


Jamaican cuisine as we know it today consists of a fusion of indigenous cooking methods and culinary influences as a result of colonisation. The most prominent influence is West African cooking due to British colonial rule bringing the trans-atlantic slave trade. Ackee, one half of Jamaica’s official national dish ‘saltfish and ackee’ is not native to Jamaica but was instead brought across from West Africa.


Jamaica is also home to ‘Ital’, a primarily vegan diet rooted in Rastafarianism that promotes the belief that the food you eat should grow from the earth and remain unmodified. I did very briefly consider featuring an Ital dish for this month but decided against it pretty quickly..



Salt-fish & Ackee with fried Plantain

About

Salt-fish and Ackee is the national dish of Jamaica and is normally served as breakfast. Saltfish is relatively self-explanatory; it’s fish that has been preserved in salt, usually cod. It’s obvious but worth stating that salting fish is a method of preservation, particularly popular in warmer climates. The saltfish needs to be rehydrated either overnight or for a few hours by submerging in water and then boiling for a short period to remove excess saltiness. The result should be nice flaky fish with a light salt seasoning.

Ackee is a vegetable that is highly toxic prior to ripening but when ripe and cooked it looks and has a similar texture to scrambled eggs (although does not taste like it). The saltfish and ackee are cooked amongst onions, thyme, bell pepper and of course, one of Jamaica’s best known native ingredients - scotch bonnet pepper.


We are lucky enough to have an African and Caribbean specialist shop just 5 minutes away from our house, where I purchased most of the ingredients for these dishes. However I have since spotted both saltfish and tinned ackee in tesco if you are keen to give this a go! I followed this recipe.


What happened?

I was very impressed with the salt-fish - I don’t know why I was expecting this to be tricky to work with but it wasn't at all. I soaked the salt-fish for three hours and then boiled it for 15 minutes. The resulting fish flakes apart very easily but retained a lovely flavour and texture. The ackee was also a surprise, mainly because I had no idea what to expect from it. It is added at the very last minute to the dish as it is delicate and can break up very easily (some people spread it on toast). It has a mild flavour and is quite buttery and only slightly sweet. The texture is slippery and smooth, like a firm custard.


The recipe I followed suggested adding in a whole scotch bonnet that had been pricked to allow the flavour to gently infuse with the dish, however it was too gentle for my liking and I found that this did not add enough spice (if any at all) to this dish. Next time, I’ll be braving it and adding in some chopped chilli. I also fried up some plantain to serve on the side. I have eaten plenty of plantain before but this was my first time cooking with it and I was very happy with the result.


Did you like it? I absolutely did - I am intrigued by what else both main components could be used for, so watch this space!


Marks out of 10: 7/10




Hummingbird Cake

About

A pineapple cake, a carrot cake and a banana bread decide to mate - I don’t know how the logistics of that would work but I know what the result would be: Hummingbird cake.

I’m not sure how I hadn’t heard of this cake before because it combines so many of my favourite cake ingredients; pineapple, banana, pecans, cinnamon, cream cheese icing. I am drooling again just thinking about it. This cake is sensationally sweet without crossing the line of being too sweet. The sweetness is actually the inspiration behind the name - hummingbirds or doctor birds are the national bird of Jamaica and they love to eat nectar. Hummingbird cake is also very popular in the American South, meaning that a lot of people don’t realise it is actually Jamaican in origin. I followed this recipe.

What happened?

This was a very easy cake to make - no complicated techniques involved, basically just mixing everything together. The thing I found interesting about this recipe was the use of oil instead of butter. I’ve looked into this and apparently oil does a better job than butter at keeping a cake moist - it works particularly well for a coarse batter like a fruit cake, but if you are looking for a fine texture, like a Victoria sponge then stick to butter.

I am not a huge fan of buttercream so the fact that cream cheese icing was used for this cake won me over. Honey is added to the cream cheese icing, which for me I think was unnecessary - I think I would have preferred the unadulterated tang of the cream cheese.

Did you like it?

I gave most of it away to the neighbours because I knew I was going to overindulge if it stayed around the house too long. If you are not a confident baker but want to impress - I thoroughly recommend giving this recipe a go!


Marks out of 10: 9/10



Jerk Chicken with Rice & Peas

About

I should start off by saying that what I made is not authentic in any real way. Jamaican Jerk Chicken would be slow cooked over an open flame, preferably over the burning embers of one of the island's Pimento (allspice) trees. The smoke is a crucial ingredient in authentic Jerk Chicken.


I, however, don’t even have a BBQ. So things were not off to a great start. The word Jerk comes from the Spanish word charqui meaning dried strips of meat, however, Jerk also refers to the dry rub marinade that is applied to the chicken - so I was determined to get this part right. Two of the key ingredients in the marinade are pimento (also known as Allspice) and scotch bonnet peppers, both native to Jamaica but widely available in the UK.


Alongside the Jerk Chicken, I made rice and peas; this is just rice that is cooked in coconut milk, with the addition of kidney beans, or ‘peas’ as they are referred to in Jamaica along with some additional herbs and spices.


In researching this dish, I took a bit of a rabbit hole deep dive (accidentally) into food and cultural appropriation. It’s a topic I find very interesting as someone who is interested in the food and culture of many different countries. It can be a sticky topic with lots of grey areas but I think the following example is a relatively clear case of it.


The incident that sparked this was a product brought to market by Jamie Oliver in 2018, branded ‘Punchy Jerk rice’. The rice caused MP Dawn Butler (yes, the same Dawn Butler who was in the news recently for calling Boris Johnson a liar), to call out Jamie’s rice as a form of cultural appropriation.


Let me clarify first of all - nobody is going to be accused of cultural appropriation just for cooking a dish from a different country's cuisine. That would, of course, be insane and I for one, would be in a lot of trouble.


I am clarifying this because of the inevitable backlash in favour of Jamie Oliver, that Dawn faced after her criticisms. Ie. ‘If Jamie Oliver isn’t allowed to make Jerk chicken because it’s cultural “appropriation” she’s going to go mad when she finds out about “Jamie’s Italy”’. The issue is not that Jamie had chosen to use a Jamaican form of cooking, but rather, I think, a complete lack of awareness or understanding about what Jerk is. Firstly, you can’t BBQ rice..! As I described above, one of the main components of Jerk Chicken is the fact it is a rub and the fact it is BBQed. Jamie’s rice achieves neither of these.

However, I believe that both of these factors would have been overlooked, had the flavour of the rice had anything to do with the flavour of Jerk seasoning. Alas. A quick look at the ingredients list reveals a distinct lack of scotch bonnet and allspice. In fact, I think the only common ingredient between Jerk and Jamie’s rice was garlic!


So the issue here lies not in the food Jamie was cooking, but in the branding of it and the use of the word ‘Jerk’ without any regard whatsoever for the culture it comes from. It is simply being used as a marketing ploy.


What happened?

You can make Jerk Chicken from any cut (and also commonly used with pork), I reckon that thighs would be the best option. I had some wings in the freezer that needed to be used so I opted to use them for this. I marinated the chicken wings overnight to maximise flavour and saved a small amount of the marinade to make a sauce. Due to my lack of BBQ, I cooked the wings in the oven until they were nice and crispy.

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Did you like it?

Yes I did - I did not make the same mistake as I did with the Salt-fish and Ackee and went all out on spice and was glad that I did as the wings had a lovely fiery kick to them. I think I probably under-seasoned the chicken slightly as it wasn’t quite as flavourful as I’d hoped for, but again, this could also be down to my lack of BBQ. With hindsight, I should have picked a dish I could have done better justice to, but I enjoyed the end result nonetheless.


Marks out of 10: 7/10


You can view all previous 'Country of the Month' articles HERE.


I’ll be asking for more suggestions through instagram again this month - if you don’t have instagram and want to suggest a country, just drop me an email: eatingwithailsa@gmail.com.

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