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Jamaica is a land of contrasts, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the country's food. The island's food and culture scene is currently undergoing a transformation as Jamaicans are finding ways to promote and develop their own national foodstuffs. Throughout a recent trip, we were shown the local and the refined, from road food wrapped in aluminum foil (sweet potato pudding, jerk chicken and pork) to white tablecloth dining at five-star beachside resorts (complete with a sorbet course), with little middle ground in between. These changes make for some interesting conversation and some rewarding meals, without lightening your wallet too much.

Many people in industrialized nations like the United States are trying hard to get back to the land, to eat locally and organically, but in Jamaica, that is much easier, as ackee, breadfruit and other prized produce grow plentifully and can be found easily at many outdoor markets. Ackee is part of the national dish of ackee and salt fish, typically cod. The yellow flesh is waxy but edible and extracted from the dark pod inside the fruit; when you boil ackee, it becomes soft and buttery. Typically, ackee and salt fish is sautéed with scotch bonnet peppers, onions, garlic, tomatoes, pimento (or allspice), and salt and pepper. But one morning, our driver and one of our guides, the eternally gracious and knowledgeable Mark Hylton, who also operates his own business called Real Jamaica Adventures (tel. 876/364-3611; markahylton@yahoo.com), ordered us a plate of ackee scrambled together in a pan with peppers and onions. It looked and tasted like a delicious deconstructed omelet. You can buy canned ackee fairly easily in specialty grocers and even some large supermarkets.

During our trip we were introduced to a number of culinary players in Jamaica, and one of them is Grace Cameron, who recently started a glossy, quarterly publication called Jamaican Eats (tel. 786/623-0534; www.jamaicaneats.com) that caters to expatriates and enthusiasts as much as native Jamaicans. She grew up in Canada and returned to Jamaica about ten years ago. Her experience as the lifestyle editor of the Jamaican publication The Gleaner taught her that readers loved the food stories. She saw an underserved audience -- there was no food magazine for an international market -- and launched Jamaican Eats in 2006. The magazine's voice is laid-back and approachable, like many Jamaicans I encountered, reflecting a combination of down-home recipes and, increasingly, gourmet and contemporary approaches to Jamaican food. "The response has been overwhelming. We have readers as far away as New Zealand, United Arab Emirates and Japan," she says.

She attributes the growing consciousness of Jamaican cuisine to a number of factors. First, she says, the island is comprised of 2.5 million people with an estimated diaspora of 2.5 million, and people want to read about food that they ate growing up. The Caribbean people are spreading out as well, which expands the demand for the flavors of its islands. The proliferation of television programming, publishing and media coverage of food in the last ten years has made Americans a nation of foodies and fueled interest in Jamaican jerk products, for example. But there's also the more personal answer. "There's also the phenomenon of tourists who experience the food and want to then experience it at home," she says. Guilty as charged. I came home with a suitcase stuffed with condiments, brown sugar, herbal tea, and whatever else I could triple-wrap in newspaper. The best part? My trip to the supermarket for all those items totaled about $12. Your dollar goes far here. (More on that in an article to follow).

As the first company in Jamaica to export jerk seasoning, Walkerswood Caribbean Foods (tel. 800/827-0769; www.walkerswood.com), located near Ocho Rios, makes it easier for travelers (and interested eaters with spicy palates) to keep a bit of Jamaica with them, even after arriving home. Walkerswood sells and internationally distributes its marinades, sauces, chutneys and other products from its location in the hills of St. Ann. It's a sustainable enterprise designed from its inception in the 1970s to not only educate people and provide clean and safe drinking water, but provide jobs to rural Jamaicans. A grassroots, community effort from the ground up, whatever Walkerswood cannot source from its own gardens, it buys from local farmers.

In 2007, the company opened a new visitor's center complete with cooking classes and a jerk country tour where you can watch the preparation of jerk chicken. You can also catch a quick bite at its little café, called Nyam and Scram, or eat and go. Virginia Burke, managing director for Walkerswood marketing and author of the cookbook Eat Caribbean, says that the company has always been innovative with its sauces and condiments, but people now want more. "We saw that the consumers wanted more than sauce in a bottle; they wanted the entire gastronomic experience. With our background as a community-driven entity it was second nature to us to share our tasty offerings with everyone who asked," she says.

Even those who haven't visited the island may know about jerk, and you can find jerk pits on the roadsides of Jamaica, where meats like pork and chicken are rubbed with a paste or marinade made from a combination of cinnamon, allspice, scotch bonnet peppers, brown sugar, scallions, thyme, nutmeg, and vinegar, and cooked over a fire made from the wood of pimento trees, giving it a distinct aroma and flavor. I arrived too late for the visit to the well-known Scotchie's (tel. 876/953-8041) in Montego Bay but I did get a care package of jerk pork and festival (a fried dumpling made from cornmeal) that was cold but delicious. And I did take home a couple of bottles of marinade, too from Walkerswood.

For those who are now hungry -- or just curious -- as a result of reading this, Grace Cameron and Virginia Burke have generously agreed to share some of their classic Jamaican recipes with Frommers.com readers.

Caroline Brown's Sweet Potato Pudding

Courtesy of Grace Cameron, excerpted from Jamaican Eats Winter 2007.

This pudding is so good, it melts in your mouth. You really don't want to swallow because you don't want it to be finished.

  • 3 lbs. grated sweet potato
  • 1 lb. brown sugar
  • 2 tbsp. flour
  • 1 tbsp. vanilla
  • 1 tbsp. white rum
  • Handful raisins
  • 5 c. water
  • 1 small nutmeg
  • 1 tsp. salt

Topping

  • 1 c. coconut powder
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1 tsp. white rum
  • 2 tbsp. brown sugar
  • Pinch of nutmeg

Mix ingredients for the pudding together and pour into a greased 10-inch baking pan.

Mix ingredients for topping and pour over the batter.

Bake at 350 degree F until done -- approximately 1½ hours.

Jerk Seasoning

Adapted from Eat Caribbean, reprinted courtesy of Virginia Burke and Simon & Schuster

6 spring onions
  • 1-3 scotch bonnet peppers (use 1 pepper if you don't want it seriously hot!)
  • 2 tsp. allspice berries or 1 tsp ground allspice
  • 1 tbsp. chopped fresh thyme or ½ tsp. dried thyme
  • 2 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 1 tsp. grated nutmeg
  • 1 tsp. brown sugar
  • 1½ tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
  • ¼ c. cane vinegar or distilled (white) malt vinegar
  • 1 tbsp. oil
  • The traditional method is to crudely mash all the ingredients up with a mortar and pestle and use to marinate the meat, discarding any large bits of spring onion, etc., before cooking. To make it easier, you can use a blender to reduce all the ingredients to a thick paste.

    Yield: 2/3 cup

    Grilled Jerk Chicken

    Adapted from Eat Caribbean, reprinted courtesy of Virginia Burke and Simon & Schuster

    1 fresh lime (or lemon)
  • 1 lb., 5 oz chicken, jointed (skin on)
  • 2 tbsp. jerk seasoning
  • Oil, for brushing.
  • Squeeze the lime or lemon juice into a bowl of water and rinse the chicken. Pat dry. Rub the jerk seasoning all over the chicken and leave to marinate for a minimum of one hour or overnight.

    Light the barbecue and get it so the coals are covered with a layer of white ash. Brush the chicken and the grill with oil. Cook the chicken over medium heat for about 20 minutes. Then cover the barbecue and cook for a further 20 minutes or until done.

    Serves: 4-6

    Note:This trip was sponsored by the Jamaica Tourism board (tel. 800/233-4JTB; www.visitjamaica.com).

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