When planning a Jamaican vacation, immersion in the local flavors and culture is probably not the first thing that comes to mind. But maybe it should be.
I recently visited this honeymooners' haven – home of the legendary Bob Marley – and I discovered that there is much more to this Caribbean gem than I expected.
Most Americans go to Jamaica to enjoy a posh resort, be catered to, and just relax in the sun.
There is certainly nothing wrong with that, nor any shortage of places to do it, but I suggest a look outside the resorts. It is not too hard to enjoy the best of both worlds.
The Jamaican people are warm, welcoming and diverse. Their national motto, “ Out of Many, One People,” is absolutely fitting. In the words of one local I met while there, “ We all just blend together. If you live in Jamaica, you are Jamaican.” He said that, regardless of color or ethnic background, Jamaicans are Jamaicans.
To get a feel for the place, it is important to understand something about the history. Knowing little to nothing when I arrived, I thoroughly enjoyed learning about Jamaica and its people.
Jamaica was partially colonized by Spain in the early 1500s. Disease brought by the Spanish settlers wiped out the entire native population.
The peaceful Tainos, American Indians, succumbed to a variety of illnesses, including the common cold. The Spaniards later brought sugar cane to Jamaica, and slaves from Africa to work the crops. England took Jamaica in 1655 and the island became one huge sugar cane plantation. More Africans were brought in to work the sugar cane fields, but as the English invaded, many of the Spaniards' slaves escaped to find refuge in the mountains. These former slaves, called “Maroons,” organized and fought to retain their freedom. Some English slaves also escaped and joined with the Maroons, who eventually became so formidable that the English granted them self-government and turned over the mountain lands where they lived.
Slavery was abolished in 1834 and later many people came from India and China as indentured workers for the sugar cane plantations.
There were many mixed marriages and the result is what is now a country with a rich blend of culture, and flavor – Spanish, English, African, Chinese, Indian, German, Arab and Jewish foods, and even a few carry-overs from the Tainos, each have influenced the unique and wonderful cuisine to be enjoyed on the island.
The Maroons first began preserving their meats through the process of “jerk” seasoning.
If you have never had jerk chicken, you seriously need to go to try it – and not just anywhere – get the real thing on your Jamaican vacation.
I first tried it at a place called Scotchies in Montego Bay. Not only was it wonderful to eat, especially when washed down with a Red Stripe beer and in some good company, but you can even watch the process as the jerk cooks pile the seasoned chicken on “sweet wood” and cover it with thin metal, and let it slowly smoke its way into some of the most flavorful and tender chicken you could ever imagine. I tried it again at a roadside stand on the way to Kingston – still yummy. You could compare jerk chicken to southern barbecue; everyone has their own way of doing it, and they are not quick to share their seasoning secrets.
The main ingredients in jerk seasoning are the Scotch Bonnet peppers (very hot) and allspice.
Also on the way to Kingston from Montego Bay, we stopped in a little village to look at the produce in a local market. Just outside the door, a large metal pot with a heavy lid sat above some hot coals. Our helpful and informative tour guide explained that this was “hell on the top, hell on the bottom, and hallelujah in the middle.” Oh yes, I tried that, too. The best way to describe it is like a type of bread pudding – crunchy on the top and bottom and the middle just seems to melt in your mouth. It is really a scrumptious sweet potato pudding, baked in an iron pot with live coals in the bottom of the coal stove and also on the top of the dutch pot. The pudding cooks at the top and at the bottom at the same time. Do get out of the car and taste as you tour Jamaica, but be prepared for some scary driving ... Houston drivers are tame in comparison. You might be better to do as I did and go with a group on a tour bus. Ackee, the national fruit, was growing abundantly during my visit. I quickly learned that the national dish of ackee and saltfish is not to be missed. The fruit, believed to have been brought in from Africa on a slave ship, is plentiful and plays a huge role as a Jamaican culinary essential. The fleshy inner part is the only part that is edible.
I also learned that you cannot eat ackee unless the fruit has opened up, or it is poison. Aside from the local flavor along the roadside, fine dining abounds in Jamaica.
There are many great restaurants in Montego Bay resorts including the new Iberostar, a Spanish resort which, as our guide explained, was one of many in a new “Spanish invasion” of the island – but in a good way. It is beautiful and all-inclusive, well worth a visit.
Also in Montego Bay, don't miss “The Hip Strip,” an array of shops, bars, nightclubs and restaurants along Gloucester Avenue. Wine with Me owner Cecile Levee wanted a warm and inviting atmosphere for the serious wine drinker, and she certainly got it. You won't want to miss it on your “Hip Strip” adventure. In Ocho Rios, which, by the way does not mean “eight rivers,” the breathtaking Royal Plantation is set to pamper its guests. They offer three gourmet restaurants, two private cove beaches, a wine and caviar bar, and much more. The hotel is the only one in Jamaica that is recognized as a member of the Leading Small Hotels of the World.
If you go, be sure to check out their guest photo album – you'll find many familiar, famous faces. Also a must-do if you can possibly squeeze it in is a tour of the Craighton Estate Coffee Farm and Great House. You can sample Jamaica's world-renowned Blue Mountain Coffee, tour the plantation to see how the coffee beans are grown and harvested. If “happy cows come from California,” happy coffee beans come from Jamaica. Be sure to take some coffee back with you. My friends and family are still talking about it, served with a nice teaspoonful of sweetened condensed milk ... when in Rome, as they say. The Craighton Plantation is not far from Kingston, where we found even more great places to eat. The Market Place has a courtyard filled with a variety of restaurants, and the setting is fantastic. You can sit outside in the courtyard at any table, and order from any one restaurant, or combination. The Jewel of India is know for its fine Indian cuisine, and I can tell you that it is fine. Just steps away you can order sushi, Japanese, authentic Jamaican fare and more. The setup is perfect for a group, as all can sit together and order from any of the restaurants. Also on my trip,
I was able to tour the Walkerswood Caribbean Foods factory (St. Ann, www.walkerswood.com) where they make jerk seasoning, pepper sauces and a whole lot more, and export worldwide. Walkerswood began operation in 1978 and has since provided a much-needed economic boost the area, resulting in clean drinking water, better schools and many new jobs for nearby residents. While you are there, pick up a copy of Virginia Burke's book, “Eat Caribbean” (also available at amazon.com), buy some seasonings, to put some Caribbean spice and fire in your own kitchen. I have not even begun to scratch the surface when it comes to Jamaican flavor, but I encourage you to get out a map, talk to your travel agent and plan your own adventure. Although I never got to Negril, I was told by someone who is an authority on the subject, that you have not really had the full-flavor experience until you eat in some of the little, hutlike places in Negril, chickens pecking at your feet.
To learn more about this charming island whose cuisine and people blend so wonderfully, visit www.visitjamaica.com.