I have a thing for coconut water. Sometimes, in the middle of a hot, humid, American summer, I feel like I’ll just die if I don’t have a coconut right then. So I compromise and have a can of oversweetened Thai coconut juice. Does it taste good? No. But somehow, it assuages the craving.
So, when I’m in the tropics, I make sure to have as many coconuts as possible. As soon as I got off the plane, I asked our taxi driver if we could stop and have a coconut: jelly, as it’s called in Jamaica. And it was good. Sweet without added sugar, sipped straight from the shell with a straw. And after your belly it full of the coconut water, have the coconut split open for you, a makeshift spoon carved out of a piece of the shell, and scrape the young coconut jelly directly from the shell. Heaven.
Honestly, it was worth the price of the plane tickets alone just to have one coconut a day for six days.
Coconuts aside, no report on Jamaican cuisine would be complete without jerk. I’ve made jerk before, but jerk was meant to be eaten seaside, appetite sharpened by a morning of swimming and sun,
the scent of wood smoke on the breeze. In these seaside shacks, the meat is slowly smoked over embers of the allspice tree, which impart their distinctive flavor to the meat. I went around and tasted the sauces of all the jerk stands at Boston Beach. When I found the best, I flattered and flirted and tried in vain to extract a recipe from the proprietor. No such luck. At least I brought a bottle back for Kassie and CJ, who looked after my cats while I was gone.
Our most memorable meal, however, was in a seaside shack in the quiet fishing village of Manchioneal. On the heels of yet another fruitless expedition, we stopped in Manchioneal on the way back to Port Antonio, ravenous. The locals said that the best restaurant in town was Dada West. “That’s the name of the restaurant?” I asked. “No, that’s the name of the person who cooks there.”
Dada West’s could only be loosely termed a restaurant. It was a tin roof shack with a floor of sand and an enormous stereo system pumping reggae beats to the breeze. In the immaculate kitchen, Dada West cooks up pots of lobster curry, fish stew, and red beans and rice. We laid waste to plates of sweet and sour fish stew within minutes. For dessert, I had tucked a stolen mango from that morning. Dada West lent us a scotch bonnet pepper and some salt, and watched incredulously as my dad cut into the hard, green mango. He was good enough to try a slice, sour as a green apple and fiery with chile. I’m not sure he will be munching on green mangoes himself anytime soon, but it was nice to share something with him after he fed us so well.
It only occurred to me after I returned home how very ascetic our diet in Jamaica was in some ways. Portland was the most lush place I’ve ever been. Look up, and the trees above your head are heavy with bananas, ackee, star and sour apples. The sea teems with fish. We ate local vegetables simply stewed with fish for breakfast lunch and dinner. The funny thing is that I never missed butter, dairy or rich food. Perhaps it was the heat. Perhaps I was fish-starved from living in the Midwest. Perhaps, I just fell in love with Jamaica, its people, and the food that comes from its land and sea.