Category Archives: Travel

Jamaican Locavore

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.


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Destination: Jamaica, Port Antonio

I know I’ve been neglecting this blog terribly of late, and when I do show up, I whine endlessly. As my inner reserves of sunlight and warmth dwindled through the winter, I became more and more cranky. So when the opportunity arose to spend spring break by the sea in warm and tropical Jamaica, I grabbed it.

Needing a vacation away from work, I dragged my parents away from the spring-break craziness of resort-infested Montego Bay to serence Portland parish, on the northeastern coast of the island. I won’t lie; there’s not much going on in Port Antonio, the main town. It turns out that when you avoid tourists, you also avoid first-world tourist amenities. In order to have a good time, you must abandon all expectations of what will happen and when. If you hike a mile up the top of a steep hill in search of an art exhibition, only to find that you were misinformed not only about the hotel in question, but also about the date of the exhibition, the only thing to do is to be thankful for the hike itself, through the lush rainforest as beautiful as any nature preserve.

And who can be disappointed when confronted with a view of the sea coming into the cove from the top of the hill?

It was enough, I found, to sit in a park and watch a cricket game, breathing the salty ocean air that I’ve missed so much, feeling the sun on my skin after a winter indoors, and call to a herd of goats going by.

It was lovely to be there with my parents, who, it turns out, feel perfectly at home in tropical islands formerly occupied by the British. The flora of Portland is similar to that of Kandy, the hill town of central Sri Lanka where my mother grew up. In Sri Lanka, vendors on the side of the road sell green mango dipped in a mixture of chile powder and salt. Raw mango is hard to find Stateside, so when we saw an enormous mango tree near our guest house, it’s branches bearing hundreds of hard, green mangoes, we couldn’t resist helping ourselves.

To hear my mother tell stories from her childhood, mango theft is practically in my DNA. We ate our green mango with a generous sprinkling of salt and a chopped Scotch bonnet pepper in place of chile powder.

Of course, my vacation wasn’t all mango-thievery and cricket-watching. I had only five days to make up for my five month sun and sea deficit.

This lagoon is fed both by the sea and by under-water springs, some of which spout hot water. Like many things in Portland, there’s no tourist infrastructure to the lagoon, just a gravel road leading to a cement boat ramp. To swim in the lagoon, you squeeze by the boats and try not to cut your feet on the sharp stones that line the bottom.

I arrived back in Minnesota almost a month ago now, to a stack of papers to be graded, another snow storm, and thankfully, a house full of friends for whom to cook dinner. I was exhausted at work on Tuesday, but I didn’t regret my vacation excess for a second. My sun reserves topped up, I could patiently wait through another six snow storms for spring to finally arrive.

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