The intense flavors of spicy jerk chicken or tender curry goat are enough to set any food lover’s taste buds on fire in a good way. Caribbean food is a fusion of bold and unique tastes and spices with common island ingredients that make for a captivating culinary experience.
In recent years, the popularity of Caribbean has skyrocketed as more and more people opt to diversify their palates and explore the Caribbean’s culinary traditions. Caribbean cooking is hard to define because every island — and even the individual regions on an island — have distinctive styles and cooking techniques. The Caribbean, as a whole, has served as a virtual melting pot of various cultures — Spanish, French, West African, East Indian, Lebanese, and Chinese to name a few. As diverse as the culture may be, the cuisine brings people together whether they are from Trinidad, Tobago, Jamaica or Puerto Rico. The food is the cornerstone of any social function.
When I think of good times and family get-togethers from my childhood, I can’t help but reminisce about the intoxicating smells and tastes of Caribbean cooking, courtesy of my father’s Jamaican heritage. Whether it was a special occasion or just an excuse to party, food was always a vital part of the celebration. My aunt always said a party wasn’t a true party without good food and plenty to drink, so the menu was always the first thing we planned — even before we discussed the guest list.
“Back home, food was always the center of socializing. It was an essential part of daily living in Jamaica,” says Valerie Bray, a Clermont resident and a member of the Caribbean American Association of Lake County.
Taste of island life
In June, the Caribbean American Association of Lake County held its second annual Taste of the Caribbean & Jerk Festival at Waterfront Park in Clermont.
The 55-member charity organization is known for mentoring the community’s youth and providing scholarships to deserving students while also fostering cultural awareness throughout Lake County.
“We do a lot of fundraising, so we wanted to create an event that would not only help us give back to the community but also would allow residents to experience the Caribbean,” says Valerie.
At the festival, attendees had the opportunity to partake in the Caribbean tradition of food and celebration by enjoying live entertainment and sampling a wide variety of traditional Caribbean fare. Not wanting to miss an opportunity to celebrate a part of my heritage, I gathered some friends and family and headed to Clermont for the festival. After cooling off with a generous helping of fresh-shaved ice topped with sweet piña colada syrup, I grabbed a bite of my all-time favorite Jamaican dish: curry goat. Many people believe curry goat is a common dish eaten regularly in Jamaica, but Valerie explains it is actually more of a treat than a staple.
“Curry goat was not something we ate regularly,” says Valerie, who grew up in Kingston before leaving the island in the 1960s. “Traditionally, it was for large gatherings because an entire goat is slaughtered and every part of the goat is used.”
More common dishes included stew peas and rice and soups made with beef, chicken, or red peas, which Valerie says were typical Saturday meals. At the end of the week, dinners were more economical with dishes such as corned beef and cabbage with rice.
Sunday, however, was always the largest meal of the week. “We would always get a chicken from outside, slaughter it, and then pick the feathers before cooking it,” Valerie says.” “My brother’s job was to kill the chicken and put the wash pan over it. My job was to stand on the wash pan to make sure the chicken wouldn’t fly away if it were still alive. Then we poured hot water over it, plucked the feathers, cooked it and served it with rice and peas and a salad.”
Cooking in the country
Aside from killing chicken or the occasional goat, Valerie says her family enjoyed the modern convenience of supermarkets in the capital city of Kingston. “Every Saturday, we would go to the market and haggle for the right price,” she says. “We never paid what they were asking.”
However, many islanders outside the big cities had to rely on farming to feed their families. In the country, Clermont resident Imogene Williams says it was imperative for people to be self-sufficient by raising and growing their own food.
“Mom raised chickens, my father had cows, and we planted yams, tomatoes, breadfruit, and oranges,” she says. “We also raised pigs and goats. We didn’t realize how rich we really were because we had an abundance of food that we all grew ourselves.”
Imogene, also a member of the Caribbean American Association of Lake County, lived in the mountain area of Manchester Parish, located on the west-central side of Jamaica, for 12 years. Life was primitive in the sense that contemporary amenities like refrigerators and stoves weren’t available. Instead, food was cooked over a fire and food was stored in the buttery, or what we refer to as a pantry. As for saving leftover meat, Imogene says her mother would pickle it to preserve it.
After leaving home to attend school in Kingston, Imogene says it was the first time she experienced shopping in an actual market. “It was strange for me to see people buying food, because when I was growing up, if we needed something, we would just pick what we wanted,” she says. “Looking back on it, we didn’t have much, but it never bothered us. You can’t miss what you never had or even knew existed.”
And while both Imogene and Valerie grew up in different ways on the same island, they still share one commonality: a love for Caribbean food and a deep appreciation for its social significance to the Caribbean culture. That passion is what the Caribbean American Association of Lake County strives to bring to the forefront every year at its food festival. It’s more than just eating; it’s a way to reconnect with one’s roots and enjoy the fellowship that comes along with every celebration.
“Our goal is to eventually make this a two-day event and have people from all over the country travel to Clermont to enjoy this weekend with us,” Valerie says. “Not everyone is fortunate enough to be able to travel to the Caribbean. Therefore, if you can’t fly to it, we can at least have it come to you and you can have a taste of it right here in your backyard.”
Jamaica may be known for its great music, beautiful beaches, and welcoming people. But nothing resonates with people outside the Caribbean more than this picturesque island’s delectable cuisine. Most notable of its dishes is Jamaican Jerk, a style of cooking that involves rubbing meat with an array of piquant spices and allowing it to marinate overnight for the right amount of flavor.
Jessica Green, who ran the JG Jerk & Grill food station at the Taste of the Caribbean & Jerk Festival, says the key to good jerk is blending the seasonings just right for the best tang without too much heat. Originally from the island nation of Antigua, Green began cooking jerk after marrying her Jamaican husband 20 years ago. While she admits many people like their jerk extremely spicy, Green says she likes to blend her jerk with other ingredients to come up with winning combinations that are both flavorful and palatable by most people. “I like to add other things like pineapple to give it a sweet and sour taste. I’ll also add honey barbecue or teriyaki to give it a sweetness,” she says. “Everyone has a different way of making their jerk. Not everyone likes just hot and spicy.”
While jerk is traditionally applied to chicken and pork, it can also be used on fish, shrimp, beef, shellfish, and lamb.
Jerk ChickenYield: 4 servings
- 3 pounds chicken breasts
- 2 sliced scotch bonnet or habanero peppers, chopped with seeds
- 8 garlic cloves, chopped
- 3 medium onions, chopped
- 1 tablespoon dried thyme or 2 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
- 2 teaspoons ground black pepper
- 2 teaspoons molasses
- 2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 2 tablespoons ground allspice
- 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- 2 teaspoons ground nutmeg
- 2 teaspoons ground ginger
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- 1/2 cup soy sauce
- 1/2 cup lime juice
- 1 cup white vinegar (or malt vinegar)
Note: Scotch bonnet and habanero peppers can cause extreme pain if they come in contact with your eyes, skin, tongue, or any other sensitive area. Wear protective gloves while handling the peppers and jerk sauce.
Chop the onions, garlic, and peppers. Blend all ingredients (except the chicken) in a blender until mostly smooth.
Place chicken in a large baking dish. Add the sauce to the chicken breasts and coat thoroughly. Marinade overnight. Reserve some sauce for basting later.
To bake, set the oven at 350 degrees and cook the chicken for 30 minutes. Turn the meat and bake an additional 30 minutes, or until the juices run clear when pierced with a knife. To grill, preheat the grill to medium high. Slowly cook, while turning regularly, until the chicken is cooked, or the breasts’ internal temperature reaches 165 to 170 degrees. Baste with remaining sauce while cooking. For best results, cook over a charcoal barbecue (ideally over a rack of pimento wood).
Recipe adapted from www.jamaicatravelandculture.com
Written by Shemir Wiles | Photos by Fred Lopez