Travel: Yam, bam, thanks mam

In the first of articles about Jamaica, James Ferguson discovers that there's more to the island's cuisine than rice 'n' peas
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The Independent Culture
A Jamaican publisher friend of mine, Ian, peering approvingly into a large pot of boiled dumplings and yams, says: "This is food." It's not meant as a value judgement - there's no stress on the "this". It's simply a linguistic clarification, because the starchy, stodgy tuberous bits of the Caribbean diet, also sometimes known as "ground provisions", are simply called "food" in Jamaica. These rib-sticking delicacies have many names - pumpkin, yams, eddoes, dasheen - but to the untutored palate they all taste pretty much the same. Rather solid.

That food and starch should be synonymous in this part of the world doesn't come entirely as a surprise. Jamaican cooking is calorific, to say the least, with the emphasis on frying and baking, and favoured ingredients that include coconut milk, butter and condensed milk. A Jamaican Sunday brunch would be considered meagre without boiled green bananas, fried plantains, rice 'n' peas and - when in season - roasted breadfruit. And those are just the side dishes.

It seems that a love of stodge runs deep among the many different peoples who have inhabited this fertile island over the centuries. The indigenous Tainos left a taste for cassava, which remains as an ingredient in the present-day "bammy", a flat, round bread. Their Spanish tormentors introduced not only sugarcane, but bananas and rice too. The British are responsible for dumplings and potatoes, while the Africans they shipped over into slavery introduced such heavyweight delicacies as "festival", a deep-fried cylinder of cornmeal.

But carbohydrate isn't the whole story. Subtle - and less than subtle - herbs and spices are intrinsic to Jamaican cooking and similarly reflect the island's mixed cultural history. Curry came with 19th century indentured Indian labourers, while scorchingly hot chilli probably reflects a Spanish love of the caliente. As in all Caribbean Creole cultures, the result of mixed European, African and Asian influences is an intriguing blend of tastes.

The idea was for Ian and me to drive around the island, sampling some of these tastes in a culinary circuit. He assured me that each of the island's 14 parishes had a particular delicacy and that most of them could be tried at the roadside (the variety and quality of "street foods" are a particular feature of Jamaican eating, he said - turnover is quick and food-poisoning risks minimised). All this, moreover, was to be done in a spirit of research: having already published a Jamaican cookery book, Ian was interested in a parish-by-parish follow-up. This was to be a sort of recce.

First, Kingston. A large, steamy, traffic-clogged city, with some distinctly dodgy areas, and not really on the tourist map. But even so, it has several very good restaurants and a network of Tastee patty outlets, which sell the ubiquitous and delicious Jamaican snack for about 20 pence a time. While lingering on the streets after dark isn't perhaps a great idea, I felt sufficiently bold to try some drum chicken. This is the urban version of rural jerk chicken, seasoned and barbecued in an oil drum. Billowing and pungent smoke leads you to these roadside vendors, and a parcel of tender and spicy chicken pieces costs about pounds 1.50.

Setting off early up towards Ocho Rios, we drove over the central mountains. After deep and dark river gorges and mountainside bends, the road emerges onto a plateau at Moneague, where a row of some 30 shacks awaits the peckish passer-by. They compete fiercely, offering grilled corn on the cob, curry goat, oxtail soup and, of course, jerk chicken. Jerk chicken, is not hard to find. Every village seems to have a "jerk centre", which I found amusing (Ian didn't).

Heading west along the coast road, we gave the all-inclusive resorts and condominiums a wide berth, passing through decaying market towns and half-built tourist strips until reaching Montego Bay (apparently a corruption of the Spanish manteca, or lard). The scruffy town centre seems to be in a state of continual gridlock, a situation which may explain the unusual incidence of lunacy - one eccentric woman insisted on licking our car windows. Our appetites duly dampened, we none the less managed to eat "one pot" bowls of red pea soup - a stew so thick that one pot is all you need.

Cursing our overnight stay in the luxury Half Moon Club at MoBay (eating bland, imported gravadlax and watching the Japanese guests), we continued hungrily along the road. Ian grew more cheerful as we neared his home parish of Hanover. Like all Kingston residents, he waxes lyrical about a fast-disappearing rural Jamaica, and I could see his point as we drove through ramshackle-but-pretty villages, and plantations of coconut palms. The sea is always nearby at this western tip of the island, so it seemed like a good idea to try some fish. Escoveitch is the name given to the marinade of vinegar, onions and hot red peppers into which the fried fish is immersed. Well, I think that was the system, even though it seemed the wrong way around.

We carried on south through Savanna-la-Mar to the atmospheric and rather rundown town of Bluefields. It was time for another meal and I had a thick and delicious fish soup - much better, I thought, than the bony escoveitch. We settled for just a few bammies and a bag of ackee to take back to Kingston.

A few hours later in Mandeville, as if by some natural metabolic self- defence mechanism, I had developed raging toothache. Despite that, the trip up to Boston Bay in Portland parish on the north-east tip was deemed compulsory. Two hours and many potholes from Kingston, this is the home of authentic jerk food, the style of cooking that reputedly started with the Tainos. Chicken or pork is marinaded in a mix of spices and then barbecued over pimento wood in a special pit dug in the ground. Alas, in the midst of torrential rain we were the only tourists - or researchers - on the culinary circuit and Ian suddenly announced that the pork was less than fresh. Unfortunate really, since I had already eaten half of mine and spent the rest of the day fearfully awaiting retribution. It never came.

After so much roadside sustenance, I wasn't exactly hungry, but was keen to meet Norma Shirley, the queen of new Jamaican cooking and the inspiration behind Norma at the Wharfhouse, near Montego Bay, and Red Bones in Kingston. These places are chic, expensive (pounds 30-40 a head), and anything but stodgy. At Red Bones, I had chicken breast in fromage frais and champagne sauce on a guava coulis. And no "food".

Norma used to be a nurse in London, married a doctor, and once lived in the posh Dulwich estate where Mrs Thatcher bought a house. She had discovered good food during trips to France, had worked in a Berkshire restaurant and moved to New York before returning to Jamaica. She is now a star, the subject of TV shows and Vogue features.

Much Jamaican food is unhealthy, she admits, and she caters to a small, discriminating clientele, using olive oil and herbs, but little salt. Her trademark ingredients, it seems, are thyme, scallion and Scotch bonnet red peppers. Wherever possible, she says, she uses local ingredients, preferably from the mountainous interior near the town of Christiana. Not far from cool, upland Mandeville, this is smallholder country and reputedly the best place for organic vegetables. Norma dismisses the "waxed apple syndrome" of imported American food, the kind of synthetic stuff that she says is dished out in the all-inclusives.

I ventured to ask her what her favourite meal might be. "Oxtail and stew peas," she replied promptly. That might not be "food", but it's still pretty Jamaican.

British Airways and Air Jamaica fly to Kingston and Montego Bay. There are also a great many connecting flights from Miami.

Red Bones in Kingston is at 21 Braemar Avenue (001 876 978 8262); Norma at the Wharfhouse is at Reading, west of Montego Bay (001 876 979 2745). A good book on the island's food is Enid Donaldson's `Real Taste of Jamaica' (Ian Randle, pounds 12.95).

James Ferguson is the author of `The Traveller's History of the Caribbean' (Windrush Press, pounds 8.99)