Recipes to celebrate Jamaica’s wonderful patchwork cuisine

A report by Melissa Thompson for London’s Telegraph.

A new cookbook showcases the Caribbean island’s classic dishes and some modern twists

Jamaica’s cuisine is a wonderful patchwork, and every dish and ingredient tells a story. From the Redware and Taíno peoples – the island’s earliest known settlers – to the Spanish and British colonialists, to the enslaved African men and women brought to toil on the land, to the Indians, Chinese and many other peoples who called the island home, everyone left their mark. 

But, without doubt, it was the men and women from Africa, who against their will came to the Caribbean island during the transatlantic slave trade, that had the biggest influence on the island’s food and culture. The island’s motto is ‘out of many, one people’. That sentiment goes for the food too. To me it is one of the finest – and most singular – cuisines in the world. 

Growing up, I lacked a first-hand connection to my dad’s island, but the food he made for us forged a link. As a child I would listen enraptured to his tales of childhood in Jamaica. I would try and place myself in this country but, thousands of miles away, it couldn’t feel more different. The descriptions of food always transported me best, bringing clarity in a way nothing else could. 

Motherland includes many of the familiar Jamaican dishes we cooked in my family, as well as some of my own recipes, rooted in the island’s ingredients. After all, food is constantly evolving. I like to think these recipes are a good starting point from which to explore, experiment and enjoy. 

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Recipes from Motherland: A Jamaican Cookbook by Melissa Thompson (£26, Bloomsbury


Ginger beer prawns 

‘Shrimp,’ as they are called on the island, have been a mainstay of the Jamaican diet since our knowledge of human history there begins. They were eaten by the indigenous Jamaicans; the Taíno are recorded to have fed Columbus a meal that included them. The sea and rivers remain a source of the crustaceans to this day.

My idea for this dish came from Japanese tempura: the sweet prawns encased in a light, crispy batter is a dream combination. While tempura calls for soda water, ginger beer is a great alternative. 

Ginger beer prawns

Timings

Prep time: 10 minutes, plus marinating

Cook time: 10-12 minutes

Serves

4 as a starter

Ingredients

  • 16-24 shell-on raw king prawns
  • 1 garlic clove, crushed
  • 2.5cm piece of ginger, finely grated 
  • Vegetable oil, for deep-frying 
  • 50g cornflour
  • 50g plain flour
  • 120ml ice-cold ginger beer (not diet)
  • Lime wedges, to serve 

Method

  1. Remove the heads and shells of the prawns, leaving on the tail sections. (You can also use shelled prawns, as long as they are raw.) Mix in a bowl with the garlic, ginger and some pepper and leave for 30 minutes. 
  2. Pour oil into a medium-sized saucepan, following all the usual precautions for deep-frying and heating to 180C.
  3. Mix the flours in a bowl and pour in the ginger beer. Stir loosely, as vigorous mixing will get rid of the bubbles you want to keep; don’t worry if there are some lumps. 
  4. Just before cooking, season the prawns with a good pinch of salt. Holding a prawn by the tail, dip into the batter, then drop into the hot oil. Cook until the batter puffs up, about two minutes. Repeat to cook all the prawns, frying them in small batches so as not to overcrowd the pan. 
  5. Drain on a wire rack placed over kitchen paper, not directly on kitchen paper or the batter will go soggy, and serve with a squeeze of lime. 

Peanut and sweet potato stew 

This dish is unashamedly West African, where peanut stews are common. Yet I’ve included it here because the movement of peanuts around the world tells of the trading routes that saw food, goods and people cross the Atlantic through the Columbian exchange and beyond.

The Spanish are said to have taken them back to Spain following their exploration of the so-called New World, where they were planted. From there they were taken to Africa, probably through trade, before being returned to the Americas during the transatlantic slave trade. 

Today, peanuts grow throughout Jamaica, especially in St Elizabeth. So while this isn’t a Jamaican dish, it’s one that draws on the West African influence that has inspired island food. 

Peanut and sweet potato stew

Timings

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 25-30 minutes

Serves

4-6 

Ingredients

  • 1 onion, chopped
  • Vegetable oil
  • 2 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 2.5cm piece of ginger, finely grated
  • 2 tsp ground turmeric
  • 1 tbsp ground cumin
  • 1 tbsp ground coriander
  • 1 tsp ground fenugreek seeds
  • 2 sweet potatoes, peeled and chopped into 2.5cm cubes
  • 400ml vegetable stock 
  • 400g can of red kidney beans, drained
  • 2 tbsp peanut butter
  • 2 mature bunches of spinach, washed and roughly chopped, coarse stalks removed 
  • boiled rice, to serve 

Method

  1. In a Dutch pot or large saucepan, fry the onion in a little oil. After eight minutes, add the garlic and ginger and cook for another couple of minutes before adding the spices, mixed with a little water to prevent them burning. Stir and cook until the spices become aromatic. 
  2. Add the sweet potatoes and stir to coat, then pour in the stock and add the beans and peanut butter. Put a lid on the pot and cook for 10–15 minutes until the sweet potatoes are soft. 
  3. Remove the lid, mix in the spinach and leave for five minutes until cooked through. Taste, then add salt until seasoned as you prefer. Serve with boiled rice.

Chicken corn soup

I’m not a huge soup lover – usually I find them too light and lacking in substance to fill me up – unless we’re talking Jamaican soups. Jamaican soups are something else. The complete contents of a Jamaican soup pot are often a mystery; it only reveals its delights the deeper you get. Hard food? Spinners? Chicken feet?

This is my chicken soup, how I like it. It’s not bolstered with any packet soup mix, though you can add that if you like towards the end of cooking time and adjust the seasoning accordingly (you’ll need less salt).

Chicken corn soup

Timings

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cook time: 40 minutes

Serves

4

Ingredients

  • ½ chicken on the bone (any combination: 2 whole legs, or 2 breasts and wings, or 1 leg and 1 breast and wing)
  • 2 litres light chicken stock 
  • 2 carrots, halved lengthways, then sliced
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 200g pumpkin or butternut squash, peeled, deseeded and cubed
  • 200g yam, peeled and chopped
  • 2 celery sticks, chopped
  • 150g sweetcorn kernels, or 2 sweetcorn cobs each cut into 3-4 rings
  • 1 tsp dried mixed herbs (Badia is a great brand)
  • 1 garlic clove, crushed
  • 2 spring onions, white parts only, finely chopped
  • 1 tsp freshly ground white pepper, or freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 tbsp plain flour
  • Spinners, to serve (see below)

Method

  1. Make sure the chicken is portioned up into drumsticks and thighs, or breasts cut into three on the bone. Bring a large saucepan of water to the boil, add the chicken and leave for one minute. Remove the chicken and rinse it to remove any scum, then discard the cooking water.
  2. Bring the stock to the boil in the cleaned pan. Add the chicken and reduce the heat to a simmer. Cook for 10 minutes, then add the carrots, onion, pumpkin, yam, celery, sweetcorn, dried herbs, garlic, spring onions and pepper. Cook for 20 minutes, then remove the chicken and leave to cool. Leave the soup simmering.
  3. Put the flour in a small bowl and mix in a ladleful of soup. Once mixed, return it to the soup pan and stir until thickened.
  4. Add the spinners to cook (see recipe below). Shred the cooled chicken pieces and return the meat to the soup, then serve.

Spinners

Spinners are a quick and inexpensive way to add bulk and body to a soup or stew, transforming it from a snack into a meal. A couple of spinners in your dish and you’ll be good to go.

Spinners

Timings

Prep time: 5 minutes, plus 10 minutes resting

Cook time: 5 minutes

Serves

4-6 in a stew or soup

Ingredients

  • 150g plain flour
  • 1 tsp sea salt

Method

  1. Place the flour and salt in a bowl and gradually add water, bringing the dough together so it is pliable but not sticky. Cover and leave it to rest for 10 minutes.
  2. Once your soup or stew is almost ready, take a large grape-sized amount of dough and roll it between your palms, shaping it so that the ends are pointed while the middle section stays thicker.
  3. Drop the spinners straight into the soup or stew pot, then repeat until the mixture is all used up. Cook for five minutes before serving.

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