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Islands' Fare : Southland Interest in Caribbean Cuisine Continues to Grow

January 14, 1988|TONI TIPTON

There's a blaze burning on American palates.

It was ignited by Tex-Mex and fueled by the Cajun rage. Just when everyone thought the fervor for hot and spicy foods had burned itself out with the cooking classes, books and even premixed seasonings available to the home cook, another incendiary device continues to fan the flame.

The cuisine of the Caribbean has enjoyed enormous popularity lately in cities such as New York and San Francisco. Its notoriety comes on the heels of a fascination for foods that singe. It is actually a natural progression that a splash in the Caribbean should follow a fascination for things Cajun. Each trek for foods with a bite moves farther south.

Southern California, however, one of the richest gastronomic regions in the country, has been one of the last to give a nod of approval to island food as the next dining trend. The idea has been alluded to in newspaper food sections; prominent magazines have done a feature or two. But all-out support of Caribbean cuisine on the West Coast has yet to materialize--a phenomenon that publicists for island products are hard-pressed to explain.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday January 28, 1988 Home Edition Food Part 8 Page 2 Column 1 Food Desk 1 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
The photograph that ran in the Jan. 14 issue of The Times' Food Section, accompanying the article "Islands' Fare" (Part Two, Page 37), contains a copy of an original work of art by Bernard Stanley Hoyes.

25 Years of Independence

The Caribbean islands is a group of some 7,000 islands in the Caribbean Sea stretching south from Florida to the north coast of South America. The largest and most notable ones are Cuba, Puerto Rico, Jamaica and Hispaniola, which is home to the Dominican Republic and Haiti. In spite of their rich tropical beauty, the majority of these exotic havens, also known as the West Indies, have struggled in their efforts to attract wide-scale attention. But the island of Jamaica, which celebrated 25 years of independence from the British last year, has managed to remain economically stable and is a popular tourist spot, which seems to account for the interest in the food in the United States.

Whether seeking the sultry savvy of the salsa or fervently following the funky reggae beat, Angelenos make up a large part of the tourists who have visited Jamaica in recent years. According to Butch Meily, director of press relations for GreyCom International, 954,000 people visited the island of Jamaica in 1986 alone, and of those more than 18,000 were from California. Those figures are at least double the numbers for 1980--before the current government was in place; and since nonstop flights to Jamaica began originating in Los Angeles three years ago, tourism has increased by 37%. The Jamaican population here in Los Angeles has also risen.

But even with figures such as these and the fact that there are at least half a dozen restaurants around town offering Jamaican cuisine to tourists who want to partake of the food long after the trip back home, food aficianados apparently are reluctant to consider that Jamaican foods could satisfy the demand for spicy flavors and replace Cajun as "in."

Derryck Cox, Senior Trade Commissioner North America for the Jamaica Trade Commission, introduced a campaign that he hopes will bring Jamaican cuisine to the forefront of the Southern California dining scene at a press conference showcasing Caribbean products and foods.

The Jamaican style of cooking, like so many other cuisines, was developed through the ingenuity of the Spaniards, Indians and Africans who created uses for items that were easily available on the island. The use of goat and pork in Jamaican cuisine is attributable to the fact that they were widely accessible. And since sea creatures are prolific in the region, dishes made with conch, shellfish, snapper and cod are very common.

The inhabitants also found an assortment of uses for the multitude of exotic produce on the island. Tropical treasures such as mangoes, guavas, coconuts, pineapple, papaya, cassava, breadfruit, plantains, pumpkins and potatoes are whipped into everything from desserts and breads to drinks.

The most popular Jamaican item on local menus is Jamaican jerk chicken or pork. This characteristically Jamaican dish is more than 300 years old, according to Joyce LaFray Young, author of "Tropic Cooking" (Ten Speed Press: $12.95), and was developed as a means of preserving meat for lengthy storage. Either meat or poultry, which has been marinated in a spicy mixture of herbs and spices, can be used. It is slowly cooked over a pimento (the Jamaican term for allspice) fire, and on the island is typically found as road food.

Other Jamaican dishes include: oxtails with beans, a home-style stew made with Jamaican broad beans (lima beans are an excellent stand-in); rice and peas, a variation on Cajun red beans and rice; festival, a fried cornmeal cake similar to hush puppies; soursop, a drink reminiscent of eggnog made from the fleshy fruit of the same name and mixed with milk and spiked with nutmeg; fried plantains, a fruit of the banana family eaten when very ripe; curry goat; fruit custards, and bread pudding.

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