The cuisine many Caribbean restaurants in Los Angeles hawk is beautiful, exotic, eclectic. Menus feature a rainbow of colorful fruity cocktails laced with rum, coconut-coated shrimp, avocado-ginger soup, salsas of mango, pineapple and lime. It is the Caribbean cooking of our island fantasies.
Meanwhile, across town, pepperpots simmer with humble meats such as oxtails and mutton. There are fried plantains, salted codfish, conch, meat patties and jerk chicken. A chilled glass of homemade sorrel or soursop juice quenches the palate. A slice of dark, sweet fruit cake finishes off the meal.
Sound noticeably more heavy? It should. This food was meant to be filling. In Jamaica, the average year-round climate hovers around 85 degrees. "We need this," says Jamaican cook Beryl Robinson, "in order to cope with the sun."
This is native food, just the way you find it in homes in Jamaica. But now with so many transplants from the island in Los Angeles, it can be found in restaurants here too. And, despite its starchiness, Jamaican food, real Jamaican food, is some of the best food in the city.
Robinson is one reason why.
She is co-owner of Coley's Jamaican Restaurant in Los Angeles, a popular place among both Jamaicans and Americans known for its authentically earthy comfort food. And for the traditional black fruit cakes she'd been providing by the hundreds each Christmas season even before she became a partner.
For these cakes, she soaks the fruit--raisins, currants, dates and cashews--in port for six months, although two weeks to three months is customary. For her curry chicken, she rinses the bird in water spiked with a squeeze of lemon for special flavor. And she removes the skin, to reduce the fat. She never throws away the tiny brown bits left at the bottom of the skillet. "The dregs from the pot are the best part for your gravy," she says.
At Coley's you find the kind of food that keeps U.S.-born Jamaican kids home for dinner, the kind of food that island compatriots reminisce about. "It's food the way you find it back home," one customer said. But it's also the kind of food that lures Americans who have visited Jamaica to the restaurant.
On the island, the traditional dishes one experiences reflect many cultural influences: Spanish, Indian and African descendants created uses for the foods on the island that were widely available. Most grew their own herbs and spices. Mutton, pork and fish--especially conch and shellfish, snapper and salt-preserved cod were cheap. And the produce that seems so exotic to American tastes--treasures such as mangoes, cassava, breadfruit, plantain and some pumpkins--proliferated. Poor natives blended these foods into soups and stews, drinks and desserts to economize.
Robinson's dishes also reflect the ingenuity of her ancestors, but her cookery is accented by the influence of her parents who were cooks in the homes of wealthy British families on the island. The food they cooked was a far cry from poverty food. Occasionally Robinson would tag along while her parents worked. Her mother often gave her tiny child sized tasks: " 'Mash me two stalks of scallion,' my mother would say," Robinson recalls. Eventually, she developed an expertise in Jamaican cooking that even her teen-age children--despite their American upbringing--appreciate. "Mom, why are you doing this to me?" her 14-year-old son asks, "Your cooking is so good."
Take Robinson's Jamaican patties (similar to Mexican empanadas or British Cornish pasties without the potatoes). Unlike many other dry, tough versions, her pastry is flaky and light. Curry powder gives the pattie dough subtle flavor and a distinctive golden hue. The ground meat or chicken filling bursts with peppery spice. In her vegetarian patties, the delicate dough encrusts sauteed mustard and turnip greens, fresh spinach and zucchini, spiked with a hint of fire from Jamaican Scotch Bonnet peppers. Almost daily, a line of anxious diners waits patiently for the next batch of veggie patties to emerge from the oven.
Gone too are the days when she would piece together a meal from pantry leftovers: "a small piece of meat and whatever was available, tomatoes, onions, rice." Today, she uses only good quality meats and fresh vegetables. Vegetable oil is used for frying. She prefers fresh onions and garlic to industrial dehydrated forms. Lima beans are tossed in with her oxtail stew instead of the heavier dumplings favored by some island cooks. In fact, the aroma of curried and smothered meats that fills the air in the restaurant is simply arresting. The majority of the customers, she explains, request the oxtails.