Good Morning Jamaica
Across the island, people wake up to big, delicious meals
Enlarge Image Credit: Landon NordemanYou need to take a picture of some big-bellied Jamaicans because people in the States think we're all skinny and hungry," bus driver Peter Holland tells me. He's waiting for his breakfast at Anty's Homestyle Cooking, a blue plywood shack with a hand-painted sign on a dusty street in downtown Kingston, the capital of Jamaica. It's six o'clock in the morning, and Anty's is already busy.
"Come on, mon," Holland says, turning profile to display his ample girth. He's reminding me of the first time I tasted a Jamaican breakfast, bought from a food truck some winters ago in New York City: Dense dumplings, both boiled and fried, and golden fried plantains, sweet boiled yam, boiled green bananas—these were just the accompaniments. The main course was a massive portion of salted cod cooked with a tropical fruit called ackee. How in the world, I thought, do folks on an island where the average temperature is in the 80s start off the day like this? Then I took a forkful, and I fell in love.
Jamaica, the third-largest Caribbean island, with a population of nearly 3 million, is known in the United States for its fiery barbecue, called jerk. But any of the customers lining up at Anty's will tell you that Jamaica's most beloved meal isn't a jerk lunch or dinner. It's breakfast, including the national dish, a sauté of salt cod or pollack, bell peppers, onions, tomatoes, Scotch bonnet chiles, scallions, and ackee, which grows wild on the island. As much as I'd like to try the version at Anty's, just one of dozens of bustling cookshops I pass this morning, I can't linger right now. I'm headed to meet Barbara Naedene Ellington, the lifestyle editor for the Kingston-based newspaper The Gleaner, to find out how she prepares this and other dishes that make up the awe-inspiring morning meals I've come to the island to experience.
"Most Jamaicans eat a big plate of food, girl, in the morning," Ellington tells me over breakfast at her home. "We just grew up hearing that you need a solid meal in your belly first thing." She pours me a sweet-tart drink made with the sepals of hibiscus flowers, which Jamaicans call sorrel, and lays a bright-orange hunk of boiled yam on my plate next to the ackee and saltfish. The saltfish, an increasingly expensive import, is used sparingly as an accent. The star of Ellington's dish is the ackee, which she takes from the prolific trees in her yard. She explains that the fruit, which is poisonous until ripened, can be harvested once its red pods have burst, revealing lobes of creased yellow flesh surrounding shiny black seeds. Unlike the canned kind we get in the States, which breaks down when sautéed, the fresh lobes retain the shape that inspired the nickname "vegetable brain."
Digging in, I realize that this dish epitomizes the brilliance of Jamaican cooking. It's a cuisine born of the island's unique history—its sugar plantation past, its kaleidoscopic Creole culture, its people's vibrancy in the face of hardship. Like the diverse ancestors of the islanders themselves (whose motto is "Out of Many, One People"), none of the ingredients in ackee and saltfish is indigenous. The cod comes from northern waters; it arrived here in the 17th century to provision forced labor. The vegetables—most of which are now staples of Jamaican kitchen gardens—were introduced from Europe, Asia, and other parts of the Americas. And the ackee is of West African origin, the trees in Jamaica perhaps first sprung from seeds stowed away with captives in the hold of a slave ship. Yet when cooked together, they create a sort of magic: The brine and oil of the fish mingle with the brightness and heat of the vegetables and the nuttiness of the ackee. The vegetables crunch, the fish flakes, and the custardy fruit yields to the fork. It tastes like the world's most satisfying way to begin the day.