By Ron Shewchuk

Jamaica is a destination in transition. The island’s tourism industry has steadily grown over the last 20 years, with 2019 numbers expected to come in around 4.5 million. For Calgarians, direct flights to Montego Bay make it an easy-to-reach vacation spot. But the island still grapples with poverty, violent crime and political unrest, even as it strives to integrate and heal its colonial past.

Centuries of Spanish and British rule wiped out Jamaica’s indigenous peoples and brought waves of African slaves and indentured Indian and Chinese labourers. Each of those cultures brought something to the table. Aboriginal wood-fired cooking methods merged with African influences and introduced wild boar to spawn spicy jerk pork. The Cornish pasty was filled with Indian curry, becoming the Jamaican patty. Soy sauce, called “China sauce” by Jamaicans, became a key ingredient in marinades, sauces and stews.

Today, Jamaican cuisine is still evolving. A handful of culinary leaders, both local and from away, are taking up the torch of modernizing what may be one of the world’s greatest fusion foods.

Jamaican Cuisine

It’s a challenge. When Jamaicans go out on the town, they’re happy to visit their local bar or jerk centre to eat simple, unadorned dishes like jerk pork, grilled local fish or oxtail with broad beans. It’s all washed down with Red Stripe beer, or highballs made with fiery white rum mixed with a sweet grapefruit soda called Ting. There’s little effort to build on these popular favourites, and perhaps no improvement is necessary.

Over at the fine-dining restaurants, mostly located in resorts and hotels, Jamaican dishes occupy a small corner of menus that are dominated by standard tourist fare like steak and lobster and crab cakes. The head chefs in these establishments are mostly from somewhere else. One of them is Kevin Hildebrandt, a Florida-based executive chef who fell in love with Jamaica years ago as a tourist.

In 2018, Hildebrandt jumped on an opportunity to develop a fine-dining program for a hotel chain building a new resort in the capital city, Kingston. He had a vision – to “tweak” traditional Jamaican dishes by giving them more depth of flavour and making them look more modern on the plate. But he soon found out that Jamaican cooks and eaters have something in common with foreign travelers who, no matter where they are, expect their food to be familiar. Jamaicans are extremely conservative, food-wise, says Hildebrandt. “They want the same thing, the same way as their grandmother’s grandmother’s grandmother used to make it.”

Compounding the challenge of a change-averse native food culture are extreme trade restrictions and punitive tariffs on imported foods, making chef-y ingredients like microgreens, beets, leeks and well-marbled beef hard to bring in. Hildebrandt took baby steps as he adjusted menus in the restaurant and bar at the Courtleigh Hotel & Suites. He and his crew took extra care to fine-tune dishes like the traditional jerk they smoked on the premises, which helped build a big local following. And he promoted a novel way to serve Jamaica’s national dish, ackee and saltfish, serving it bruschetta-style, piled on toasted slices of baguette. Not necessarily revolutionary moves, but thoughtful and lip-smacking interpretations.

Meanwhile, on a winding road about 20 miles north of Kingston, in the famed Blue Mountains, a local restaurateur is emerging as a kind of Alice Waters (eat local activist and pioneer) of Jamaica. Robyn Fox and her father Michael have built a winning combination of restaurant, vegetable farm and guest house. They’re fusing Jamaican cuisine with European cooking techniques and following a farm-to-table philosophy that originated back in the ’70s at Waters’ famed California eatery, Chez Panisse.

saltfish and ackee with calaloo and green bananas

Saltfish and ackee with calaloo and green bananas Photo Credit: Ron Shewchuk

The restaurant is called EITS, an acronym for “Europe In The Summer.” Grilled lamb with homemade black mint jelly sits on the menu next to barrel-roasted chicken topped with Blue Mountain herb pan gravy. Guests choose between two sides: Irish potato croquettes or traditional Jamaican-style rice and peas. Robyn brings in chefs from Europe who teach her kitchen staff how to make sauces; in turn, she shows them how to make island classics. EITS’s customers are mainly tourists on their way to coffee plantations and expats who’ve retired in the Blue Mountains.

So in 2019, Jamaican cuisine isn’t easily pigeonholed as either purely laid back or clearly aspirational. Surely, though, many see no need to mess with success. There’s something timeless and perfect about a foil-lined take-out container packed with juicy jerk chicken, with cabbage slaw and a couple of deep fried “festival” fritters on the side. Or a plate of ackee and saltfish, callaloo and green bananas. Or a fast food outlet’s Jamaican beef patty, hot from the fryer and packaged in a grease-stained paper bag. Such satisfying, ritualistic, purely Jamaican bites offer some of this country’s most unforgettable culinary adventures.