The Sweet Taste Of A Jamaican Holiday

SUNDAY GOURMET

June 27, 1993|By GAIL FORMAN

How many of us have gotten to meet real folks when we travel to other other countries for short vacations? I know I haven't, and it's been a big disappointment to me.

I recently found out, though, that in Jamaica you can "Meet the People." The Jamaica Tourist Board has a program of that name designed to introduce visitors to that Caribbean island to the folks who live there.

Almost as exciting as meeting a few of the people of Jamaica on my recent trip, was meeting the food of Jamaica.

Rose and Cecil Morrison of Montego Bay, a retired couple who were instrumental in starting the program way back in 1964 and who have entertained more than 350 guests in their home, invited me for a sumptuous lunch showcasing Jamaica's specialties.

Mrs. Morrison first served a fruit called ackee with salt cod and bacon. This dish was accompanied by boiled green bananas and rice and peas (actually small red kidney beans). Escoveitched fish, roasted breadfruit and cabbage salad rounded out the meal. For dessert Mrs. Morrison presented cornmeal-coconut cake and fresh naseberries with tropical fruit punch and soursop juice.

These dishes reflect the culinary traditions of the varied cultures of Jamaica, including the Arawak Indians (the island's original inhabitants) and the Spanish, Africans, English, Chinese and East Indians.

Ackee and breadfruit are legacies of Captain Bligh of "Mutiny on the Bounty" fame. He brought them to Jamaica from Africa and Tahiti respectively. The beautiful red ackee fruit has yellow flesh that looks like scrambled eggs when cooked. Ackee with salt cod is Jamaica's national dish.

Breadfruit, which resembles bread when baked, usually is served roasted and striped with butter, an acquired taste, I thought. Later in my stay on the island I learned otherwise from chef Jack Shapansky of the Ciboney, a resort in Ocho Rios. Though committed to local foods, Mr. Shapansky often gives them unorthodox treatment, as he did when he transformed the bland, starchy breadfruit by deep-frying to intensify its flavor.

Escoveitched fish, a recast version of Mexican escabeche that I found on most restaurant menus in Jamaica, was exceptional as prepared by Mrs. Morrison. And her cornmeal and coconut cake I never saw anywhere else. She makes it with fresh coconut milk and judges its success by how effectively the coconut "jelly" rises to the top to create two distinct layers.

Jamaica's varied tropical fruits also captivated me -- mangoes, pineapple, custard apples, star apples, plantains, pomelos. Naseberries, also known as sapodillas, taste like brown sugar custard. Soursop, a relative of cherimoya, has luscious tart white flesh. And papaya in Jamaica actually has some flavor.

I'll long remember this brief taste of Jamaica. Aptly, the symbol of Jamaica's Meet the People program is the forget-me-not flower. I know I'll go back when I next have time only for a short vacation.

(For more information about the Meet the People program, contact the Jamaica Tourist Board Office at 800-233-4582.)

ROSE MORRISON'S CORNMEAL AND COCONUT CAKE

1 cup yellow cornmeal

1 cup brown sugar

1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

2 teaspoons vanilla

4 cups coconut milk, fresh or frozen

Combine all ingredients and pour into an 8-inch round, 3-inch-deep baking pan. Bake in a 350-degree oven 1 1/2 hours. Coconut "jelly" will rise to the top. Unmold or serve directly from pan. Serves 8 to 10.

ROSE MORRISON'S ESCOVEITCHED FISH

For the fish:

2 pounds white fish fillet such as flounder, snapper or catfish, sliced

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1 cup oil

1 small onion, sliced

For the sauce:

1/2 cup water

1/2 cup vinegar

1 small piece crushed fresh ginger root

2 medium onions, sliced

1 clove garlic, sliced

6 allspice berries

3 slices fresh hot pepper

1 sweet red pepper, sliced

1 carrot, thinly sliced

Wash fish and rub all over with salt and pepper. Let sit 2 hours. Heat oil in a skillet, add small onion slices and fry until golden. Remove and discard onion. Wipe fish dry, add to hot oil and fry until brown and cooked through. Drain on paper towels and place fish on a flat serving plate. Combine water, vinegar, ginger root, sliced onions and garlic in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil and add allspice and hot pepper. Let stand 5 minutes. Pour sauce over fish and garnish with red pepper and carrot slices. Serve hot or cold. Serves 4 to 6.

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