It took a trip to Jamaica for me to understand the fine points of jerked meats and the merits of plain fried fish.
First the jerk. Jerk is barbecue with a difference. Long marination in a mixture of island-grown ingredients and slow roasting over a smoky pimento-wood fire produces meat that is crisp but juicy and intensely flavorful.
Contributing to the unique taste of jerk pork, chicken, beef, goat and fish is a fiery paste rub made of onion, scallions, garlic, nutmeg, thyme, pimento and Scotch bonnet chili peppers. Pimento -- better known as allspice -- is an island native. The crushed dried seeds flavor many Jamaican dishes, giving them hints of cinnamon, anise, coriander and pepper. Scotch bonnet chili peppers (also called habaneras) are among the world's hottest peppers.
Some say the jerk technique originated with the Arawak Indians, the island's first inhabitants. But a more common legend credits the Maroons, runaway slaves, with applying a cooking technique from Africa to the wild pigs on which they survived while hiding out in the Blue Mountains.
Even in Jamaica, though, not all jerk is created equal; the best is served at outdoor restaurants featuring picnic tables and throbbing reggae music. Among my favorite jerk joints on a recent trip was the Boston Beach Jerk Centre outside Port Antonio, jerk's fabled birthplace. Many Maroons still live in this area, in the nearby Portland hills.
In Kingston I liked the Chelsea Jerk Center, a bare-bones carryout, and Peppers Restaurant, a yuppie hangout. I loved the chicken at the Pork Pit, a jerk heaven in Montego Bay, and gave a big thumbs up to the pork at Double V in Ocho Rios.
Usual side dishes with jerk are festival (deep-fried cornmeal cakes), callaloo (stewed, spinachlike greens), fried ripe plantains, roasted yams and baked sweet potatoes.
While I found jerk all over Jamaica, the fried fish experience of my life occurred in only one place -- the impoverished Kingston suburb of Port Royal. Once it was an important trading center. With frequent visitors like the pirates Blackbeard and Henry Morgan, Port Royal once also was considered the world's most wicked city.
Now Port Royal has Gloria's -- a shack with tables plunked in the street. But oh, the food.
Here, I drank fish tea, a deeply intense broth made from just-caught fish, while I watched the cook heat a caldron of oil over a wood fire. After coating multicolored parrot fish with seasonings, the cook plunged them into the boiling oil, where they bubbled until perfectly crisp on the outside, with tender white flesh on the inside.
Accompaniments were pickled onions spiked with Scotch bonnet peppers and bammy, a fried cake made from grated fresh cassava root that instantly replaced french fries as my favorite fried root vegetable.
It took eating authentic jerk and scrumptious fried fish with bammy to remind me of the truth of an adage: Travel broadens.
JAMAICAN JERK PORK
1 small onion
1 garlic clove
4 small green chilies, preferably Scotch bonnet (or substitute fresh jalapenos, serranos or ground cayenne pepper to taste)
1/2 teaspoon dried tamarind paste (or substitute a few drops of lemon juice)
1/4 cup red wine
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
3 pounds chicken, split, or 2 pounds boneless pork cut 1 1/2 inches thick
Combine all ingredients except meat in a food processor and process until they form a paste. Coat meat with marinade, cover and refrigerate overnight. Grill over a slow charcoal fire, browning meat on all sides. Or grill under a broiler until brown. Serves four.