Jamaican Street Food – Where Taste Tells the Tale
From Negril to Portland; Mandeville to St. Ann’s Bay, Jamaica is awash in exquisitely delicious street food.
Roadside huts dot every town. Assorted food stalls stretch from Mobay to Savanna-la-mar, through tucked away hamlets to the base of towering mountain abundant with a belly full of mangoes, sour sop, chicken foot soup, banana fritters, jerk chicken or pork, run dung and roast yam; stamp and go, peanut and icy mint and everything in between. Jerk masters transform steel drums into jerk pits on crowded streets from downtown Kingston to the upscale resorts in Montego Bay and Ocho Rios. They offer a smorgasbord of jerk pork, chicken, fish and even lobster. No cutlery, no menus and no frills.
But in a country where just about everyone’s grandmother and aunt can cook and most families have a secret recipe or three, the Jamaican Street food game is about more than culinary dexterity. Running through the steaming Dutch pots, special sauces and fruits fresh from ground are stories of survival, history and self-preservation. When politicians fail, hurricanes ravage, elections are savage and IMF stipulations are a chokehold, street food is an ode to survival and cunning. Perhaps it’s one of the reasons Jamaicans excel at so many things: our innate ability to forge a way out of no way; our unerring ability to remain unyielding to hardship. Nothing will break us. Not election results; not hell or high water.
Mouthwatering goodness notwithstanding, street food is not for the weak or easily panicked. You must, sometimes, brave seemingly impenetrable mobs. Usually. Any street food vendor worth his/her salt – and clientele – have long and boisterous lines. It’s fast, cheap and easy – and so, food might run out. If you value a pristine looking kitchen and need copious amounts of napkins, Jamaican street food may not be for you. Likewise if you can’t suppress your instinct to flee when a bottle breaks or a car backfires a few feet from the Dutch pot – a stroll into a fine dining establishment may be more your speed.
Portland – The History and Seduction of Jerk
My love for all things jerk led me to Portland. That and the parish’s waterfalls, incomparable resplendent beaches and hidden lagoons. A few miles away from the sublime Blue Lagoon and rustic Frenchman’s Cove, Port Antonio, capital of Portland straddles the northeast coast of Jamaica. This bewitchingly beautiful town is one of my best kept secrets. A gem I’ve squirrelled away from even the closet of travel friends, like a chef tucks away the secret ingredient to a favourite sauce. Those who know and love it, quietly visit whenever they return, confessing their allegiance to no-one. After a long day rafting on the Rio Grande in Portland, I was determined to find the jerk spot a friend had raved about.
Mouthwatering goodness notwithstanding, street food is not for the weak or easily panicked.
Two hours up the coast from Kingston, this laid back town is the birthplace of jerk, and where Jamaica’s best jerkers still practice the centuries-old art of grilling meat slowly over a low fire. Jerk dates back to Jamaica’s first people, the Arawak Indians. Jerking is the most well-known method of Maroon food preparation that has become extremely popular in wider Jamaica – and across the globe. As the story goes, during the 17th century, the first Maroons learned how to cure meat from the Arawaks. The Arawaks’ method of “barbacoa,” or barbecue as it’s now commonly known, required seasoning the meat and drying it in the sun or smoking it over open wood fires. The Maroons adapted these methods of scoring, seasoning and smoking their meat from which is derived what we know today as jerk. Maroons living near Port Antonio today still honor the secret of their ancestors’ recipe.
A Yah It Dey – Piggy’s Jerk Center
Not far from the blink-and- you’ll- miss- it square, a stone’s throw from Port Antonio market, a fingerlickingly good jerk man has set up shop. Piggy’s Jerk Center is an essential pit stop for locals on a break from the market, travelers in cars or country buses, fishermen taking a midday break and Kingstonians driving through to other parishes fortunate enough to be beckoned by the smoke of Piggy’s jerk. Or if you’re lucky enough, like Anthony Bourdain, world-renowned chef, bestselling author and host of CNN’s Parts Unknown, when you ask for the best food in town, hotel workers will insist you visit Piggy’s and point you in the direction of his kitchen. The kitchen is manned by the man himself, Mr. Eustace Lindsay, better known as Piggy, with the assistance of seven workers working in two shifts. A charming, affable man with a contagious smile and hands born to make good jerk, Mr. Lindsay puts in his best work every day. Piggy’s is open six days (of course not on Sundays!) 9:00 to 1:00 a.m., with the busiest times being on a Friday and Saturday nights. But don’t let the name fool you. There is no pork to be had at Piggy’s. He explains, “A lot of people don’t like pork and prefer that the chicken and pork is not mixed, so we stick with what we do best.”
If you didn’t know, the sweetly pungent aroma of jerk and the steady, relentless stream of local, tourists and day-trippers beating a steady path to Piggy’s Jerk Restaurant in Portland, would be a strong indication. Come 11:00 p.m. on a Saturday night, the line snakes past the kitchen and down the street. The wait can be interminable, but regulars shrug it off with a laugh and more labrish. The chicken is a study in taste and succulence and the festival is all kinds of sweet and savory deliciousness. Then there’s the sauce. A moment of silence must be taken for the wonder that is Piggy’s jerk sauce. His jerk sauce is a mélange of flavours and seasonings that, for several moments, obliterate the honks of country buses, the bustling noise of the market shoppers and brings a tear of pleasure to my eye. I am only vaguely aware of the driver’s insistence that “Is Portland we dey, the sky set for rain, an’ night driving a nuh ‘im ting.” When I ask Piggy about the ingredients, expecting him to refuse divulging his secret in the style of most chefs, Instead he flashes a confidently grin and lists them. “Don’t matter if I tell you and people know. “I’ve been jerking for over twenty years, Nobody can duplicate what I have.” For serious jerk lovers, this isn’t just challenge. He’s thrown down the gauntlet.
Overnight Success Takes Twenty Years
It’s hard to believe Piggy’s foray into the jerk business began with one pound of chicken. Following the chaotic aftermath and economic depression of Jamaica’s infamous 1980 elections, jobs were scarce and money even more so in the sleepy town of Fellowship Portland. “Following a pay bill, I jerked a pound of chicken, people came and it sold off in no time.” Two weeks later, during the next pay bill, he jerked two pounds with the same result. He smiles in remembrance, “People started asking when I was jerking again. I knew I had to try something.”
Four weeks later, Piggy opened a shop in Fellowship. Word of mouth helped guarantee a steady stream of patrons. He sold chicken and dumpling to school children and steadily gained a reputation for smoking the best jerk chicken in those parts. Months later, he partnered with another cook and business owner in Port Antonio to some success. Wisely, they split the business with each sticking to what they excelled at: Piggy provided the labour in the form of recipe, seasoning and jerk skills and his partner provided the goods. He has had ups and downs but has remained focus on his main talent: jerking chicken. During a conversation with a friend, he mentioned that his dream was to get his own jerk spot. Days later, his friend offered him his current location. Now, nine years later, Piggy’s has forged an indelible name and reputation for himself.
The menu has remained unchanged for the most part. With its generous portions of beef, chicken foot and cow skin, Piggy’s Red Peas soup was the talk of Port Antonio when it made its first appearance. To hear Piggy tell it, the soup’s origin is a bit unusual. “We started out with Cray fish and conch soup. But one day we put together the red peas soup and it sell off. When we tried to sell a different kind of soup, customers demanded the red peas. So we had to bring it back.
So grab a Ting or Shandy. Hold your chicken and festival in your hand. Eat in your car, balance it on your knees and cop a squat inside Piggy’s restaurant; or, find a spot under a nearby tree and let your senses to be mesmerized by the shimmering Caribbean Sea.
It’s a perfect day for less than it cost to wash your car. And you know you’re lost when the return trip to Kingston must include a pit stop at Piggy’s even though you’re insanely close to your flight’s departure time. When you go, remember to insist on extra sauce and tell Piggy, Denise the Writer lady soon come.