Oct 19, 2008

Foods of our heritage

JAMAICA Jamaica Gleaner - Kingston, 19 Oct. 2008

Cassava bread or bammy was a favourite staple of theirs. They also discovered how to tenderise meat by wrapping it in papaya leaves. ...

Heather Little-White, Contributor

Jamaican foods have an interesting origin and can be, for the most part, healthy and filling.

Zeta Powell and Iris Poyser, sisters of Springfield, St Elizabeth, are more than 95 years old and attribute their longevity to heritage foods, such as arrowroot and hominy corn porridge, and eating corned pork with ground provisions like dasheen, coco and breadfruit.

Jamaicans have retained a strong sense of their culture reflected in the diversity of local cuisine. With the promotion of healthy lifestyles, Jamaicans are encouraged to limit the use of fatty and salty foods associated with heritage foods.

It is still possible to enjoy healthy Jamaican fare with lavish amounts of complex carbohydrates, fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

First Jamaicans' cuisine

We know that the first Jamaicans, the Tainos, feasted on a variety of fish. Cassava bread or bammy was a favourite staple of theirs. They also discovered how to tenderise meat by wrapping it in papaya leaves. Today, the tenderiser papain is extracted from papaya.

The diversity of Jamaican cuisine was also influenced by the transatlantic slave trade. Slave ship cargoes brought crops directly from the motherland for enslaved Africans to consume.

The cuisine of Jamaica is diverse and the influence of the cultures has left dominant meal patterns, providing variety, good nutrition and meals for the entire family to enjoy.

Heather Little-White, PhD, is a nutrition and lifestyle consultant in the Corporate Area. Send comments to editor@gleanerjm.com or fax 922-6223.

Arrowroot is heritage food that has many medicinal properties. Plus, it is a great ingredient for soups, sauces and porridge.

Soya sauce and roti
The Chinese, who came as indentured labourers, were without their basic native ingredients which would not have survived the heat of the journey. However, they were eventually able to access soya sauce, dried noodles and five-spice powder, items still popular today.

The East Indians, who also came as indentured labourers, introduced roti, eggplant and ginger. Dahl roti and double rotis are excellent accompaniments to curry dishes, popular to our cuisine.

In North Africa, cuisine reflected the Islamic traditions of the region, with stews and curries cooked in cone-shaped clay pots, laden with grains, legumes and spices like cumin, caraway, cloves and cinnamon. Islam does not permit the eating of pork or any associated products. Breakfast usually consists of porridges made from millet or chickpea flour.

In West Africa, there is variation in the consumption of staples. Rice is predominant in some places and root crops, such as yam and cassava, prevail along the coast. Plantain, a variety of the banana, is abundant in West Africa, with the ripe ones fried and the green ones boiled or pounded into fufu (turn cornmeal). Fruits like dates, melons, guavas, cashews, mangoes, jackfruit, passion fruit and oranges were common in West Africa.

Coconut-based stews
East Africa had as its main staples, potatoes, rice, mashed plantains and maize cooked into a thick porridge. Spicy and coconut-based stews were common in the coastal area as is today in the Horn of Africa, which includes Somalia and Ethiopia. The traditional meal in South Africa centres on a staple crop such as maize or rice and is served with a stew.

The most common dish is mealie meal, or pap, made from cornmeal. Poured over the cornmeal is a stew made from boiled vegetables, such as cabbage, spinach or turnip. On more special occasions, fish, beans or chicken is added.

What are the influences of other ethnic groups on our cuisine today? The Spanish brought with them sweet oranges, sour oranges, limes, tamarind, coconut, bananas, sugar cane, ginger, pomegranate and plantains. The popular escoveitched fish is of Spanish origin and they also left us the popular sweet ending, the gizzada. In later years, they brought with them cattle, goats, pigs, horses and lard from pork fat.

It was the British who introduced the breadfruit, otaheiti apple, ackee, mangoes, rose apples, turmeric and black pepper. The popular Easter bun, spongecakes and pies remained with us from the Brits. Breakfast bacon and eggs and corned and salted beef are still enjoyed today.

Corned pork and beef
These are relished by connoisseurs of Jamaican foods. What is the secret to the corning technique? It is a process in which brine is injected into the arteries of beef or pork. Among kits of salt fish, sides of bacon and sacks of beans and potatoes in storehouses were barrels of corned pork and beef.

Making your own corned pork can be a satisfying experience and boiling pork after corning makes a tasty entree.

My grandmother, Ethel Falconer, would source a fresh leg of pork from the local pig farmer. After cleaning, she rubbed the pork leg with plenty salt and set aside for two days. Falconer had a special pot for boiling the pork in water enough to cover and skimming frequently while cooking.

When the meat was almost done, she added cabbage quarters to the pot. The pork came out tender and tasty and Grandma added mustard and cayenne pepper to the outside before serving. The cabbage was drained and served as an accompaniment to the corned pork.

Black-eyed peas
Stews utilised black-eyed peas, sesame (benne), eggplant sorghum (a grain that produces sweet syrup and different types of flour), watermelon and peanuts. African kitchens commonly had a pot of stew sitting on three stones arranged around a fire. Meals were eaten with the hands. To supplement their diets, slaves often hunted, fished or grew vegetables in their own gardens.

Ground provisions
Ground provisions were expected to supplement the salted meat or fish given once a year. This led to the creation of dishes like mackerel run-dung or dip-and-fall-back and salt-fish fritters or stamp-and-go.

Jerking was introduced by the Africans and can be traced back to the Coromantee hunters of West Africa. Pork was frequently roasted over hot coals in earthen pots covered with green pimento branches. Boston in Portland is the home of jerk today as this is the area where some of the hunters made home.

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