Tag Archives: jamaica

My Jamaica is more than patties

My Jamaica is not just the beach. When I speak with fellow Jamaicans or when I am back in the homeland, the one thing that screams “I’m back ayard!!” more than the patties or oxtail or ackee is what we Jamaicans do to names. People’s names, street names, town names….anything is fair game.

When I was growing up far from the island, I always associated food with my culture. It was so different than the Canadian food – full of peppa (HOT peppers) and spicees and rich sauces and flava (flavour)!! Not to mention the exotic ingredients – cassava, oxtail (yes, real tail from real ox, not like the British toad in the hole which doesn’t involve any real toads), okra and plantain (the sweet fruit, not that leafy green medicinal plant).

The next stage was when I met my cousins and aunts and uncles who all still held onto their Jamaican accent. I still remember with some trepidation one of the first dinner parties where I could not understand a word Uncle T said. I had to find my mom and ask her if he was speaking a different language. Oh, how I wanted (still want) to speak like them! It was musical, intriguing and it was “home”.

But I realize now that more than the rum that leaks from our very pores (comes from having it poured on us every time it rains), it is the use of language that ties us together. This is what allows us to recognize each other as soon as someone walks through the door and you hear “Awhahappen?” But you know the soul of a Jamaican by how they use the language. We don’t bat an eye at names like Pretty (uncle) or nicknames like Plumby (uncle – spelling approximate as I’ve never actually seen it written – real name Ronald), Cutie (aunt), Evadne, etc. The absolute highlight had to be this gravestone we found in the cemetary. Only in Jamaica would you find:

DSC01211

We also use it to be a colourful descriptor. So while you can certainly find a “Main Street” (actually Avenue) in Kingston, Jamaica, you are just as likely to run across “Half Way Tree Road” or “Birdsucker Lane” or “Constant Spring road” or even “Red Hills Road”.  Each name conjuring up a visual or indicating that there must be a story behind the name. The most innocuous name I saw on my last visit was “Orange Grove” and even that makes you think of bright orange fruit with a leafy green backdrop!

However, it’s not all fun and interesting names. I was in my early 20s before I realized that one very ordinary and plain word was being used to indicate the staple of boiled yams and bananas in our diet. This, they call “food”.

Advertisements

What says “Jamaica” to me?

My Jamaica is not just the beach. When I speak with fellow Jamaicans or when I am back in the homeland, the one thing that screams “I’m back ayard!!” more than the patties or oxtail or ackee is what we Jamaicans do to names. People’s names, street names, town names….anything is fair game.

When I was growing up far from the island, I always associated food with my culture. It was so different than the Canadian food – full of peppa (HOT peppers) and spicees and rich sauces and flava (flavour)!! Not to mention the exotic ingredients – cassava, oxtail (yes, real tail from real ox, not like the British toad in the hole which doesn’t involve any real toads), okra and plantain (the sweet fruit, not that leafy green medicinal plant).

The next stage was when I met my cousins and aunts and uncles who all still held onto their Jamaican accent. I still remember with some trepidation one of the first dinner parties where I could not understand a word Uncle T said. I had to find my mom and ask her if he was speaking a different language. Oh, how I wanted (still want) to speak like them! It was musical, intriguing and it was “home”.

But I realize now that more than the rum that leaks from our very pores (comes from having it poured on us every time it rains), it is the use of language that ties us together. This is what allows us to recognize each other as soon as someone walks through the door and you hear “Awhahappen?” But you know the soul of a Jamaican by how they use the language. We don’t bat an eye at names like Pretty (uncle) or nicknames like Plumby (uncle – spelling approximate as I’ve never actually seen it written – real name Ronald), Cutie (aunt), Evadne, etc.

We also use it to be a colourful descriptor. So while you can certainly find a “Main Street” (actually Avenue) in Kingston, Jamaica, you are just as likely to run across “Half Way Tree Road” or “Birdsucker Lane” or “Constant Spring road” or even “Red Hills Road”.  Each name conjuring up a visual or indicating that there must be a story behind the name. The most innocuous name I saw on my last visit was “Orange Grove” and even that makes you think of bright orange fruit with a leafy green backdrop!

However, it’s not all fun and interesting names. I was in my early 20s before I realized that one very ordinary and plain word was being used to indicate the staple of boiled yams and bananas in our diet. This, they call “food”.


Ackee means love

It was a common joke to say that I treat my Dad’s house like my grocery store – specifically the Chinese and Jamaican goods that my Uncle always stocks. (And the day I learn to tell one preserved mustard green in a vacuum pack from another, I will stop this practice.) So, the other night, when it was late and the family were chatting away and the subject of how Dad cooked Jamaica’s (unofficial) national dish came up, I got the inevitable teasing that I wanted to know if that was breakfast and if it was worthwhile my staying over for the night. I maintain that it was NOT a self-serving question, but a genuine exchange of information that is a cornerstone of our national and familial culture.

Food is always a good topic to discuss for Chinese and Jamaicans and if you put the two together (Chinese Jamaican or Jamaican Chinese), you double the subject matter available to you! In fact, I guarantee that if you mention this blog to a Chinese or Jamaican, you have enough conversation to last minimum 45 minutes and if you are in the person’s home, you will be offered at least a package or something to look at if not to taste.

We had just gotten a bit of breadfruit (don’t use the wiki site to look this up – go to this one) and the natural thing to go with this is ackee and saltfish.  My Dad said he would cook that. Now, I can’t recall my Dad ever cooking ackee (the “and saltfish” part is understood – leave it off to sound more native). EVER. He usually cooks North American foods – BBQ, ribs, lasagna, etc. My mom always did the Chinese cooking and my uncle did the Jamaican cooking. So, naturally, I had to ask if he knew HOW to cook ackee. With two of my uncles sitting right there, this led to a discussion of everything from which brand to buy (at $10 a tin, you have to make sure you get the right one), to how to rinse the ackee to how to marry the ackee with the saltfish. There was also a revelation and instruction to Uncle L that no, not everyone mashes up their ackee so it really does matter what brand you buy, thank you very much!

I certainly learnt a lot in the conversation not the least of which was that the men in the family did most of the cooking and were quite serious about it. They weren’t really talking about recipes; they were saying to me “here’s our culture. This is what we know and who we are. Don’t forget. And p.s., we’re family” – no hugging required.
And for those who are detailed oriented:

Brands of ackee – usually we bought Grace’s because their ackee held together well, but now they white label their products, so the firmness is pretty much the same as the others, except my uncles don’t buy Mr. Goudas for some reason and butter ackee can get mixed in with others so be prepared for it to fall apart

How to rinse – range of techniques; if you boil your saltfish instead of just soaking, you can use the same water after taking the saltfish out – either keep it boiling and blanch the ackee, turn off the stove and just drop the ackee in the hot water or pour the hot water over the ackee

How to combine – after sauteeing the saltfish with onion (all agree), tomatoe (disagreement there) and/or bacon (options available here for availability and vegetarianism) in a little or a lot of oil, you can add the ackee and turn off the stove and mix; pour saltfish mixture over ackee in dish and mix; add ackee and saute further; add ackee, turn down heat, cover and let simmer

So, you see why it was even later when the conversation finished and I had to stay over (I tend to crash my car when I’m tired) and have breadfruit and ackee and saltfish the next morning?