Islands' Fare : Southland Interest in Caribbean Cuisine Continues to Grow

There's a blaze burning on American palates.

It was ignited by Tex-Mex and fueled by the Cajun rage. Just when everyone thought the fervor for hot and spicy foods had burned itself out with the cooking classes, books and even premixed seasonings available to the home cook, another incendiary device continues to fan the flame.

The cuisine of the Caribbean has enjoyed enormous popularity lately in cities such as New York and San Francisco. Its notoriety comes on the heels of a fascination for foods that singe. It is actually a natural progression that a splash in the Caribbean should follow a fascination for things Cajun. Each trek for foods with a bite moves farther south.

Southern California, however, one of the richest gastronomic regions in the country, has been one of the last to give a nod of approval to island food as the next dining trend. The idea has been alluded to in newspaper food sections; prominent magazines have done a feature or two. But all-out support of Caribbean cuisine on the West Coast has yet to materialize--a phenomenon that publicists for island products are hard-pressed to explain.

25 Years of Independence

The Caribbean islands is a group of some 7,000 islands in the Caribbean Sea stretching south from Florida to the north coast of South America. The largest and most notable ones are Cuba, Puerto Rico, Jamaica and Hispaniola, which is home to the Dominican Republic and Haiti. In spite of their rich tropical beauty, the majority of these exotic havens, also known as the West Indies, have struggled in their efforts to attract wide-scale attention. But the island of Jamaica, which celebrated 25 years of independence from the British last year, has managed to remain economically stable and is a popular tourist spot, which seems to account for the interest in the food in the United States.

Whether seeking the sultry savvy of the salsa or fervently following the funky reggae beat, Angelenos make up a large part of the tourists who have visited Jamaica in recent years. According to Butch Meily, director of press relations for GreyCom International, 954,000 people visited the island of Jamaica in 1986 alone, and of those more than 18,000 were from California. Those figures are at least double the numbers for 1980--before the current government was in place; and since nonstop flights to Jamaica began originating in Los Angeles three years ago, tourism has increased by 37%. The Jamaican population here in Los Angeles has also risen.

But even with figures such as these and the fact that there are at least half a dozen restaurants around town offering Jamaican cuisine to tourists who want to partake of the food long after the trip back home, food aficianados apparently are reluctant to consider that Jamaican foods could satisfy the demand for spicy flavors and replace Cajun as "in."

Derryck Cox, Senior Trade Commissioner North America for the Jamaica Trade Commission, introduced a campaign that he hopes will bring Jamaican cuisine to the forefront of the Southern California dining scene at a press conference showcasing Caribbean products and foods.

The Jamaican style of cooking, like so many other cuisines, was developed through the ingenuity of the Spaniards, Indians and Africans who created uses for items that were easily available on the island. The use of goat and pork in Jamaican cuisine is attributable to the fact that they were widely accessible. And since sea creatures are prolific in the region, dishes made with conch, shellfish, snapper and cod are very common.

The inhabitants also found an assortment of uses for the multitude of exotic produce on the island. Tropical treasures such as mangoes, guavas, coconuts, pineapple, papaya, cassava, breadfruit, plantains, pumpkins and potatoes are whipped into everything from desserts and breads to drinks.

The most popular Jamaican item on local menus is Jamaican jerk chicken or pork. This characteristically Jamaican dish is more than 300 years old, according to Joyce LaFray Young, author of "Tropic Cooking" (Ten Speed Press: $12.95), and was developed as a means of preserving meat for lengthy storage. Either meat or poultry, which has been marinated in a spicy mixture of herbs and spices, can be used. It is slowly cooked over a pimento (the Jamaican term for allspice) fire, and on the island is typically found as road food.

Other Jamaican dishes include: oxtails with beans, a home-style stew made with Jamaican broad beans (lima beans are an excellent stand-in); rice and peas, a variation on Cajun red beans and rice; festival, a fried cornmeal cake similar to hush puppies; soursop, a drink reminiscent of eggnog made from the fleshy fruit of the same name and mixed with milk and spiked with nutmeg; fried plantains, a fruit of the banana family eaten when very ripe; curry goat; fruit custards, and bread pudding.

Cox conceded that there is a strong reluctance in this part of the country to support this type of food, even though it is similar to the earthy, comfort food that made Cajun a household word. He explained that Los Angeles trails cities such as New York, San Francisco and Miami, which have large West Indian populations and support Jamaican foods and products fervently.

Within the last nine months, Cox said, six Caribbean restaurants have opened in Atlanta. "The biggest selling item on their menus is Jamaican seasoned chicken--jerk," Cox said. "People are looking for something new."

To further support his case, Cox explained that two years ago the Jamaican Trade Commission engaged in a promotional campaign with Bloomingdale's that highlighted Jamaican coffee, chocolate, spices, fruit items (marmalades, preserves, fruit drinks) and hot items (sauces and condiments). It was very well received and developed a wide interest in things Jamaican, he said.

Since then, a multitude of restaurants featuring the cuisine have opened in New York, and some Los Angeles markets have begun stocking familiar Jamaican food products in their ethnic food sections. (Last month, a notable New York restaurant, the Sugar Reef, began a program that invites Caribbean guest chefs to prepare specialties of the various islands for diners.)

This same approach will be initiated in the West, according to Cox, but a much more ambitious program will be undertaken. The goal is to introduce Jamaican products that offer the appeal of the exotic but are uncomplicated enough to a attract a mainstream audience.

"It's not the natives (Jamaican nationals) we're interested in," Cox said. "The aim is to redevelop and repackage Jamaican products to be much more attractive to mainstream audiences. These items will all be featured in specialty food stores and department stores with specialty food sections like Von's Pavilions and Irvine Ranch."

Jamaican Blue Mountain Coffee, for instance, considered to be the Champagne of coffees, is already carried in upscale food sections including Bloomingdale's and Williams-Sonoma mail order catalogue and some tea and coffee stores. It is currently selling for about $30 a pound, and the Japanese--who have always had a huge appreciation for this product--have begun producing their own in a similar geographic region in Japan.

The commission hopes to develop Jamaican food sections in major supermarkets so that this product and others like it can be readily available to every-day shoppers too. Among the processed foods currently being exported to the U.S. are: Pickapeppa sauce, Red Stripe beer, Dragon stout, Myers's rum and Blue Mountain coffee. Those to be added include: fruit jams, jerk seasonings and marinades and non-alcoholic fruit drinks.

But will this be enough to elevate Jamaican beyond the level of mere regional cuisine? In the eyes of the forecasters, perhaps not, but the potential is definitely there, Cox said.

As more and more people visit the Caribbean and experience the food, they will yearn for the taste when they return home. By making products available that allow home cooks to duplicate the simple, home-style cooking they enjoyed on the island, Cox and others like him expect to develop a large following for Jamaican products.

"Many Americans go to Jamaica, are introduced to the foods, and when they come back they seek them out," said Jean Lewis, who works for the overseas division of the Jamaica Information Service in Kingston. "Anyone who is introduced to (Jamaican cooking) will want to keep on trying it. Tourism is one of the easiest ways of developing interest in Jamaican foods. Americans are trying new products more and more," said Lewis, "it's not just the Jamaican community that's being catered to. We're reaching for a much wider audience."

For a taste of Jamaican or Caribbean cooking, try one of these local restaurants: Coley's Jamaican Restaurant, 4335 S. Crenshaw Blvd.; Act One, 2921 La Cienega Blvd.; Jamaica Royale Restaurant, 4213 S. Crenshaw Blvd.; Ja'net's Jerk Chicken, 1541 W. Martin Luther King Blvd.; Cha Cha Cha (Caribbean), 656 N. Virgil; Kitty's (Caribbean), 10924 W. Pico Blvd., and Jamaica Jamaica, 2205 Lincoln Blvd.

The following recipes offer a taste of typical Jamaican style with a few minor substitutions for easily available ingredients. Serrano for mild heat or jalapeno chiles for hotter flavor stand in for Jamaican Scotch bonnet peppers. The amounts given are for mild heat but can be adjusted for the desired degree of spice. Chicken replaces goat, canned coconut milk duplicates the flavor of fresh milk squeezed from coconut pulp, and fresh mangoes are replaced by the canned variety.

MANGO-RUM SOUFFLE

1 (1-pound 14-ounce) can mango halves

2 envelopes unflavored gelatin

1/4 cup water

4 eggs

2/3 cup sugar

1/4 cup rum

Juice and peel of 1 lime

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 cup whipping cream, whipped

1/4 cup toasted flaked coconut

Mango Sauce

Drain mango halves and puree, reserving liquid for use in Mango Sauce. Set aside.

Sprinkle gelatin over water to soften. Heat over low heat to dissolve gelatin. Beat eggs thoroughly in bowl. Gradually add sugar and continue to beat until mixture is smooth and very thick.

Stir in mango puree, rum, lime juice and peel and vanilla. Blend in gelatin, adding in thin stream, then fold in whipped cream.

Oil 6-inch wide band of foil and place around outside edges of oiled 1-quart souffle dish, oiled side in, to form standing collar.

Fill dish with mango mixture and chill until set. Carefully remove foil collar and sprinkle edges with coconut. Serve with Mango Sauce. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Mango Sauce

Syrup reserved from mangoes

1/4 cup sugar

1/4 cup rum

Juice of 1 lime

1 tablespoon cornstarch

Bring syrup, sugar and rum to boil in saucepan. Remove from heat. Combine lime juice and cornstarch and stir into sauce mixture. Return to heat and cook until thickened. Serve with mango souffle.

ESCOVITCH

2 medium onions, thinly sliced

3 carrots, cut julienne

2 stalks celery, cut julienne

1 green pepper, thinly sliced

3 green onions, minced

1 jalapeno chile, seeds removed and chopped

1/2 cup vinegar

1 large bay leaf

1 1/2 cups water

2 pounds red snapper fillets

2 limes

Salt, pepper

Flour

Olive oil

1 (4-ounce) jar sliced pimiento, for garnish

Combine onions, carrots, celery, green pepper, green onions, chile, vinegar, bay leaf and water in large saucepan. Bring to boil, then reduce heat and simmer 15 to 20 minutes until vegetables are tender and liquid is reduced slightly.

Meanwhile, rinse fish fillets. Squeeze lime juice over and let stand 10 minutes. Rinse again and pat well to dry. Cut diagonal slits over surface of fish and sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste. Dredge in flour, shaking off excess.

Heat about 1/2-inch oil in skillet until very hot. Carefully add fish to hot oil and fry until lightly browned on each side. Remove to paper towels to drain.

Add fish to boiled liquid, cover and let steam 10 minutes before serving or chill and serve cold. Garnish with sliced pimiento. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

RICE AND PEAS

1 cup red kidney beans

1/4 pound smoked ham hocks

1/2 pound stew meat or lean chuck roast, cut into 1-inch cubes

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 cup chopped onions

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

3 1/2 cups water

1 (14-ounce) can coconut milk

1/2 teaspoon chopped thyme leaves

1 small hot chile pepper

2 green onions, chopped

1 cup long grain rice

Soak beans overnight in enough water to cover.

Bring hocks, beef, garlic, onions, salt, pepper and 2 1/2 cups water to boil in Dutch oven, then reduce heat and simmer 30 minutes. Remove hocks from pan and cut meat from bones. Dice into 1-inch pieces, then return meat to pan. Add beans and their liquid and coconut milk and cook 45 minutes longer over medium heat.

Add thyme, chile pepper, green onions, remaining 1 cup water and rice and cook over low heat, covered, about 1 hour or until liquid is absorbed and rice is tender. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Note: In Jamaica, red beans are referred to as peas, but beans are the required ingredient.

CARRIBEAN BANANA BREAD

2 cups flour

3/4 cup chopped pecans

1/3 cup granulated sugar

1/3 cup light brown sugar, packed

1 tablespoon baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

2 eggs, beaten

1 cup mashed bananas

1/2 cup milk

3 tablespoons butter or margarine, melted

1 teaspoon rum extract

Combine flour, pecans, sugars, baking powder, salt and nutmeg in bowl. Blend together eggs, bananas, milk, butter and rum extract. Add all at once to dry ingredients, stirring only until flour is moistened.

Turn into well-greased 8x4-inch loaf pan and bake at 350 degrees 65 to 70 minutes or until wood pick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool 15 minutes before removing from pan. Cool, then thinly slice. Makes 1 loaf.

CURRIED CHICKEN

(Coley's Jamaican Restaurant)

1 (4-pound) chicken

Juice of 1 lime or lemon

2 tablespoons curry powder

1 tablespoon onion powder

1/4 cup oil

2 medium onions, chopped

1 clove garlic, chopped

2 medium tomatoes, chopped

1 serrano chile, chopped

3 cups water

Dash salt

Hot cooked rice

Cut chicken into serving pieces, removing all skin. Wash chicken and pat dry. Rub with lime juice. Combine curry powder and onion powder and rub into chicken. Let stand 30 minutes.

Heat oil in Dutch oven and brown chicken on all sides. Add onions and garlic and cook until onion is tender. Stir in tomatoes, chile, water and salt. Bring to boil, then reduce heat and simmer, covered until chicken is tender, about 45 minutes. Serve with rice. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

OXTAILS AND BEANS

(Coley's Jamaican Restaurant)

2 pounds oxtails, jointed

1/4 cup soy sauce

2 tablespoons onion powder

1/4 cup oil

5 cups water

2 medium tomatoes, chopped

2 medium onions, chopped

1 clove garlic, chopped

1 sprig thyme

1 serrano chile, chopped

1/2 pound cooked lima beans

Hot cooked rice

Wash oxtails. Combine soy sauce and onion powder in shallow baking dish. Marinate oxtails in mixture 30 minutes. Remove from marinade, discard marinade and brown oxtails in hot oil in Dutch oven.

Add 4 cups water, bring to boil, then reduce heat and simmer until oxtails are tender, adding remaining water as needed, about 1 hour. Stir in tomatoes, onions, garlic, thyme and chile. Simmer 10 minutes. Add beans to pan and simmer about 30 minutes longer. Serve with rice. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

For the Record Los Angeles Times Thursday January 28, 1988 Home Edition Food Part 8 Page 2 Column 1 Food Desk 1 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction The photograph that ran in the Jan. 14 issue of The Times' Food Section, accompanying the article "Islands' Fare" (Part Two, Page 37), contains a copy of an original work of art by Bernard Stanley Hoyes.
Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
60°