Sunday, March 4, 2012

Ya Mon!

Seven Mile Beach, Negril
Hello friends!  It's been a while since my last post.  February got a little crazy I guess and then I was off on vacation, from which I recently returned.  Warm winter vacations are always fraught with mixed emotion.  I am grateful and happy to have the resources to take a fabulous caribbean vacation, and sad to have to come home and find it is still winter in Wisconsin.  ;)

For many people a mid-winter vacation to the tropics conjures up visions of extravagant resorts with all-you-can eat buffets and bottomless umbrella drinks.  Though I've stayed at places like this in the past, it's no longer our style of travel.  Don't get me wrong...I'm not judging anyone else's choice to vacation in this way.  I have had wonderful carefree getaways at places like these, but over time my desire has grown for less extravagance in exchange for more experience and culture.

My husband and I were married in Jamaica almost 10 years ago (I can't hardly believe it's been that long already!) and it has become a favorite destination.  We were married in Ocho Rios (at one of those extravagant resorts) but have since fallen in love with Negril.  Though it is a popular tourist destination, it is loaded with opportunities to take in the culture of the area.  What do we love so much about Jamaica, aside from the obvious?  The people and the food.

Just like anywhere in the world you will find unsavory people who do not have your best interest at heart, but overall we have found the people of Jamaica to be warm, friendly, helpful and happy to tell you about their lives and homeland.  They are not a wealthy people and do rely heavily on our tourism dollars.  In tourist areas you will be approached to buy everything from bracelets to mind altering substances.  Kindness and respect on your part always goes a long way.  No matter what your struggles at home, if you find yourself on a beautiful beach in a far off place being asked to buy a tchotchke, you definitely have more money than the person trying to sell you something.  Not that you have to buy the bauble, or anything else for that matter, it's just important to keep a little humility in mind.  We serve ourselves and our nation well by being good ambassadors when we travel.

Blue Cave Castle
In all of our travels, Negril is the only place to which we have returned repeatedly.  We choose to stay at a smaller quirky hotel on the cliffs called the Blue Cave Castle.  Though our hotel recently opened a small restaurant on the grounds, we enjoy "foraging" for our own food every day, which puts us in a position to meet local people and make new friends.

The "dairy" case at the grocery store

Jamaica has not been immune to the detriments of our western diet.  Their traditionally natural food system has been infiltrated with the same highly processed food like substances that we over consume in our country.  There are however many people who hold on to the natural food values shared by the Slow Food community throughout the world.  I'd like to introduce you to a few that I've met.

Ras Rody is a Rastafarian with a shack food stand that he refers to as a cultural center.  This from his website:
 I use my stand as a media to educate people about the culture, about where we came from, where we are, and where we are headed.  
I love his story and his world/food view.  The Rastafarian way of life and Ital style of cooking is very interesting and I encourage you to read more about them.  Ras Rody lived "slow food" before it became a movement.  I was disappointed to not meet him when we stopped by his stand for lunch but we were delighted to meet his son Shadrock.  Ras Rody raised his children to embrace his same passion for how our food choices effect the world.  As someone who is passionate about living a slow food lifestyle, it was a joy to have the opportunity to dine and chat with Shadrock.  He cooked us a fabulous vegan lunch with ingredients grown in their own garden or procured from other local sources. We dined on Red Peas (beans) & Pumpkin Soup and a medley of five dishes: Brown Rice & Pumpkin, Curried Ackee, Steamed Callaloo (Jamaica's favorite leafy green), Mixed Veggie Stew, and Curried TVP & Pumpkin Stew.  All washed down with fresh carrot, pineapple, ginger juice.  Fresh, healthy, and delicious!  Ras Rody's food stand is on the West End Rd across from the Tensing Pen resort and is open most every day for lunch.

Shadrock cooking up lunch


Bentley of Bentley's Crab House.  We met Bentley a couple of years ago while at the small grocery store across the street from our hotel.  He was dressed in his re-sale chef coat shopping for a few essentials and started up a conversation with us complete with a passionate invitation that we come join him for a homemade crab dinner.  We took a chance and discovered a hidden gem in both Bentley and his food.  To say Bentley is passionate about cooking crabs would be an understatement.  He is a joy to talk to and he cooked us up the best meal of our trip.  This time around we made a point of going to see him to arrange for another fabulous lunch.  Bentley was born and raised in Negril where his father was a fisherman and his family farmed and lived off the land.  He started cooking when he was 8 years old and is now a self described "crab man".  Bentley gets up at 3 a.m. to go "fishing" for blue crabs in a nearby river. His sign advertises that he makes the famous Maryland Crabcakes, but his actual favorite way to serve the crabs is to remove the backs, make a seasoned mixture of the meat, and then bake the mixture inside the shells.  You won't find any breadcrumbs here.  The crabs are small in size but they are filled with nothing but meat and seasoning.  Alongside the baked crabs guests are treated to his delicious "sweet" rice (reminiscent of saffron rice and likely made using coconut milk), steamed local green beans and carrots topped with his secret "Magic Sauce", and another vegetable side....this time it was buttery sautéed cabbage, onions, callaloo, tomatoes, garlic, and oregano.  Bentley also treated us an amazing cocktail of hand squeezed Mango & Papaya juice.  Bentley is located off the beaten path on Pee Wee Ln (though the road sign actually says Ella Ln) on the West End.  Pee Wee Ln is near Pee Wee's bar, not surprisingly.  His tiny restaurant/home is built on a hillside, so along with your delicious meal and delightful conversation you get a view of the tree tops and sea.  It is best if you call him ahead, or stop by, to make a reservation so he can be prepared for you.

Bentley's famous crab dinner
Chef Teddy
Teddy's Lobster Thermador
Teddy's Hideaway is located at the Blue Cave Castle.  I spent a lot of time with Teddy in his kitchen a couple of years ago and had a lot of fun.   He makes the best Lobster Thermador (made with locally fished spiny lobsters) and Seafood Curry (Old Time Cooley Sin-Ting on the menu).  He serves up a mean "Jamaican" breakfast (Ackee & salt fish, callaloo, and johnny cakes) and he indulges my special requests to make a Jamaican staple breakfast cereal...cornmeal porridge.  He is open for breakfast and dinner daily on the West End.

Miss Millie
Miss Millie.  This beautiful woman is as bright and cheerful as the juice she makes.  I look forward to seeing her on every visit.  She lives in a small colorful house across the street from our hotel where she makes fresh squeezed juices that she sells in empty booze bottles. Recycling to boot! ;)  Orange and pineapple are her usual offerings.  We stock up at the beginning of our trip to enjoy for breakfast.  Ok, who am I kidding...we stock up on spiced rum along with her juice and mix our own cocktails!
Millie's juice
The patties!  Oh Jamaican patties, how I love thee!  It seems nearly every tropical culture has its own version of stuffed pocket dough street food. Though inexpensive (and admittedly tasty) mass produced versions can be found on the beach and at convenience stores, my heart belongs to Niah when it comes to patties.  Another Rastafarian with a small beach shack who makes the most delicious "slow" fast food with love while you wait.  His patties are like no other.  They are made from scratch as they are ordered.  By scratch I mean even the dough that Niah keeps in a bowl is made up daily and rolled out for each patty as it's ordered to be filled with whatever you choose and then fried in his pots over hot coals.  The fillings are made of easily identified fresh food and the portions measure up to our American oversized standards.  My favorite is the chicken and vegetable patty, which you can ask him to custom make.  Niah doesn't serve beverages, so bring one with you or take your patty to the nearest bar and wash it down with a Red Stripe.
Niah's stand
Niah's Chicken & Veggie Patty

As you sit and soak up the sun, there is no shortage of fresh fruit, coconut, sugar cane, and other snacks being sold by wonderful people on the beach. The ladies carry their baskets of fruit on their heads up and down the beach and there is one lady who even sings as she goes along.  My favorite snacks are definitely the fresh coconut and sugar cane.  Buy a coconut and the nice lady will impressively cut off the top with a small machete so you can drink down the very nutritious water inside.  Then she'll remove the husk and cut the coconut up in to manageable pieces for snacking throughout the day.  Coconut is rich in healthy medium chain fatty acids and fiber, so this is one snack you won't have to feel guilty about!  Sugar cane is mother nature's answer for a sweet tooth.  I LOVE this stuff.  The cane is peeled and cut in to manageable sticks that you chew and suck on to release the sweet juice contained therein.

Sugar Cane
Fresh coconut
Gary & me

Finally, I have to give a shout out to Gary the lifeguard/handy man at Mariner's Negril Beach Club.  He hooked me up with two bags of the best candy on the planet (which he makes himself)...coconut drops.  I discovered these ridiculous treats on our trip a couple of years ago and haven't been able to get them off my mind.  He said next time we come he'll show me how to make them.  They are diced coconut that has been simmered in water with fresh ginger then mixed with brown sugar and boiled to the appropriate candy temperature.  They look a little like brown sugar-coconut hay stacks and they are very difficult to stop eating.

coconut drop

So as not to go on and on, let me say that Just Natural and Sweet Spot are also worth your time and money for authentic delicious Jamaican fare. Any time you walk in to a restaurant and it is filled with locals, you know you're in the right place.  One notable observation, and perhaps you noticed this yourselves, but I am always amazed at the food these folks are able to turn out of their tiny kitchens with minimal resources.  No Wolff or Viking ranges, giant grill tops, or fancy stainless steel cookware.  Sometimes only hot coals beneath iron grates and well worn aluminum pans. It is clear that all of these folks love on the world around them through their food.

Ras Rody came out with a cookbook this year, which I eagerly purchased.  My meals there inspired me to eat more on the vegetable end of the food chain when I returned home.  Here is my adaptation of the first dish I made from Ras Rody's cookbook and really enjoyed.  It's perfect for our winter weather and yet one more way to use up that storage squash and celeriac.

Lentil Soup
1 C. green lentils
4 C. chicken stock
2 C. coconut milk
1 C. water
2 carrots-small diced
1/2 bulb celery root (also known as celeriac)- peeled, small diced
1 small winter squash-seeded, peeled, and large diced
1 sweet potato-peeled and large diced (you could skip this and just use a larger squash)
1 small bulb garlic
3 sprigs fresh oregano or 1 tsp dried
1/4 scotch bonnet pepper-minced, or a healthy dash of your favorite hot sauce
1 tsp coconut oil-melted (I am falling hard and fast for coconut oil and find myself using it more and more)

1.  Remove loose dried garlic skins from bulb by gently rubbing with your hands.  Tighter skins will remain intact.  Slice top 1/4 inch off bulb to just shave off tips of cloves.  Place garlic in aluminum foil with coconut oil and roast at 275 degrees for one hour or until garlic is soft and fragrant.

2.  Bring stock, coconut milk, and water to a boil in large pot.  Add carrots, celery root, oregano, and lentils to pot, reduce heat and simmer for one hour.

3.  When garlic is ready squeeze soft roasted garlic from skins and add to pot.  Add squash and sweet potato at this time too.  Continue to simmer another hour or so until vegetables are soft.  Remove from heat.

4.  Add minced pepper or hot sauce before serving.  It is suggested you enjoy with sweet festival bread.  I served mine with some brown rice.

This recipe made a large batch (8 servings or so).  I froze what I couldn't eat in a few days in single serve containers.

*Ital cooking excludes the use of salt.  Feel free to season to your taste.

green lentils


  1. Oh how I want to move in to this post and live forever. Gorgeous! How do I express my love of this in words? I have no idea... I am so glad you took the time to write and post this Alyssa. I know it took a while. I'm so happy you had this vacation. What a wonderful trip. Thank you so much for sharing the people, food....the experience! What a lovely travelogue. You should consider a career as a travel writer. :)


    And thank you for the recipe!

  2. I know what you mean! Coming home from our vacations here is always difficult. Travel/food writing (for real money) would be a dream come true for me. Can't imagine it becoming a reality, but we'll see where life takes me. I'm so glad you loved my post. It was fun to write and I love sharing these wonderful people with everyone who stops by my blog. Jah love!

  3. What a great vacation and wonderful way to see the country. I love your food experiences! Thanks for sharing the "real" Jamaica.

  4. Fantastic information! I am so looking forward to giving all these places a try in Feb!

  5. Thanks Kat! You won't be disappointed. I am looking forward to the exact same thing and perhaps finding some new places.