We’re sitting in our car, parked beneath a bridge, waiting for the tropical storm to die. Outside, a dozen Jamaicans are standing around under makeshift tarps tied between the trees, the South Negril River splashing at their feet. Impervious to the torrents of rain, an elderly Rastafarian man is lounging on a big pile of young coconuts. My girlfriend, Natasha, and I only clue in that this is a fish market when chef Kevin Broderick, our guide, points at a woman with a plastic bag on her head gutting a snapper. After cutting it open, she cleans it out by poking her machete against the canvas roof above so the rainwater collected there cascades into the fish’s belly.
“We eat the whole thing – the tail, head ’n’ all,” explains Broderick, who has kindly agreed to initiate us into the island’s culinary ways, tails, heads ’n’ all. He’s been voted Chef of the Year for two years running by the Jamaica Observer Food Awards, and has won over 50 medals for his food at Negril’s Rockhouse resort. But when he eats out, he prefers sidewalk kitchens. “That’s where you’ll find the best flavours,” he says in his singsong accent. “They cook with more love and more soul.”
We’ve just begun a road trip in search of the tastiest street food in Jamaica. After landing in Montego Bay, we drove west to Negril, a beach town about an hour and a half down the coast, where jerk pits, corrugated-tin food stalls and other nondescript hawker stands line the highway. Some have names like Bentley’s Crab House, Rock-a-Bones or Luscious Chicken Emporium; many don’t even sport a sign.
This rainy morning market is our first stop. When the showers finally let up, we step out to inspect the catch. “My name is Joy,” says the woman in the plastic-bag hat, and starts singing “Joy to the World” as she scales the fish. Bits of translucent pastel shrapnel fly though the air. On the table in front of her is a rainbow of seafood: blue-green parrotfish, red mullets, yellowtail snapper. (The fishing here is particularly fertile – we’re a heartbeat away from the Listerine-aquamarine Caribbean, on a sliver of land bordering the river’s estuary.) Unable to choose just a few, we pick up a dozen whole fish, as well as some corn, okra, hot peppers, orange scallions and a bundle of thyme.
Broderick, who learned how to cook from his mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, invites us to his mother-in-law’s home for a taste of traditional home cooking and Jamaican hospitality. While driving to her place, we pass trees with hundreds of roosting white egrets and thousands of mangos. Pterodactyl-like pelicans swoop through the air. There are coconut palms everywhere. Reminiscing about his great-grandma, Broderick tells us how she made her own oil by grating coconut meat, soaking it and then cooking it down. “When she’d get that cast iron skillet going with the coconut oil – just the smell of that pan, oh my God,” he says, hand over mouth. A big man, at that moment Broderick looks like a wide-eyed little boy.
Kevin Broderick, Rockhouse’s executive chef, with his mother-in-law, Mama, in her kitchen.
The sun emerges as we pull up to a small wood home painted bright turquoise, and a smiling, white-haired grandma comes out to greet us. “My name is Mama!” she says, shaking our hands firmly. “We cookin’ up a storm?”
Mama starts preparing a delicious-smelling fish fry, slicing in Scotch bonnets, tomatoes and allspice. As she works, she slips us sips of ineffably glorious broth. When the dish is finally ready, she heaps pounds of rice and fish onto our plates. “Is this enough?” she asks, genuinely concerned. Before we know it, she brings out the next course: fish tea. A dense soup traditionally eaten at dance parties with sound systems, it’s bursting with umami flavours and chunks of okra and corn.
“This soup is crazy,” I manage. “I’m crazy!” Mama responds, munching on a parrotfish skeleton.
The next few days driving around Negril get even wilder as we dig into curry goat and escovitch fish at Sweet Spice Restaurant; conch soup, brown stew chicken and cucumber juice at the Sweet Spot Restaurant & Bar; way too many patties at Out of Town Pastry; and fresh curried shrimp, festival (a kind of hush puppy) and jerk kingfish at 3 Dives. There, on a sign translating Jamaican patois into English, we learn that the expression “him nasty up himself” is how the locals say “he spilled jerk sauce on his shirt.”
Nastying up yourself is inevitable at our favourite place, a little roadside gas-drum barbecue called the Original Step Aside. (Before we got there, I asked Broderick about the name. “It means, ‘We comin’ through, give us some space, we own this.’” Noting the blank look on my face, he clarified: “It’s a pushcart, that’s why!”) The owner, Marshall, is a charismatic, storytelling Rasta in a white chef’s hat; he informs us repeatedly that he loves cooking chicken. And that’s all he cooks: perfectly juicy and smoky jerk chicken. He douses each order in a heart-racingly spicy jerk sauce. “The secret to the sauce is the bamma,” Marshall declares. “It’s the stingy-stinger. It’ll sting you up!”
Bamma, it turns out, is Marshall’s word for “the mystery of the universe.” To really experience the bamma, he says, you have to crack the bones and suck out the marrow. “It’s spiced good all the way through,” says Broderick, nodding. He explains that seasoning chicken properly requires “stabbing it up” with a knife so that even the bones take on the flavour of the marinade.
That’s exactly what Broderick himself does at the Rockhouse to create his own bamma-licious jerked meats. Then there’s his Nyammings Platter, an assortment of stews and braised meats that makes for an easy introduction to the island’s soul-food heritage. But what truly soars is Broderick’s Old Time Synting, a coconutty, crayfish-laden homage to his great-grandmother. The waiters suggest we “nice things up” with the spicy Jamaican ketchup, called Pickapeppa. It may not be the stingy-stinger, but it’s pretty fantastic.
A pre-dinner snack of local tropical fruit from a vendor in Negril; Marshall serves some of the best jerk chicken in Negril from his roadside cart, the Original Step Aside; a boy changes the channel in a tucked-away restaurant in the heart of Montego Bay.
Even the breakfasts are absurdly delicious. On our last morning in Negril, we start the day with the Rockhouse’s Jamaican special: ackee and saltfish, which has got to be the world’s best way to begin the day (especially when washed down with a cup of Blue Mountain coffee). Ackee, the national fruit, has the texture of scrambled eggs; when folded into salted cod and peppers it takes on an oceanic, eggy earthiness that is perfectly complemented by the spinach-like steamed callaloo. Instead of bread, the special comes with johnnycakes, twisty knots of fried dough that are impossible to stop eating.
Fuelled up, we meander back toward Montego Bay, among mountains verdant to the point of fluorescence. Just off the main road in Green Island, in a little cluster of food huts called Old Bay, we spot a place called Ital Vital. The chef, Ras Ivid, serves vegan Rastafarian health food. We order beans stewed in coconut milk, ackee with tofu and bulgur rice to go, and pair it with some meats down the road at a bare-bones jerk stand called Bigga’s, where smoke billows through the air.
Although Bigga’s is amazing, Scotchies, in Montego Bay, is even better. Going through the kitchen (a huge jerk pit), we munch on roasted breadfruit and watch the cooks, who place freshly cut allspice wood above the smouldering charcoal, then drape chickens directly onto the green logs so the meat stays moist and absorbs the tree’s spicy essence. The mystery of the universe, indeed.
The next day, we drive eastward from MoBay through palm forests that suddenly give way to ocean views with Christopher Golding, the talented chef at Sugar Mill Restaurant, a fine-dining establishment in a restored 17th-century mill inside the Half Moon resort. “Jamaicans love to party; we love to drink and to eat,” he says. “We like flavours that make water come to your eyes, flavours that burst into flame, flavours that make you sit down and think.”
The Rockhouse’s traditional Jamaican breakfast comes with ackee and saltfish, johnnycakes and callaloo; a condiment shelf at the hotel; Bigga, the owner of the eponymous roadside jerk stop in Green Island, makes his own Scotch bonnet sauce.
He takes us to “little ’hood shacks,” like the Ultimate Jerk Centre & Rest Stop in Discovery Bay. The chicken is among the best we’ve had, but what really blows us away is the jerk pork: It’s succulent, smoky and super-spicy. “There’s fire goin’ on here!” shouts Golding. And in Ocho Rios, we end up at a place called Miss T’s Kitchen, where we try goat’s head soup, a local specialty. (Keith Richards, who owns a home nearby, is said to have named a Rolling Stones album after that dish.) It’s deeply flavourful but with all the bits of brain and intestine floating around, it’s not for everyone. Then, over Miss T’s shrimp rundown, shellfish napped in a sweet coconut sauce, Golding and the waiters confer about the best ’hood shacks. They come to a unanimous decision: Yammy’s, which specializes in roast yams. When we finally locate it on a narrow road outside Ocho Rios, Golding is so excited he lets out a string of expletives. The pink shack is painted with the words “Wow Wow Roast Yam.” After we place our order, the owner, Yammy, starts whacking the root vegetables with a short shamanistic stick. “Slap ’im up mek it get softa,” he explains. Golding starts laughing. “Lick a yam with a stick, Rasta!” Turning to us, he adds, “This is the real Jamaica, mon!”
We bring our yams up to a tiny bar and grill in the hills where Golding learned to cook. He’d come here, after spending days learning classic European techniques at a cooking school nearby, to watch the old men roast meat over coconut husks. Golding’s cooking at the Sugar Mill incorporates both influences; his molten ackee wontons are pure pleasure, as are his crab and papaya salad and mixed seafood platter. The curry-coconut ice cream is an appropriately taste-bud-blasting cap to our journey.
Heading to the airport, we hit Scotchies for a final lunch. I ask the owner when they’ll open an outlet in Canada. “When you have allspice wood for us to smoke the chicken on,” he laughs. “Without it, you can’t get the flavour.” And that flavour, right there, is why we can’t wait to go back to Jamaica. It’s the bamma. ®
Write to us: firstname.lastname@example.org
Cooking up marinated chicken on the grill at Scotchies in Ocho Rios; a yam slow-roasted over the open fire at Yammy’s, located roadside between Montego Bay and Ocho Rios; fresh ackee drying out in front of Yammy’s.
01 You’ll never run out of things to do at Half Moon, just outside Montego Bay. For starters, there’s an 18-hole championship golf course, an Olympic-size pool and 13 tennis courts. So there’s no need to feel guilty about tucking into Christopher Golding’s superlative dishes, such as pimento-smoked duck breast and coconut-and-saffron-poached snapper, at the Sugar Mill Restaurant. halfmoon.rockresorts.com
02 Perched on the coral cliffs in West End, Negril, the Rockhouse accommodates guests in thatched-roof beach huts overlooking one of the finest bays in the Caribbean. (There’s a reason it’s called Pristine Cove.) Start the day with a yoga class by the pool, and cap it with Kevin Broderick’s award-winning island cuisine.
West End Rd., between the Rockhouse and Xtabi, Negril, 876-782-9990/344-6850
On the main road in Green Island, 876-405-4915
Old Bay, Green Island
Miss T’s Kitchen
65 Main St., Ocho Rios, 876-795-0099
Original Step Aside
No fixed address; try the main beach road in Negril, near the Jungle nightclub, 876-840-7122
Coral Gardens, Montego Bay, 876-953-3301; Drax Hall, Ocho Rios, 876-794-9457
Sweet Spice Restaurant
Whitehall Rd., Negril, 876-957-4621
Sweet Spot Restaurant & Bar
Norman Manley Blvd., Negril, 876-452-4447
Ultimate Jerk Centre & Rest Stop
Main St., Discovery Bay, 876-973-2054
Near the infirmary on the western outskirts of Ocho Rios, on a narrow road under the sign for Seacrest Beach Hotel
Negril and Montego Bay
Air Canada offers daily non-stop service from Toronto, while Air Canada Vacations® operates non-stop once weekly from Montreal. Negril is a scenic coastal drive from Montego Bay.