Exploring Jamaica’s jerk chicken and beyond in Kingston and Ocho Rios

It’s worth getting out of the lounge chair to go inside Bob Marley’s home, sip Blue Mountain coffee at the source, see nutmeg grow, and more.

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      In the garden of Bob Marley’s house in Kingston, Jamaica, a sign gently warns visitors to “please be careful of falling mangos.” Inside the house, a 1970s blender occupies a prominent spot on the kitchen counter. Perhaps Marley was fond of mango smoothies?

      “The blender would be in constant motion,” our guide, Mikala Cole, confirms. She explains to the group that Marley and his friends loved to mix up all kinds of fruit juices, which they would top with Irish moss. “They thought it was like a natural Viagra,” she says, adding that Marley followed a Rastafarian Ital diet of salt-free, veggie-based meals.

      We’re on a tour of the airy two-storey home where the legendary singer lived until his death in 1981. The house has since been preserved as a museum, and Cole, who seems to genuinely love her job, sings “One Love” as she leads us through it. In the hallway, she points out Marley’s 1966 wedding photo with Rita Anderson, in which he looks almost unrecognizable with a cropped haircut. At the back of the house, she shows us the bullet holes in the wall where Marley was shot in 1976 and explains that the assassination attempt led him to later write “Ambush in the Night”.

      This intimate window into Bob Marley’s life is one of the highlights of my short visit to Kingston. While the island’s beach resorts make it a popular honeymoon destination, I’m here to explore outside of them—specifically, to learn more about Jamaica’s famous jerk chicken. In doing so, I’m enjoying how food and culture intersect in unexpected places—like Bob Marley’s blender.

      Bob Marley's house is now a museum in Kingston.
      Carolyn Ali

      Jamaican cuisine is more of a cultural mashup than one might think. That’s according to Stephanie Scott, the founder of Jamaica’s annual November restaurant week (which is similar to Dine Out Vancouver). “The biggest misconception about Jamaican food is that it’s all about jerk,” she said over lunch at Rojo Restaurant prior to our museum visit.

      Scott pointed out that the country’s cuisine mirrors its diverse population. She noted that Chinese and Indian influences are especially strong due to the history of indentured labourers. As well, fusion fare has become increasingly popular over the past few years as the restaurant scene has expanded. Rojo’s menu, for example, lists sushi made with smoked fish and akee—a buttery pale-yellow fruit with the texture of soft tofu—alongside traditional pepper-pot soup.

      And then there’s that famous Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee, which I had tasted that morning right at the source. From the Spanish Court Hotel, we had made an hourlong trip up a steep, winding road to Craighton Estate, where coffee consultant Alton Bedward gave us a tour of the 300-acre plantation.

      The misty blue mountains provide the perfect conditions for coffee to grow.
      Carolyn Ali

      At over 2,000 feet above sea level, the Blue Mountain region is prized for its perfect soil, slope, and microclimate. The region produces just five to six million pounds of arabica beans per year, and the price of 100-percent Blue Mountain coffee reflects that. According to Bedward, in North America the beans are most often found blended with lesser-quality ones. I was skeptical when he urged me to try a cup black, without my usual cream. But the brew was so smooth and alkaline that there was no need to mellow it; it was unlike any coffee I’ve had before.

      The following day, our two-hour drive from Kingston to Ocho Rios provides ample opportunity to sample everyday Jamaican fare. During the ride, I’m fascinated by the scenery; it’s punctuated by road signs like “Undertakers Love Careless Overtakers,” which I find both amusing and a tad disconcerting. In town after town, brightly painted concrete-and-corrugated-metal buildings line the road. Colourful hand-lettered signs mark businesses offering everything from shoe repair to Japanese auto parts, laundry services to bars.

      I spot plenty of jerk eateries in the mix: Ideal Jerk Spot, One Stop Jerk, Complex Jerk Centre, and two dozen stands in a single area called Faith’s Pen. I don’t see a single McDonald’s. Later I learn that there aren’t any: the chain never caught on in Jamaica. There is a drive-through, however, at Juici Patties, a fast-food restaurant that specializes in the stuffed pastries.

      You don't need to get out of your car to get a Juici patty.
      Carolyn Ali

      It’s too early for jerk chicken, so we stop at a hole-in-the-wall café that serves typical Jamaican breakfasts. The equivalent of $4 buys a heavy plate of stews and starches, including deep-fried breadfruit, johnnycake fritters, and fried green bananas. The creamy akee-and-salt-fish combo that is Jamaica’s national dish is especially delicious.

      The menu on the wall of a Spanish Town cafe.
      Carolyn Ali
      A typical Jamaican breakfast includes buttery akee and salt fish (the yellow fruit on the left), with marinated mackeral and onions and lots of fried starch.
      Carolyn Ali

      In Ocho Rios, we check in to the Sandals Grande Riviera Resort, where many of the guests are honeymooners who have no urge to leave the property. We’re eager to learn about jerk cooking, however, so we venture back out.

      About 15 minutes west of the resort lies Scotchies, a well-known jerk shack that is on our hit list. But first, we chat with executive chef Dennis McIntosh at Runaway Bay’s Cardiff Hotel. McIntosh is the chairman of the Culinary Federation of Jamaica, and while he seconds the notion that Jamaican cuisine isn’t all about jerk, he notes that many people are loyal to a certain jerk shack and attach nostalgia to jerk. “The uniqueness of the taste profile just speaks to being a Jamaican,” he says.

      The Culinary Federation of Jamaica’s Dennis McIntosh (left, with David Kitson) gets creative with jerk marinade.
      Carolyn Ali

      According to McIntosh, “jerk” refers to both a flavour profile and a method of cooking. His marinade consists of Scotch bonnet peppers, pimento (allspice) berries, fresh thyme, scallions, ginger, onions, garlic, and soy sauce. These ingredients—plus others like cinnamon, nutmeg, and sugar—form the basis of secret recipes that are differentiated by quantities and ratios.

      The difference between authentic jerk chicken and “pan chicken”—named for the makeshift steel-drum cooking vessel—is the method. Pan chicken is grilled on a grate, while jerk chicken is placed directly on hot wood. “Pimento wood always gives you the edge because allspice has this fantastic depth of flavour,” McIntosh explains.

      The meat goes straight on the logs at Scotchies in Ocho Rios.
      Carolyn Ali

      Later at Scotchies, we watch the cooks lift sheets of corrugated metal to retrieve spatchcocked chickens and burnished slabs of pork. The meat is indeed grilled atop slender logs neatly aligned on a grate, allowing the charcoal heat and smoke to penetrate from below.

      It’s a sight I’ve never seen outside of Jamaica, and one definitely worth getting off the lounge chair for. So is a trip to Sun Valley Plantation, a working family farm about 30 minutes east of Ocho Rios. In the large demonstration plot, co-owner Lorna Binns introduces us to the live versions of everything shrivelled up on my kitchen spice rack. Lush, green vanilla beans dangle off vines, and a yellow nutmeg fruit breaks open to reveal the fragrant nut encased by lacy red mace.

      Fresh nutmeg fruit.
      Carolyn Ali


      Cracked open, red mace surrounds the fragrant nutmeg inside the fruit.
      Carolyn Ali

      We also see fruits such as rosy akee (toxic if it hasn’t opened naturally), plump breadfruit, and June plum, which we taste as a lovely tart juice. I spot avocados hanging heavy on the trees and am awed by their two-hander size.

      That’s when I remember the mangos. Paradise—just mind your head.

      ACCESS: On the Visit Jamaica website (www.visitjamaica.com/ ), search for “jerk trail” to find authentic spots. Kingston’s Spanish Court Hotel (spanishcourthotel.com/ ) can arrange Blue Mountain and Bob Marley Museum tours. In Ocho Rios, Sandals Grande Riviera (sandals.com/) can book tours of Sun Valley Plantation, or call (876) 446-2026. An independent day trip from Ocho Rios to Kingston costs about US$170 return to hire a car and driver. The writer travelled as a guest of the Jamaica Tourist Board.