Nigel Spence: Making the Trip to Jamaica’s Hellshire Beach

By: Caribbean Journal Staff - November 26, 2012

Above: Hellshire Beach


By Nigel Spence
CJ Contributor

Firstly, I want to send love and good vibes to my fellow New Yorkers and all those who suffered greatly especially in the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut as a result of Frankenstorm Sandy.

It took a few tries for us to get it right and come together, to get in touch with loved ones and comprehend the extent of the massive devastation. Today, some are still without power and gas, living day to day in frigid weather and struggling to come to terms with the fact that lives have been changed forever.

I want to thank everyone who extended their hands and offered shelter, food, warmth and comfort, ahead of all the federal and state help that was somewhat slow on the dispatch. You came in droves to the battered parts of Queens, Long Island, Brooklyn, Staten Island and New Jersey when we didn’t know where to turn. You arrived in your cars, RV’s, boats and on foot to bring us hot food and drinks, clothing, blankets and fuel. You helped remove the tons of water and debris that, in an instant, became our living rooms and bedrooms and even rescued us from our roofs.

To those who cared enough and moved mountains for us, we thank you from the bottom of our hearts.

On a lighter note, here is the article that was planned prior to the storm.

On a recent trip to Jamaica for work, I was rewarded with an outing to the ultimate “local” beach in Kingston, Jamaica – Hellshire Beach. Which Kingstonian doesn’t know about Hellshire? Not any I would bet. This was the beach I frequented with my family when I was a kid, as did most families in Kingston.

The trek back to this beach evoked serious nostalgia, as it is one of the few places that has not evolved much with regard to technology and architecture, save for a few additions to an existing zinc-lined shack and the fact that the area has been electrified.

As we entered the beach access road from the main thoroughfare, I still got that thrill I used to get as a child whenever my parents announced that we were going to the beach.

The food huts, the people scurrying about, all look the same and brought me right back to my early days. I was elated to see that it’s all still there – an authentic snapshot of my happy past.

As we approached the sandy beach road, it felt mellow and beachy, which, to Kingstonians, means it was rife with the smell of food and local life.

I enjoyed the views while deliberately driving slowly as we avoided the pits of the quirky beach road that broke an axle or two in its day. As if on cue, an unsolicited parking specialist appeared in front of the car to direct us to his idea of the best parking spot on the beach, which happened to be in front of the shack where he sells food and runs a car wash. It was this which confirmed to me at least that nothing had changed. This was Hellshire!

There is no tourism there. Hellshire was and is strictly roots, reggae and relaxation for weary and hungry Kingstonians and the occasional stray goat and mongrel.

It is a great place to score big with artisan crafts, sauces, cure-alls, funny cigarettes and fashions without the outrageous tourist markup that is inescapable along the North Coast.

When the occasional tourist does venture in by accident or who was brought here by his “local” friends, Hellshire can do “touristy” too — with a full body massage, horseback riding or jet skiing on the ready — but for the tourist price, of course (they’ve got to make a living somehow).

The draw here is just as much the food as it is the beach vibe. It is actually a destination lunch spot during the week for many who can easily be identified in uniforms from industries as varied as aviation to law enforcement, sitting next to sunbathers who trek here on lunch break just for some real good seafood but who never get near the water.

This nondescript, out-of-the-way, quiet pristine beachfront boasts some of the freshest, tastiest, most simply prepared seafood you will find on the face of the earth.

There is no exaggeration in that statement, and you will come to realize this when you see the makeshift kitchen and dining area and the SUPER fresh, colourful tropical fish glistening on the thick mass of ice in a rusty box freezer that probably hasn’t worked since I was a kid.

You will be further convinced once you sink your teeth into the flesh of a perfectly fried Red Snapper or Parrotfish, accompanied by crisp yet tender Festival or Fried Bammy.

Fried Rock Lobster, steamed Yellowtail Snapper with Caribbean Lobster and raw Clams on the half shell are all in abundance, as is Peppered Shrimp. Finding something to drink can be as easy as ordering from the bar or accepting the solicitations of the roving vendors who peddle everything from spirit cleansers to Stud Muffin stew.

As I sat down at “Aunt May’s” Kitchen and Rum Shop devouring my fried fish and freshly-prepared lobster, I was approached (as I often am, since I begin to stick out like a sore thumb by now and probably look touristy to the “locals”) by Ras KeepWell, who proceeded to tell me the benefits of the natural juice that he has on offer.

With a quick shake of my head and a “no thanks, I’m good” response, I turned back to inhaling my steaming hot plate of food. Little did I know that Ras KeepWell was still beside me and continued his banter, as if he hadn’t heard my answer. He countered in one breat, ““well, I am glad you said that you are good, because it is my intention to make you GREAT once you try my elixir!”

I couldn’t help but pay attention after this ultimate salesman fought with passion to keep the possibility of a sale open with such an insightful comeback to my shutdown.

By now my whole table was engaged and listening with reverence as Ras KeepWell explained how lucky I was to have encountered him today, as I would otherwise have missed out on this limited time opportunity.

He went on to explain that the ingredients in his potion are seasonal and would not soon be available. He looked me up and down as he made his professional assessment of me.

He then assured me that, upon consumption of his cocktail mix, it would “advance my potential and elevate my standard,” confiding that it would bring out the natural lion in me and make me a better husband. Now who the hell could resist a prognosis like that? [And I’m not even married!]

Ras KeepWell also warned me that once I tried it, I would be back for more, so he pointed out his phone number on the label of the bottle and said, “If my number is busy, just keep calling, don’t get frustrated because of the high demand. No worries, man.”

So one super-sized and one regular bottle and the ultimate gourmet seafood smorgasbord later I was in total heaven on my beach getaway and on my way to rediscovering things about myself that had long been forgotten.

Who needs a doctor when you have a RasKeepWell around? Who needs to cook when you can come to Aunt May’s and get a constant stream of excellent grub?

The Hellshire experience gets you excited about the simpler things in life all over again — fish straight from the ocean to the table, juices made fresh from in season fruits, a wood-fired stove from dried branches of trees close by and locals jamming to the rhythms of REAL island life.

How to Make Hellshire Fried Fish (Courtesy of Chef Nigel Spence – Ripe Kitchen & Bar, NY)

Serves 2

Four 1/2 pound Snappers, cleaned, head and tail left intact.
1 tablespoon Salt
1/2 Tablespoon Black pepper
4 Lime wedges
3/4 Cup Coconut oil (or vegetable oil)

Hellshire Pickled Sauce:
1 med Onion, sliced thin
1 Carrot, sliced thin into matchsticks
1 whole Scotch Bonnet pepper, cut into thin rings, with seeds (optional)
1 Tablespoon whole Allspice berries
3/4 Cup white Vinegar
1 Teaspoon Salt
Pinch of Sugar


Rinse fish thoroughly under running water, then squeeze the juice of 1 lime wedge all over the inside and outside of fish. Cut a diagonal slit down each side of fish to expose the flesh for seasoning. Pat dry with paper towels. Mix salt and pepper together and liberally season fish inside and out, being sure to get the mixture inside the slits made. Heat a frying pan large enough to hold 2 fish, but small enough that the oil contained within will be deep enough to come half way up the sides of the fish. Add coconut oil, then when oil gets very hot almost to the point of smoking, GENTLY add fish and reduce to medium heat, being careful not to get splattered with the bubbling oil. Continue cooking on each side for approximately 5 minutes per side, until fish is cooked through and crispy.
Remove to paper towels and repeat with second batch.
Reserve 2 tablespoons of the used oil.

Method for Hellshire Pickled Sauce:

In a small saucepan over medium heat, add vinegar, whole allspice berries, onions, scotch bonnet peppers, carrots salt and sugar.
Add 2 Tablespoons of hot coconut oil that was used to fry the fish.
Bring to a boil and reduce heat and simmer for 3 minutes.
Remove from heat and spoon over plated fish.

Serve with fried bammies, breadfruit or Jamaican festivals.

Nigel Spence, a Culinary Institute of America alumnus, was born in Kingston, Jamaica. Nigel freelanced at the Television Food Network for three years where he worked with culinary luminaries such as Mario Batali, Bobby Flay and Emeril Lagasse. Chef Spence has appeared twice on Throwdown with Bobby Flay where he emerged the victor in cookoffs against the Food Network star and was featured on CBS when he appeared on Tony’s Table as well as ABC’s Neighborhood Eats, NBC’s The Today Show, Sirius’ Everyday Living with Martha Stewart and TVFN’s Chopped. The acclaimed and New York Times-reviewed Ripe Kitchen and Bar is Mr Spence’s first entrepreneurial endeavour.

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