Spence: A Chef Comes Home to Jamaica

By: Caribbean Journal Staff - January 18, 2013

By Nigel Spence
CJ Contributor

This past holiday season I was lucky enough to make the trek back home to Jamaica for Christmas dinner with my family, which is always a joyously stressful occasion.

Putting a check on my foul mouth — one of my few bad habits — when around family, is no easy feat, but a respectful necessity when one is lucky enough to still have both parents alive and coherent enough to get pissed if (when) an expletive slips out while I am talking on the phone with the kitchen at the restaurant back in New York.

I am also fortunate enough to still have all my siblings and their children, great grandchildren and even mothers-in law who are all able to come together under one roof and ceremoniously enjoy the holiday.

The most memorable part of the day for me is always the preparation of the feast and we have recently started a new custom of veering away from tradition with at least one dish.

My brother-in-law, as self proclaimed chef du jour, (I must grudgingly admit that he has truly lived up to his proclamation), decided to challenge me with the preparation of that non-traditional dish.

I do believe it was more a case of him being stumped with what to do with a bagful of eggplants sent to him with tender love and care from his distant family in the country.

It would have been easy enough to re-gift them to someone who had more experience with the vegetable, except that one of those family members from the country would be in attendance at the Christmas dinner and who, I am sure, would be eager to see their spoils being enjoyed by the entire family.

Hence the challenge thrown upon the tired, burnt-out-from-the-holiday-parties chef from New York.

This was not a vegetable seen frequently on our table growing up, and being that eggplant has a sort of love it or hate it texture and taste, this was going to be the ultimate challenge for me to get the fam to enjoy with fervor, a Jamaican garden egg.

Ideas on how to prepare it are limited in Jamaican cuisine, thus very few recipes are available in Jamaican cookbooks and tend to be some variation of simply boiling and/or frying it.

A reference in an old Jamaican cookbook told of parboiling it, then frying, which the author stated would give the taste of fried eggs.

Maybe that’s why Jamaicans call it garden egg.

One of the downsides of being a chef is always having friends, family and even some restaurateurs apologizing for the food they serve to you, which is something I never really understood fully, as anything cooked from the heart is a good stew in my book!

This is one of the times I understood what it was like to be in their shoes, as I was about to embark upon a dish that I may end up having to apologize for in front of the family before serving.

I decided I would do a re-interpretation of what the Trini’s and Guyanese call “Baigan Choka.”  Baigan, melangine, aubergine, balinghanna and mad apple are some of the other names for eggplant throughout the rest of the Caribbean, where it is more widely used and accepted.

Those names and styles of preparation have little currency in Jamaica where it is simply known as “garden egg.”

Baigan Choka calls for the roasting of the eggplant on an open flame, either on a grill or stovetop. Some recipes instruct you to place slices of garlic in the skin of the eggplant before roasting; with the intention of imparting some of the essence of the garlic into the flesh of the meat to marry with the smoky flavor of the flame roasting. Removing the flesh and mixing with tomato, garlic, thyme and onion or some variation of those ingredients is the basic traditional recipe.

Instead, I simply washed the skins of the eggplant to remove any dirt or grit, wrapped them in foil and put in the oven at 400 degrees for about 45 minutes.

When removed from the oven, I cut the eggplant in half and then used a paring knife to go under the flesh to separate the skin from the flesh.  I then cut a kind of criss-cross pattern through the flesh to make little cubes and facilitate ease of eating.

I then sprinkled kosher salt and drizzled the oil from some sliced garlic and scotch bonnet peppers added to warm coconut oil over the flesh.

At this point, the world is yours!  The rest of the filling is up to you.  Those two halves of a roasted eggplant with the salt and oil is your blank canvas.

You can now add the ackee and codfish mixture as I did in this recipe, but you can easily substitute sautéed shrimp, curried shrimp, bul jol, sauteed vegetables or anything that you would normally pair with rice or pasta as the filler for the eggplant.  The whole idea is to use the eggplant as your starch substitute.

The end result turned out to be what I would call my “Jamericaribbean” recipe for garden egg.

By the way, I made no apologies once I tasted the finished dish, and my entire family decided that this was going to be the first dish to prepare after the New Year, keeping in line with their resolution to eat healthier with less focus on red meats and simple starches.

So to all you “Town” folk looking to eat healthier this year, and a new way to use up those “garden eggs” sent with love from the country, this one is for you:

Jamaican Garden Egg with Ackee and Saltfish

2 large Garden Eggs (eggplants)

2 large sheets of foil to wrap eggplants

4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced

1/2 scotch bonnet pepper, chopped fine

1/3 cup coconut oil or extra virgin olive oil

2T Kosher salt

12T Ackee and Codfish mixture (recipe follows)

2T cilantro, rough chopped (or parsley)



Try to source organic eggplants so that the skin can be consumed without worry of pesticides.

Organic or not, wash eggplant skins thoroughly to remove any residual dirt or grit, as this dish is so tasty, most people end up eating the skin and all.

Wrap eggplants tightly in foil to facilitate roasting without any of the juices dripping out and causing the oven to smoke.

Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees, and place eggplants on a baking sheet in the lower rack of the oven.

Roast for approximately 35 minutes or until the skin feels soft when pressed with your finger, and the flesh is mushy but still maintains a bit of structure to it.

Meanwhile, for the infused oil, put garlic slices and scotch bonnet pepper in a saucepan with the coconut oil or extra virgin olive oil. Heat over low flame until you smell the aroma of garlic, about 3 minutes.  Remove from heat and reserve.

Remove eggplant from foil being careful to capture any juices that may have leaked out into the foil, and add it back to the flesh after slicing open the eggplant.

Slice the eggplant open lengthwise and allow some of the steam to dissipate before sliding a paring knife between the skin and the flesh to cut the flesh away from the skin.

Then on top of the flesh, using the paring knife, cut a criss cross pattern to make little cubes of flesh.

Do this for all four halves.

Season with the kosher salt.

Drizzle the infused oil mixture over all four halves.

Top each half with 3T each of Ackee and Codfish mixture and top with chopped cilantro and serve warm.

You may eliminate the ackee or codfish or both and substitute sautéed onions, red and green peppers, callaloo, spinach, chayote (cho-cho), capers, etc. or any other combination of vegetables to make this dish VEGAN.


Serves 4-6

1/2 lb Dry Salted bone-in, skin-on, Codfish

14 Fresh Soldier (also called cheese ackee) ackee or 1 can of ackees (drained)

1/4 pound corn pork (boiled to remove some of the salt and cut into bite sized pieces)(optional)

1 medium onion, sliced thin

2 cloves garlic, chopped fine

1 stalk scallion, chopped fine

1 large tomato, med dice

1/2 scotch bonnet pepper

2 sprigs fresh thyme, hard stems removed

1 Tablespoon Black pepper

1/3 cup coconut oil

Salt-to taste


Codfish Preparation:

Codfish can be soaked in water overnight, then put to boil when needed, but that’s the long method.

Instead, it can be boiled twice just before cooking to achieve the same result quicker, which is to remove the excess salt from the flesh and soften the codfish for flaking.

Wash the excess salt from the dry codfish and put in saucepot filled with water and bring to boil, then remove from heat.

Drain water and repeat process using fresh water and this time boil till tender and the codfish looses a significant amount of its “saltiness”, or to your personal taste, about twenty minutes. Codfish fillets and salted Pollock fillets* are usually more tender and less salty than bone in codfish, so shorten cooking times accordingly.   Depending on how salty the codfish is, you may not need to add any additional salt to the recipe.  Remove fish from water and cool.  Flake into small pieces and hold. If using bone-in salted codfish, remove as many bones as possible while flaking.

*Salted Pollock fillets are a good substitute for salt cod and can be used as a substitute in this dish, though the flavor is a little less complex.

Ackee & Codfish Preparation:

Add half the coconut oil to large sauté pan over medium heat and add chopped salt pork.  As pork begins to sizzle, add onions, garlic, scallions, tomatoes and thyme.

Reduce heat and continue cooking, stirring occasionally, till onions are softened, about 15 minutes.

Add ackee, flaked codfish, scotch bonnet pepper, salt and black pepper.  Gently fold over to incorporate all ingredients, trying not to break up the ackee, as it can quickly turn mushy if over stirred. Check for spiciness, and remove scotch bonnet pepper if your heat level has been met. Cover and cook over low fire for another 10 minutes till ackee and codfish is warmed through and all ingredients are well incorporated. Remove from heat. Add remaining coconut oil for additional flavor and texture.

A simple trick to create a wonderful scotch bonnet pepper aroma in the dish without adding too much heat is to just gently rest the scotch bonnet pepper on top of the ingredients in the sauté pan for the last ten minutes of cooking, covered, and remove it when the simmering is completed.

Though this dish uses a lot of coconut oil, it is actually good for you.  Coconut oil is one of the only stable cooking oils which does not lose its rich nutrient content when heated, unlike other vegetable oils including olive oil. Omit the pork and you have a healthy vegetarian dish.

Serve on top of roasted eggplant halves, or with any variation of the following: boiled yam, green banana, Irish potato, fried, roasted or boiled breadfruit, or rice.

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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