In Jamaica, A Raw Tale of Rum and Ras
By Nigel Spence
JAMAICA — WHILE SPENDING some well-deserved relaxation time in the deep throngs of Westmoreland, Jamaica’s West End, a long way far past Negril proper, I would find myself returning to the same bar nightly to finish off the evening with a nightcap and to rustle up whatever was on the menu for dinner that night.
This nightly ritual may also have been due in part to the fact that the proprietor caught my interest as being one of the more interesting people I have had the pleasure of making conversation with during my stay.
Now to call this establishment a bar would be a bit of an overstatement.
It was outfitted with a fully circular concrete bar top, but a mishmash collection of chairs, complete with relics from the sea and from past patrons dangling overhead and the shelves housing the spirits made this watering hole truly… er …unique.
Don’t come here looking for a selection of the trendier spirits or cocktails that you may find at most country rum shops in most typical remote fishing villages.
At this bar there were only two selections to assist with taking you to that higher level. Specifically, JB Rum and some of the most earthly (smelling) weed I have ever come across.
No ice, no chaser, no stirrers, no cheesy umbrellas, no fruit garnishes, nada.
I am sure the decision to have JB rum as the bar’s signature rum was not by accident.
The brand name and acronym JB makes direct reference to the local buzzard’s rear end.
I would assume it safe to say that the name is a testament to the rum’s potency and complexity as anything making reference to that particular body part of the buzzard should contain some interesting components in its makeup.
The owner could best be described as an ageless Rastafarian, an accomplished raconteur and “herbalist” and was one hell of a cook.
Therein lies three winning attributes for anyone looking for an alternative style vacation and my reason for returning to this bar nightly.
It became common practice for me to be offered a sharing plate of whatever was concocted for dinner each evening.
This would always be a combination of whatever was available from both the ocean and the garden that day.
This would then be followed by deep conversation, some “herbal wisdom” on his part and many, many shots of buzzard’s butt elixir way into the night.
Inevitably during all this, the conversations would shift towards the components of the dish, the method of preparation and, most importantly, how much it would enhance one’s virility.
It seemed that for this Rastafarian (and most, I assume) the primary purpose of nutrition, beyond staying alive, is to promote proper sexual function.
On my last night there, I was hastily summoned by the Ras to the bar.
On my arrival I found his son, also a rasta, standing with an old red and white ice cream bucket overflowing with golf ball sized prehistoric-looking snail-like creatures — all slithering around seeking an escape. ”
Sea Beef” he exclaimed, “eat four of them right out di shell and we stew the rest this evening, just chew pon it and swallow, it will put lead inna you pencil”
His son started digging the flesh from the shell with the old rusty knife that previously did double duty as fish scaler.
What came out was a slimy, pale orange piece of flesh looking like an oversized pecan, leaving behind the shell and some dark brown and green goo inside that was the intestines.
“Your wife will be happy tonight,” his son said with conviction as he handed me the alien from the seas to put in my mouth.
I immediately felt I was on camera in an episode of Fear Factor or Bizarre Foods, as all who were present looked on to see if I were “man” enough for the challenge.
Well who could resist a promise of happy women and heavily leaded pencils?
What greeted my palate was a sweet, briny taste of the sea not unlike the best raw clams I would ever experience.
The texture was like that of raw conch or whelks, yet just a little less chewy.
It was amazingly satisfying and by the fourth one it quickly shot up towards the top of my scale of raw seafood satisfaction.
The son proceeded to shuck the rest from the shells in preparation for the stew pot for that evening’s dinner that was already getting started over a wood fire right on the beach in front of the bar.
I decided that I would stay and start my nightly ritual a little early as I was curious as to how these creatures would be cooked and what the other components of the dish would be.
This was in part because the Ras confided in me that this dish played a major role in his ability to maintain his youthful skill of producing so many children and to keep all his queens happy.
These kinds of recipes, I assume, are well guarded and rarely revealed to the lay person, so I didn’t want to miss a thing since I had an in!
While sipping on the bar’s specialty drink, I saw coconut meat being grated, yams being peeled, okra picked from the garden, a sea puss (octopus) arrived from a fisherman friend, along with the freshest hog snapper you could ever see — all being cleaned and scaled with the old rusty shucking knife that was used to clean what I now dubbed the “sea worms.”
I guess the ras named them sea beef because of their texture being similar to that of meat and also being the closest thing to beef that would ever be on a non-meat-eating Rastafarians plate.
While all was being prepared and since it was my last night, I decided to get a few questions answered that had my curiosity at its peak.
I asked the ras his age and he answered my question with a question.
“What month is this? he inquired. “March,” I said, to which he then seemed to be able to draw a reference..
“I put 66 behind me last month” he muttered.
I am not sure if my surprise was more about his age than the fact that he had absolutely NO CLUE what month we were in. This probably had nothing whatsoever to do with senility and much more to do with a Utopic lifestyle.
It was strangely refreshing to me and I have to admit a certain amount of jealousy on my part just being wound up way too tight to even allow myself the thought process of ever living in this manner.
I also realized that I only knew him as Ras and nothing else, so I asked if he had another name by which I could make reference if I wanted to send friends his way.
“Mi name Bululum but everyday jus check mi as Ras up dis side,” was his response, at which point my inside voice wanted to inquire whether that with two L’s or one (I didn’t ask)
After a few more shots of JB, dinner was served.
Unlike many experiences with seafood stew I have had in the past, the seafood ingredients nor the vegetables were overcooked.
It was perfectly spiced and all the components came together to make an incredibly satisfying and delicious one-pot meal.
The sea beef played a starring role in the flavour profile and truly contributed a meatlike texture to the dish.
After carefully watching the process from beginning to end, I went back home and put my cheffy senses to work to recreate the dish using all that I had available to come as close to the original as possible.
I then modified it a bit to be more approachable as an item on my restaurant’s menu. What it most closely morphed into is what I would call a Jamaican Seafood Rundown which I have shared in the recipe below.
As small as Jamaica is in comparison to many other countries I have visited before, it never ceases to amaze me that after the many discovery and exploration style vacations I have been fortunate to be a part of, in Jamaica, there is always something new to reveal itself in its own time.
Thank you Bululum — and hopefully the woman in my life will eventually thank you too.
Makes 4 servings
4 T Coconut Oil
1 pound small Calamari (cleaned)
12 Kiwi Mussels on half shell (can substitute Atlantic mussels)
8 Cherry Tomatoes (cut in half lengthwise)
1/2 pound Fresh Yucca, skin removed
4 Heads Chinese Baby Bok Choy (stalks separated)
1/2 fresh Lime
1/2 T Dried Red Pepper Flakes
Salt & Pepper to taste
2 T Palm Oil/Dende Oil
3 inch cut of a very ripe Plantain, peeled
2 T Chopped Garlic
1 t Scotch Bonnet Peppers (finely chopped)
4 T Cilantro (rough chopped)
2 T Sherry Vinegar
1/2 T Kosher Salt
1/2 Cup Spanish Onion (rough chopped)
1/3 Cup Clam Broth or Vegetable Broth
1/2 Cup Unsweetened Coconut Milk
4 oz Whole butter
1 Bunch Thyme
Heat Palm oil in large stockpot and add onions. Sweat for 5 minutes then add garlic and scotch bonnet pepper. Sweat for 2 minutes more, deglaze with sherry vinegar, then add vegetable stock, whole butter, thyme, ripe plantain and coconut milk and salt. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes. Remove from heat, stir in chopped cilantro; cool, then puree in a food processor. Pass the mixture through a fine-mesh strainer; discard the solids. Reserve for use with the seafood.
Cut calamari tubes into 1 inch circles. Leave the tentacles whole.
Season with salt and pepper.
Defrost Kiwi Mussels, or if using fresh mussels, steam in salt water until just opened and immediately remove from heat and reserve.
Boil Yucca in salt water till fork pierces center easily (like a boiled potato) and drain. Cool and cut in half lengthwise, then cut again lengthwise to resemble large Steak Fries.
Cut cherry tomatoes in half lengthwise and reserve.
Heat coconut oil in sauté pan till smoking. Add calamari and sauté for 30 seconds.
Add mussels, tomatoes, Chinese bok choy, yucca and garlic. Add rundown mixture, red pepper flakes, salt and pepper. Simmer till thickened and all is warmed through, about 3 minutes. Plate in 4 shallow bowls, evenly distributing all ingredients. Squeeze fresh lime juice over plated dishes. Garnish with Mache and/or fresh chopped parsley.
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.