A Jamaican odyssey
By Nigel Spence
Every time I find myself in Jamaica, it never fails to amaze me that despite its economic woes, sprinkled with crime and violence, there is a vibe that infects me upon arrival that creates a feeling of wonder and excitement to discover new things that has me forever in search of just that.
It NEVER fails to deliver. I catch myself with that grin of “being in the know” every time I stumble upon a situation, place or person that is different and unique, which, in itself, describes Jamaica.
This time, I happened to be in the right place at the right time, driving through the North Coast of the island – Saint Ann’s parish – when I happened upon an annual event in progress called Rebel Salute, a music festival paying tribute to and celebrating the Rastafarian culture.
The event is all about music, food and most importantly for some participants, Ganja – the local Cannabis and one of the most famous Jamaican “export”.
Upon entering the grounds I realized that since this was a celebration of the Rastafarian culture, and their diet was mostly vegan or vegetarian, the only kind of “meat” to be had was seafood and even that was in limited supply. This gave a true feeling of Rasta and Jamaica – and I was loving every minute of it. My main focus immediately switched to the food as I was curious to see what variety of vegan options could be available to satisfy such a diverse crowd.
After surveying the entire venue for a spot to call home base, I settled into very comfortable accommodations next to the “Rough and Ready” food hut. It offered a great view of the stage and the many musical artists getting into their chants of Rasta vibration riddims.
As I was setting up camp, unfolding my portable chair, the proprietor approached me.
He extended his hand and I assumed that he was introducing himself with a handshake, but as I quickly learned from Ras Q, “Rasta don’t shake hands”.
He was in fact introducing himself but what I thought was the gesture of a handshake was actually him passing me a welcome gift of a sizeable amount of ganja which, he went on to explain to my naïve self, was a necessity to truly enjoy the ambiance of Rebel Salute.
The amount of weed that I was handed seemed to be enough to enjoy the concert and any other celebrations for the next three months.
I was given a synopsis of the origin and the process he undertook to achieve the remarkable final product that was now in my shirt pocket and overloading my sensory nerves.
I was also informed by Ras Q that I would be in need of a “reggae bed” continuing along the lines of doing Rebel Salute the right way. Needless to say, he just happened to have one in stock and it was on sale (available at a discounted price.)
As it turns out, the “reggae bed” is a thin piece of cardboard about 6 feet long by about 4 feet wide. This seemingly non-descript piece of brown cardboard becomes invaluable as the night progresses, as it affords the opportunity to lie down on TOP of the grass and catch a snooze between band changes especially as Jamaica never sleeps and the concert goes on til almost noon the following day!
I refused the sale at first but as the hours went by I reluctantly made the purchase … and by early morning I was relaxing comfortably on my Jamaican posturepedic, grinning at the novices being turned away because they came too late and Ras Q was out of his beds that were sold out at double the price I paid!
The only purchase that was smarter than the “reggae bed” was the “Box Dinner”, which of course I also procured from Ras Q. Yes, this was one stop shopping!
After reading the menu board, which was made from a repurposed “reggae bed” and nailed up using the base of the stems of two ginormous Ganja plants holding up both sides, I settled on “Di Original Vital Stew Peas”.
There was also a dish called Calaloo and “Kali” Flour. I don’t know which I was more curious about, the ingredients in that dish or what the American street value of the weed holding up the menu board was.
Although Ganja is technically still illegal in Jamaica (over 2 oz that is), it seems that this festival gets no notice from the authorities and Ganja moves and shakes within like cotton candy at a street fair. There is almost no need to smoke it as the second hand smoke might as well be considered first hand. That may have explained my insatiable appetite. I was responsible for removing the Vital Stew from Ras Q’s menu.
It was nothing short of amazing, even without any “meat kind” in the dish, which is usually the focus of a traditional Jamaican Stew Peas dish.
When Ras Q took an “herb break” from the store, I began to “reason” about his approach to cooking and living, or as all Rastas say – “livety”.
It was during his way too many “herb breaks” that I was able to pull the recipe from him, sometimes being inundated with second hand smoke. I jotted down what I could remember of the conversation and retired to my “reggae bed” for some well deserved R & R.
I modified the recipe slightly to make it easier to put together. Note that I have smoked salt as an ingredient only because Ras Q roasted the yams and the sweet potato over an open wood fire before adding it to the stew, which created a wonderful smokiness to the finished product. Smoked salt was the easiest way I found to duplicate that process without building a wood fire in my apartment. I have also added mushrooms to contribute to the “meatiness” of the dish.
Ras Q would NEVER use mushrooms.
Ganja was NOT an ingredient in Ras Q’s Vital Stew.
Ras Q’s Legal family middle name given to him by his mother is “Wonderful”. I just thought that I should share that. Enjoy!
Di Original Vital Stew Peas
1 pound dry green Lentil beans
2 Cans Red Kidney beans 15 oz, drained
1 can unsweetened Coconut milk, 15 oz
1/2 tablespoon Scotch bonnet pepper, minced
6 sprigs fresh Thyme
2 teaspoons Cumin, ground
2 teaspoons Allspice, ground
1/2 tablespoon Salt
1/3 cup Coconut oil
1 large Portabella mushroom, large dice
1 large yellow Onion, sliced
2 Tablespoons Garlic, minced
2 Tomatoes, large dice
10 whole Okra, halved
2 stalks Scallion, rough chopped
1 Tablespoon fresh Ginger, minced
1/2 pound Sweet potato, cooked, med dice
1/2 pound Yellow yam cooked, med dice
1/2 pound White yam, cooked med dice
2 teaspoons Smoked salt (can be omitted)
Place a medium sized heavy bottomed sauce pan with 1 quart of water or vegetable stock to boil. Add green lentils and boil for approximately 20 minutes or until beans just begin to soften. Reduce heat to low. Add kidney beans, coconut milk, thyme, cumin, allspice and salt and simmer for 30 minutes, stirring ocassionally.
In separate sauté pan over medium heat, add half of the coconut oil and mushrooms and sauté for 4 minutes. Add garlic, onions, tomatoes, okra, scallion, ginger and sauté for additional 2 minutes. Add to the stew.
Over medium heat add the rest of the coconut oil to the now empty sauté pan. Add the yams and sweet potato. Add the smoked salt and sauté stirring to incorporate the smoked salt with the yams and coconut oil for about 2 minutes. Add to the stew.
Simmer the stew for 5 minutes and remove from heat and cover.
Wait 20 minutes, stir the stew and serve.
The reason for the twenty minute rest is to let the residual heat of the stew continue to cook the vegetables gently, but leave them intact with a bit of texture and color retained.
Nigel Spence, a Culinary Institute of America alumnus, was born in Kingston, Jamaica. Nigel freelanced at the Television Food Network for 3 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 cook offs 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.