Ground Provisions: Robin Lim Lumsden On Jamaican Cooking

July 8, 2014


LU: How do you see Jamaican cuisine evolving?

RL: We have some artisanal people coming up—we [at Belcour] make mead (honey wine), people make their cheeses and things like that. [I] don’t think Jamaica takes its food culture seriously enough. We’re not as proud of it as a part of our cultural heritage. We do have a burgeoning group of young chefs, though, who are being creative with Jamaican ingredients. Brian Lumley, Dennis McIntosh… Of course there was Norma [Shirley], who was kind of the diva of Jamaican cooking. She was the one who said, “Look, if you’re making stew peas, it’s actually gourmet, ok?” You just have to maybe not put pig’s tail in it, because that might turn a few people off. We need to send more young people to study abroad—but a food culture is building.

Even with the Rastafarian movement, vegan food is just beginning to arrive. We have two million [Jamaicans] living in America, same as in Jamaica. People travel, and [the food] is becoming more sophisticated. We have wine bars now, cafes. People are paying for health, they’re paying for diversity. There have been two cookbooks published, miniscule compared to America…there are more and more festivals every year, shrimp festivals, fish festivals, jerk festivals. There’s Epicurean Escape. We have a Restaurant Week now—it’s great for everybody.

I hope culinary tourism begins to build in Jamaica. People come to eat. When you have Jamaicans cooking for you, they think, “Oh no, nobody’s going to want mackerel rundown, they don’t want callaloo and saltfish.” No. When my son steps off the plane from New York, he’s like, “Can I have callaloo and saltfish, or cabbage and saltfish, or yam and dumplings for breakfast…” Dishes like boiled banana or plantain porridge. We don’t have a meal without plantain.

One of my favorite things is coco fritters [see the recipe below], I put it in the book. It’s a little more refined, than [at] a shop. It’s taking the food to the next level, that we need to do. To have pride in it. You have the street patty, which is cheap as dirt, and everybody eats it—we had it as kids after school—but then you could have the gourmet patty. Susan Taves, who did the food editing [for The Belcour Cookbook], she’s a good friend who is a chef in Chicago. I met her because she used to cook for reggae bands, and she comes to Jamaica all the time. When she comes down, she’s like, “Oh my god, you have naseberry, and you should be doing x, y, and z with naseberry…” She is creative with the ingredients.

LU: What do you think is the biggest misconception about Jamaican food?

RL: That it’s all just jerk. Certainly when I was growing up, we had the man with the jerk chicken pan across the road, and we’d go to Boston Beach. But there’s a lot of seafood, we always have fresh fish. We eat a lot of fresh vegetables. We eat a lot less processed foods. Coconut milk is a staple, we cook a lot of stuff in the rundown sauce, which is basically just a stew made with coconut. I use a lot of fresh herbs, I might be unusual that way. My food is very much fusion food. I use all the typical Caribbean spices like scallion and pimento and ginger—but also I go Asian because my dad was Chinese, and I go French-European too.

We’re only independent for 50 years, and before that we were very dominated by English culture. We have patties that were [based on English] pasties. We have hard dough bread that was mantou bread. You have the curry, from India, and then you have the African stuff, the oildown. We have seen the Kentucky and things coming into our culture, and it’s important because old-time people in Jamaica… I make coconut milk the old fashioned way. I chop up a coconut and stick it in my blender. If I’m in a big hurry I’ll open up a can, but that’s not real coconut milk to me, although it does taste quite good. I think that’s the difference. I don’t have preservatives in one thing [in the Belcour line], and yet they last. We’re trying to get into Whole Foods right now, and I think we will be either the only Jamaican company, or one of two, because of our processes. We think our products will appeal to an American market.

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