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Taste of the Islands
Local eateries bring the traditional Jamaican flavors to Gwinnett

Carry Ann Buckley came to America three years ago, leaving behind her homeland of Jamaica. Although she misses certain things about the place where she was born and raised, the 18-year-old has found ways to comfort herself. Namely, food.

As an employee at Jerk 'N' Things Cafe in Lawrenceville, Buckley is surrounded by the cuisine of her home. Daily, she prepares the dishes she grew up eating, from jerk chicken to fried bammi and saltfish fritters.

"The food we prepare here is pretty close to what I had back home," said Buckley, her Jamaican accent intact.

Sometimes, being a jerk can be a good thing. Especially if it takes the shape of jerk chicken, a Jamaican diet staple. The dish consists of slices of chicken, marinated - for a few hours or overnight - in jerk seasonings and grilled.

"People come in here just for our jerk," said Claudius Richards, owner of The Jerk Shack in Lawrenceville. "That's what Jamaicans are known for."

Although a hefty selection of Jamaican foods are fried, Buckley notes that an equal number are grilled or stewed. Most dishes are served with steamed rice or beans.

"A lot of people might think that Jamaican foods are unhealthy because so many are fried, but that's not true," she said. "Really, a lot of dishes are healthy. It's all about proportion."

Jamaican dishes are heavily reliant on produce, making them even more healthy. Farmers markets, stocked with fresh fruits and vegetables, supply plenty of ingredients needed to properly prepare Jamaican cuisine. Onions, Scotch bonnet peppers, peas, yams and plantains are centerpieces in many Jamaican dishes, as are more exotic foods like pimento berries (similar to allspice, and used in jerk seasonings), chayote (also called choko, an edible plant in the gourd family) and callalloo (a leafy vegetable).

Bammi, a flat, floury cake, is used in many Jamaican recipes, and is often served fried or steamed. Ackee, a pear-shaped fruit with an egg-like flavor, is also staple in the Jamaican diet - the national dish is Ackee and Saltfish. Saltfish is actually cod fish, and the dish is prepared with dried cod, mixed with ackee, onions and peppers.

"It looks a bit like scrambled eggs," said Richards, a Jamaica native. "It's a very tasty dish."

Jamaican cuisine is commonly assumed to be full of heat, but that is slightly off base. Island foods are flavorful, but not fiery, Richards said.

"With Jamaican foods, OK, a lot of people think it's really spicy, and some dishes are, but not all," Richards said. "We use a lot of spices, but not all of them are hot. There's a range."

In the kitchen of a Jamaican restaurant, patrons would likely find a hearty supply of ground pepper, bay leaves and cloves. Ginger, Buckley said, is also a key ingredient in most seasonings.

"That might surprise some people," she said. "It makes everything taste really good."

Proteins are at the center of many Jamaican dishes, and fish and beef are especially popular. Escoveitch fish, a recipe of lightly floured and fried fish seasoned with peppers, vinegar, onions, chayote and pimento berries, is served in many island homes. Richards' homestyle pick is oxtail, a tender cut of beef, cooked well-done and used to make a thick stew.

Most ingredients for Jamaican fare are easy to find at area farmers markets and domestic and international grocery stores.

"It's pretty easy to find everything you need around here to make Jamaican food," Buckley said. "The thing I mostly miss about home is the laid-back atmosphere of Jamaica. You can't get that same feeling here."

SideBar: Recipes

Ackee and Saltfish

2 pounds of saltfish (cod)

1 dozen ackees

1 small onion

1 teaspoon black pepper

1 sprig thyme

1 crushed garlic clove or 2 teaspoons garlic powder

3 slices Scotch bonnet pepper

1 small sweet red pepper

cooking oil

Boil saltfish in water for 5 to 7 minutes. Clean the ackees by removing the seeds and all traces of interior red pit, then washing. Cover and boil the ackees until moderately soft, then drain, cover and put aside. Flake the saltfish and remove all bones.

Saute thinly sliced onions and sweet pepper rings. Remove half of the sauteed onions and peppers. Add saltfish and the ackees, and turn the heat up slightly. Add black pepper. Pour into serving plate and garnish with remaining onions and pepper slices.

Source: www.jamaicans.com

Jerk Chicken

1 to 3 pounds chicken

Jerk sauce (recipe below)

lemon or lime juice

Clean, skin and cut chicken into medium pieces, then wash with lime or lemon juice. Rub the chicken with the jerk sauce.

Refrigerate and marinate overnight. Grill chicken at the lowest possible setting until done. (Note: Mix pimento branches to charcoal for added flavor.) Chop meat into pieces and serve.

Source: www.jamaicans.com

Jerk Sauce

1⁄2 cup pimento berries (also called allspice berries)

1⁄2 cup packed brown sugar

6-8 garlic cloves

4-6 Scotch bonnet peppers

1 tablespoon ground thyme or 2 tablespoons thyme leaves

1-2 bunches scallions (green onions)

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1⁄2 teaspoon nutmeg

salt and pepper to taste

2 tablespoon soy sauce

Place all ingredients in a food processor or blender, and liquefy. Pour sauce in a jar and keep refrigerated.

Source: www.jamaicans.com