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Pepper Shrimp – The Taste of Middle Quarters in Hackensack NJ

I’ve been eating pepper shrimps (or ‘swimps,’ as some of us call it), since I was in high school and I can still remember my first time (it’s the same every time).

Biting into one of these Scotch-bonnet-infused on-the-go morsels, my tongue is instantly in flames, my eyes watering, heat passing from my throat and warming my stomach.

I involuntarily pull in air, slapping my tongue against my lips and the roof of my mouth, to try to cool it. That doesn’t work; nothing does. Now, even my lips are on fire.

I take a few seconds then, my mouth still reeling, I bite into another shrimp – head and all – continue the delicious torture, which, by now, is causing my nose to run.

Pepper Shrimps, crawfish really, typically come from the Black River, the longest in parish of St. Elizabeth, one of the longest in the island.

The shrimps are cooked in a mixture of Scotch bonnet and spices and sold in little paper or plastic bags of about 6 or so by roadside vendors in Middle Quarters, Jamaica’s “Shrimp Country.”

The shrimps are small, no more than an inch or an inch and half so we eat head and all. Some people peel them skin off, other people (I’m one) don’t.

Most visitors to Jamaica stay on the northwest for the spectacular beaches. But those who make it to the south coast usually discover an entirely different side the island, one that is rustic as well as charming.

Here, small cook shops abound and vendors sell typical Jamaican fare, using fresh ingredients grown locally in St. Elizabeth, the island’s “Bread Basket.”

On my way to visit a friend in New Jersey few weeks ago, I stopped at Mac West Indian Restaurant in Hackensack to get some escoveitch fish. While waiting, I noticed they had peppered shrimps and asked the server to add a couple packets to my bill.

I was surprised to see pepper shrimp on the menu at any of the restaurants I frequent. Seeing them brought back memories of some pepper shrimps I bought in the Bronx in the 80s.

I remember Michael driving us back to Manhattan where we were staying and the two of us eating shrimp after shrimp, our mouths ablaze because Ting, the carbonated grapefruit soft drink that someone at the restaurant had recommended, didn’t calm the fire in our mouths. (Apparently, milk is better but I hate milk.)

Michael was swearing like a sailor while I laughed and called him a wimp for not being able to handle “a little pepper.” I still smile at the memory.

Though they weren’t crawfish, the pepper shrimp I bought in Hackensack took me back to Middle Quarters. I could almost feel the sun on my face as I bit into my first one.

Pepper Shrimp
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Ingredients
  1. 4 cups water
  2. 1/2 cup chopped scallion
  3. 4 garlic cloves, crushed
  4. 3 fresh thyme sprigs
  5. 3 fresh Scotch bonnet or habanero chiles, halved and seeded
  6. 2 tablespoons salt
  7. 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  8. 10 whole allspice
  9. 1 lb large shrimp
Instructions
  1. Combine all ingredients except shrimp in a 4-quart heavy pot and bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, covered, 20 minutes.
  2. Stir in shrimp, making sure they are just covered by liquid, and remove pot from heat. Cool shrimp in liquid to room temperature, uncovered, about 1 hour. Transfer shrimp with a slotted spoon to a plate or bowl and drizzle some of cooking liquid on top.
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