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Escoveitched Fish: Caught in a Pickle in Jamaica

I love food and I love to eat. But I’m very particular about what I like. I nearly ditched my last year of

Scotch bonnet peppers, essential to Jamaican cooking

university so that I could stay in Barcelona. For the food.

In terms of spices and richness, the food in Spain comes pretty close to what I grew up eating and what my body responds to.

When I’m in Jamaica, one meal I enjoy thoroughly is escoveitched fish – not just any fish. For me, it has to be red snapper. I can eat it by itself, right down to the head and bones, no accompanying dish required.

When I was growing up, I’d watch my grandmother and mother prepare typical Jamaican dishes and though I couldn’t cook then, some of those recipes stuck and I replicated them when I began cooking for myself. But escoveitch I wanted to do just like my mother did – fried crispy (so that it crumbles when you bite it) then marinated, for at least 4 hours, in a mixture of vinegar, onions and pepper. Frying it until it’s crisp keeps the fish firm after it’s soaked in the vinegar mixture and when you bite into it, it  creates an explosion of flavor as tangy vinegar, biting Scotch Bonnet and sweet onions awaken the taste buds. Is the only dish I asked her to show me how to make.

Pimento, another key ingredient in Jamaican cooking

Escoveitch, derived from the Spanish word escabeche, meaning pickled, was brought to Jamaica by the descendants of Christopher Columbus, who claimed the island for the King and Queen of Spain in 1494. Jamaica remained a Spanish colony until the British grabbed it in 1655.

Evidence of Spanish presence is still to be found in place names like Ocho Rios, Savanna la Mar, Rio Cobre, etc., and in some of our foods.

The popular escoveitched fish is a tasty reminder of our Spanish heritage.

Here’s my mother’s recipe for this crowd pleaser.

Escoveitched Fish

3 lbs. fish

4 tsp. black pepper and 3 tsp salt, combined

2 or 3 limes (or lemons)

1 Scotch Bonnet or other hot pepper, cut in strips

1/2 cup oil for frying

2 cups vinegar

1 tsp. pimento seeds

2 large onions, sliced

1/2 tsp. of whole black pepper grains

Wash fish thoroughly in water to which juice of limes have been added. Dry thoroughly. When dry,

Escoveitched Fish

coat the fish on both sides and on inside with combined salt and black pepper. Set aside on paper towels. (Note: Paper towels keep the fish dry so the hot oil doesn’t pop and splash when you put it in.)

Heat oil in frying pan to boiling and fry fish on both sides until nice and crisp. Set fish aside in a glass dish.

In a saucepan, combine vinegar, sliced onions, peppers, pimento seeds, whole black pepper grains and bring to a boil. Simmer until onions are tender. Remove from fire and cool.

Pour over fish and leave steeping overnight (or for at least 4 hours).

Serve with festival (flour and cornmeal dumplings), bammie (made from cassava) or even rice and peas. Escoveitched fish can be eaten at any meal. I could get caught in that pickle any time.

Jamaica: In Search of The Real Jerk

Scotch Bonnet, Maynefoto

Scotch Bonnet

The first thing I do when I arrive in Montego Bay is find a spot for jerk pork. I’d start tasting it, and yes, it’s always pork, before the plane even lands.

For years, Scotchies, a little joint about 1-2 Jamaican miles from the airport on the north coast road between Montego Bay and Falmouth did the trick.

But the last time I went to Scotchies (MoBay), my mouth watering in anticipation of the jerk pork that I knew would be succulent, seasoned through and through with the right balance of Scotch Bonnet peppers, scallion, thyme, a little mace and sugar rubbed in, then slowly cooked over pimento wood, I was disappointed.

While the pork was succulent, it was bland! Nary a Scotch Bonnet in sight!

Who ever said jerk should be this bland? By definition, jerk, The Real Jerk, must have a reasonable amount of the fiery Scotch Bonnet pepper.

A trip to The Pork Pit on Gloucester Avenue in town was marginally less disappointing. I blame the need to please visitors and make more money.

What’s Jerk?

Jerk is a way of cooking that was created in Jamaica. It involved rubbing the meat with a mixture of spices and cooking it over a pimento fire. The pimento wood adds a distinct smoky flavor. Jerk also refers to the spices that are used to marinate the meat.

Jerk and drinks at Scotchies, Mobay

Enjoying the company of friends at Scotchies, MoBay

Jerk has been a part of my life since childhood. As a little girl, I remember a man (known only as “The Jerk Man”), who would ride around our district usually on a Saturday evening selling jerk pork – it was only pork then – from a pan that was attached to the handlebars of his bicycle. The pork was suspended on a mesh layer over pimento coals in a tray just below. We could smell it way before The Jerk Man arrived at our gate.

Sometime between my childhood and high school, jerk pork all but disappeared, perhaps because of the influence of Rastafarianism and their abhorrence of pork. When it came back in the 70s, it had expanded to include chicken, fish, even sausage.

In time, the knowledge of how jerk was made went from a few cooks, mostly male, who knew the (then secret) ingredients to a bottled wet or dry rub that became available locally and internationally initially to satisfy the palates of the growing number of Jamaicans who lived abroad.

But something got lost in the transition from a few local cooks to international recognition – everyone was free to put their own interpretation on what jerk was supposed to be. But I knew I could always count on finding the Real Jerk in Jamaica.

Not anymore. At least, not in any area that sees a lot of visitors. Something about wanting to make jerk palatable to them and therefore make more sales produce a jerk that’s nothing like how I know jerk is supposed to taste.

(A few years ago, even the Jamaica Tourist Board announced a culinary Jerk Trail, which allows visitors to sample the real thing.)

For true aficianados of The Real Jerk, come with me to one of my favorite places. It’s right on the border of Hanover and Westmoreland and called appropriately, Border Jerk. (I also have to mention Boston Jerk in Boston Bay, Portland, the jerk capital of Jamaica.) There you’ll get some good jerk pork. For those who don’t like pork, there’s chicken, Festival (flour and cornmeal mixture) and soup. If the jerk’s too hot, wash it down with a bottle of Ting, a carbonated grapefruit drink. Me, I prefer a rum and Ting.

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