My father loved steamed fish. It seemed to me that he had it all the time, that it was his favorite breakfast meal. With green bananas or yam. I think this habit of his of eating this way for breakfast was because he grew up in rural Jamaica where a substantial morning meal was common.
I was never a big fan of steamed fish. I prefer my fish fried as crispy as chips so that the bones snap when I bite into them.
Fast forward several years later and I’m dating. The guy I’m seeing – T – goes on and on about the steamed fish at Little Ochie. At first, I thought he was talking about someplace near Ocho Rios since, locally, everyone calls it “Ochie.” Then he explains that it’s a restaurant that has the best seafood in Jamaica. What could be so special about this particular restaurant, I wondered. I mean, any halfway decent housewife or chef knows how to steam fish. It wasn’t rocket science so I wasn’t impressed.
Early one Sunday morning, T took me there. Used plastic cups, utensils, and food-streaked styrofoam plates had been tossed carelessly over the beach area fronting the restaurant. That and the large black speakers that were hoisted on stands at either end of the beach said that a dance had taken place the previous night. The staff was busy putting things back in order.
T strutted straight to the back, as if he had shares in the restaurant, to where the fish were kept in buckets filled with ice. He then explained that I had to pick the fish I wanted. I chose a lovely red snapper. When the chef asked, I told him I wanted it with bammie, a flat bread, like Pita, that’s made from cassava. (On its own, bammie’s pretty bland. It can also be chewy but it’s a great accompaniment to fish – it’s typically eaten with escoveitch fish. It also stands out when combined with steamed fish, with its soft texture, mix of spices, and delicious gravy, though it will absorb the gravy.)
T wouldn’t hear of the bammie and talked me into having my fish with Excelsior Water Crackers, a hard cracker with a dent in the middle that has been a staple of the Jamaican diet for more than 100 years. Unlike the bammie, Excelsior Water Crackers stand up well in everything from gravies and jam, to butter and meats. I’d never had it with steamed fish before but decided to give it a try.
Back at our table in a thatched covered boat, we waited for the meal to arrive. It did, about 30 minutes later, covered in transparent wrap to protect it from sand and spills.
My eyes bulged. This was not my father’s steamed fish, not in the least! The fish, cooked whole and laid out on a large plate, was almost covered by strips of carrot, chopped okra, and slices of potato and cho cho (christophene or chayote). Crackers lined the plate like an embroidered collar.
All the ingredients were cooked together, allowing the juices from the fish and vegetables to mix with the scallion, thyme, peppers and onions. Pimento (allspice) berries, with its mix of cinnamon, clove, pepper, ginger and nutmeg, gave it a nice warm, almost woodsy, flavor. The vegetables were soft but not mushy, the fish firm and succulent. I ate everything, including my words, that morning. I had to admit, it was the best steamed fish I’d had.
I’ve been back to Little Ochie several times since then and, except when lobster’s in season, it’s the steamed fish I order – sometimes with crackers, other times with bammie. It tastes just the same as it did that Sunday morning.
Steamed Fish, Jamaican Style
1 large snapper, scaled, gutted and cleaned
A few okras, chopped
1 cho cho, julienned
1 carrot, julienned
1 large onion, sliced
2 stalks of escallion
1 sprig of thyme
Crushed pimento grains and black peppercorns
1 tbsp margarine
Fish seasoning to taste
Salt to taste
Excelsior Water Crackers (optional – I noticed that it’s available on Amazon!)
Slice the cleaned fish and season with black pepper, salt, and fish seasoning.
Add to a large pot roughly a cup and a half of water (or more if needed) just enough to cover the fish.
Next add all the other ingredients and cover the pot tightly.
Simmer over medium heat until the fish and vegetables are cooked (approximately 20 minutes, it all depends on the thickness of the fish, so eyeball it).
Add crackers at the end.
Note: I modified this recipe that I found on the Jamaica Observer site.
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