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Italy Meets Jamaica—Blending Culinary Traditions

By Jacqueline Greaves Monda

For Jamaican–born Jacqueline Greaves Monda, home cooking was traditional Jamaican fare with its rich culinary influences, including Africa, Asia, and Europe. Her marriage to a Southern Italian required the addition of another and definitive culinary tradition, it too influenced by Italy’s vast regional culinary customs. Life in Italy required adaptability, but also inventiveness, as a Jamaican woman needs her spices, aromas, and pepper. Given the colonial spirit of a Caribbean cook, she was able through the years to combine new ingredients and flavors to seek out common ground between the two totally disparate culinary traditions. She currently lives in New York City, where she has created a literary salon with her husband. Frequent trips to Italy and less frequent visits to Jamaica keep the culinary battle raging but always enriching. 

Italy meets Jamaica: Some of you might wonder how that’s possible. In my case, it started with my marriage to a Southern Italian—the main conflict is how many times a year rice is served in our home when he wants pasta twice a day. However, I can tell you that it started a long time ago, even before the first American colonies: on May 5, 1494, when Christopher Columbus—the man from Genoa—“discovered” the island of Xaymaca, the indigenous Taino name for the island we today call Jamaica. Columbus was on his second foray into the “New World,” still looking for gold, and was told that Xaymaca was the land of gold. My own suspicion is that they were trying to get rid of him on Hispaniola (what we now know as the Dominican Republic and Haiti) where he had established the first permanent European settlement in the Americas in 1492 after his ship the Santa Maria ran aground and sank off the coast of the island. It is hard to pin down the details of this story; notwithstanding the political and strategic importance of Jamaica through the centuries—for the Spaniards first, then the British, and of course later the Americans—our history is practically overlooked. A pity, since the story of our people is truly fascinating, not to mention the virtues of our arts, from the visual arts to music and dance, and our culinary heritage, which goes all the way back to the Tainos.

The popular account is that Columbus was awarded the island of Jamaica as a prize by the Spanish crown—Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile, the Catholic Monarchs of Spain, were the sponsors of his four eventual transatlantic forays. On his fourth and final trip to the New World in 1503, he was stranded on the island for a year—his pleas for help to the governor of nearby Hispaniola went unheeded. By this point Columbus had a lot of enemies among the Spaniards. Needless to say, the Italian Columbus was not getting any Gnocchi al Pesto Genovese during his forced sojourn, but was forced to eat Taino food. Perhaps many of the foods we eat on the island today were tasted by him—barbacoa (sound familiar?) is a manner of cooking meat that developed among the Taíno and developed, through Spanish and African influences, into what we today call “jerk.” Columbus, besides possibly eating “jerked” fish, crab, iguana, and other meats, probably ate bread made from cassava, munched on sweet potatoes, callaloo, beans, guavas, pineapple, and papaya. Lucky man! Being Italian he probably didn’t think so, just needing his pasta!

Image: Saltfish cakes with mango cucumber tomato salad. Prepared by the author. Photo by Claudio Napoli.

But the Italians weren’t the only ones to leave their mark on Jamaican food. Besides the obvious British culinary influences (including Scottish and Irish), Jewish dishes were incorporated into the Jamaican repertoire through the influx of Sephardic Syrian and Lebanese communities. The nineteenth century saw the arrival of waves of Italian and German immigrants as well as Chinese and what we call East Indians (the name stems from Columbus’s stubborn insistence that he had arrived in India when he made landfall in the Bahamas, leading to his naming the area the “West Indies”). But the place of Italian food in Jamaica is a surprising and unique one. Today there are numerous Italian restaurants in Jamaica that have adapted Italian dishes using Jamaican products and recipes. Jamaicans, too, seem to be drawn to Italian food, and I know quite an unexpected number of Jamaican-Italian combinations like the ones I make in my own kitchen.

In Italy, it’s easy to find the ingredients I need for Jamaican dishes. There is even a Jamaican food provisions Web site in northern Italy, not to mention the fabulous fruits, vegetables, and goods available today at Roman markets like the Mercato Trionfale and the Nuovo Mercato Esquilino in Piazza Vittorio. With the influx of new immigrants from Africa and East Asia you have a variety of gorgeous fruits and vegetables that we Jamaicans crave. Shockingly I find the quality superior to what I find in New York. The most obvious answer is that the Italian food market demands the very best quality—even in its imports. Italians, unlike ancient Romans, use few spices—mainly cinnamon and nutmeg. Today powdered as well as fresh ginger are easily found, and I was once served pasta with a less than tempting ginger sauce. Italian Jewish cuisine is more “playful,” using cinnamon even in a tuna and tomato pasta sauce incorporating golden currants, bay leaf, capers, olives, and pine nuts. Nutmeg is mainly used in white sauces. With the influx of Africans and Asians, there are a variety of spices available, but my experience is that they are prevalent only in those communities. Curry powder is used, but no self-respecting Jamaican or Asian I know would buy it from an Italian store. One bright light is a Roman store selling hot pepper powder and sauces of varying heat from around the world.

Image: Citrus spiced banana bread with vanilla ice cream. Prepared by the author. Photo by Donatella Codonesu.

My cooking is a process of culinary adaptation, as it was in my ancestors’ kitchen. I may cook an Italian recipe but what I put into my pot has to please my Jamaican palate as well as make that Italian dish pop. My favorite additions are limes, ginger, scallion, allspice, scotch bonnet—the fiery Jamaican pepper of choice—and thyme. But it goes both ways. Sometimes I use an Italian cooking method to make something Jamaican: Jamaican patties filled with smoked eggplant and smoked mozzarella with just the right touch of basil, garlic, scotch bonnet, and scallion. Served with a lovely, thick tomato sauce, you have an Italian crowd-pleaser. Tiramisu, alla giamaicana, is made with citrus fruits—oranges, lemons, and limes—and a delicious mango puree in the middle. And instead of savoiardi—the usual ladyfingers (made incidentally of a genoese cake batter, in another nod to Columbus)—layers of either sliced banana or lemon cake bathed in a citrus syrup. I might kick it up a notch by adding some freshly grated ginger—presto you have the most marvelous flavor combination. Italian friends have come to appreciate these little liberties I take with their dishes, and I have learned so much from the many wonderful Italians I have cooked with. Italy meets Jamaica in the joy and appreciation of mingling flavors and aromas, but also in our shared love of family, the culinary arts and traditions, and in the profound simplicity of a meal. 

Read the May 2017 issue: The Global Feast: Writing about Food

Published May 31, 2017   Copyright 2017 Jacqueline Greaves Monda

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