Island of spice and spirit

The rum is famous, the coffee sublime but jerk chicken rules the roost in Jamaica, writes Andrew Marshall.

Jamaica's sugary sand beaches, aquamarine waters and cheek-caressing trade winds are merely the appetisers - it's also a feast of many tastes and flavours. From fiery jerk meat and inventive seafood dishes to oak-aged rums and hearty stouts, Jamaican cuisine is an eclectic mix of African, European and Indian influences - and is surprisingly healthy and varied.

Although many restaurants offer excellent dining, we soon discover you're just as likely to have a great culinary experience by eating local style - and here that means one thing: Jamaica's signature dish of jerk chicken or pork.

Although there are thousands of jerk centres - as they are known - in every village and town and at almost every crossroads or street corner, there's only one place to go and that's Scotchies. There's nothing fancy about this thatched-roof joint on the outskirts of Montego Bay, where food is served in aluminium foil and everyone eats with their fingers, but the jerk dishes are the best you'll find anywhere.

It's late Friday afternoon and the queue at Scotchies is already a dozen long. A reggae soundtrack combines with delicious aromas that waft on the balmy tropical breeze. A cool mix of locals and visitors rubs shoulders at rustic tables opening tin foil parcels of tasty jerk chicken, pork or fish washed down with a Red Stripe beer, the island's tipple of choice.

Scotchies was started seven years ago by Tony Rerrie from the back of his pick-up truck and has since become an island institution. "Everyone knows about the place and there's no doubt it's one of the best jerk centres in Jamaica," says manager Kim Cooper. "On Sunday afternoons we usually get a big crowd of people stopping by."

Kim shows us round the back, where rows of chickens are splayed flat and whole backs of pig sizzle in jerk marinade over a low fire of pimento wood, which introduces a strong distinctive smoky flavour to the meat. Jerk chicken is believed to have been conceived when the Maroons introduced African meat cooking techniques to Jamaica, which were combined with native Jamaican ingredients and seasonings used by the Arawak.

The method of smoking meat for a long period served two practical purposes, keeping insects away from the raw meat and preserving it for longer once it had been cooked.

Like most places, the recipe for jerk sauce at Scotchies is a closely guarded secret but they usually contain peppers, onions, pimento, ginger and chili.

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Another good option in Montego Bay is the Native, serving up some of the finest Jamaican dishes - from divine smoked marlin to its fabulous boonoonoonoos native platter, which has a little bit of everything, including spicy meats, fish and vegetables. Round off your meal with a slice of creamy coconut pie or, for something more local, opt for duckanoo (sweet dumpling of cornmeal, coconut and banana wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed).

Whether it's a top-end hotel restaurant or a roadside shack, fish and chicken are mainstays of lunch and dinner in Jamaica. In addition to being "jerked", chicken is typically fried or curried, while fish can be grilled, steamed with okra and pimento pods, brown-stewed in a tasty sauce or served in a spicy sauce of onions, hot peppers and vinegar (escovitched).

Rice and peas (rice cooked with coconut, spices and red kidney beans) accompany most meals, though you'll sometimes come across bammy (a flat, floury cassava pancake normally eaten during breakfast hours), festival (deep fried cornmeal dumplings), breadfruit, sweet potatoes and yam.

Other Jamaican specialities include mouth-watering curried goat, peanut porridge and ackee and salt fish - a classic and addictive breakfast dish. The soft yellow flesh of the otherwise bland ackee fruit is fried with onions, sweet and hot peppers, fresh tomatoes and boiled, flaked salted cod. It's usually served with the delicious spinach-like callaloo, boiled green bananas and fried or boiled dumplings.

Another popular and widely available foodstuff is the vegetable, chicken or beef patty, with about 1million of these Cornish pasty-like snacks being eaten by Jamaicans every day.

During our travels, we discover the Rastafarians have their own cuisine here, known as Ital, founded on the belief that only food from the soil should be eaten. It's essentially a vegetarian diet but it excludes manufactured food. Ital food is not generally on the printed menus in the upscale tourist restaurants and can only be found by going to smaller low-key places.

Typical dishes include vegetable stews and sweet potato pudding.

For tasty non-alcoholic drinks, look no further than the roadside piles of coconuts in every town and village for a refreshing coconut juice. Other soft drinks include Malta (a fortifying malt drink), throat-tingling ginger beers and fresh limeade as well as some unusual fresh natural juices such as tamarind, June plum, guava, sorrel and sour sop.

When it comes to alcoholic drinks, Jamaica just wouldn't be Jamaica without rum.

Since the 15th century when the Spanish settlers first introduced sugar cane cultivation and the art of distillation to the island, Jamaica has gained the enviable reputation of being the source of some of the world's finest rums.

The national beer is the excellent Red Stripe, a refreshing golden brew produced at the Hunts Bay Brewery. Another popular tipple is the locally brewed Guinness Foreign Extra Stout that is different from the Guinness Draught most people will be familiar with. For starters it has a higher alcohol content of 7.5 per cent and is richer in flavour. The sweeter Dragon is another good stout choice.

Finally, the rich, volcanic soil of Jamaica's Blue Mountains, rising to 2300 metres coupled with mist and cool temperatures, makes for the perfect environment to produce Jamaican Blue Mountain, the king of coffees.The best and most expensive coffee in the world is a wonderfully balanced brew.

TRIP NOTES

Getting there

Qantas flies Sydney to Los Angeles (www.qantas.com.au); from there, Air Jamaica (www.airjamaica.com) flies to Kingston or Montego Bay. Another alternative from Sydney is Air Canada (www.aircanada.com) via Vancouver or Toronto to Kingston or Montego Bay.

Staying there

Half Moon Bay in Montego Bay offers casually elegant accommodation with ocean views. See halfmoon.com.

Further information

See visitjamaica.com.

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