tucking in, up a tree

Jemma's Sea View Kitchen

Don’t let the boarded up window on the side of the road dissuade you, Jemma’s Sea View Kitchen has one of the best views in Tobago. And yes, like the sign says, it’s a proper treehouse, too, resting in the boughs of an Indian almond tree. (Which goes a way towards explaining why the breeze from the sea – and the panorama of Goat Bay and Little Tobago – is so fine.) It’s also a popular location for home cooking, Trini-style: curried shrimp, fish stew, grilled lobster, and a handful of old-fashioned herbal drinks like maundy fizz. Beyond having a nice piece of fish or fruit, I’ve never had an affinity for Caribbean cuisine. It’s so boring – and starchy. Not so Trinidad and Tobago, however; the influence of French and Indian flavors combine to create dishes that are unique, like roti, a thin Indian bread piled with potato, chana and curried chicken, doubles, which I’ve already gone on about, and pelau, a rice and chicken jambalaya that’s closer in spirit to paella. Two new additions to the favored list, thanks to Jemma: breadfruit pie, which has all the texture and taste of a really creamy mac ‘n’ cheese and tanya fritters, a crunchy hush puppie made of ground provisions with a healthy kick of cayenne. Does the rest of the Caribbean know what’s going on here – or do they just not care?

breadfruit pie

tanya fritters

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roadside rasta fruitstand

If you’re driving around Jamaica and see a homemade sign with the scrawl “ice cold jelly,” take heed and stop. It means there’s cheap, cool refreshment to be had in the form of coconut jelly, the slightly sweet, delicious slime – for lack of a better word – that forms inside the fruit of an immature coconut and tastes like, well, jelly. Even better: if you’re cycling through the jungle and happen upon a roadside Rasta fruitstand, make a pit stop for a banana or two and some intensely hydrating fresh coconut water. Don’t be put off by the half-dozen or so ganja-smoking Rastas under the lean-to, they’re stoned out of their minds. More formidable is Mamma, who despite seeming to have never discovered the benefits of wearing a bra is outfitted in a pair of Gucci sneakers and fisherman’s cap. She’s the one in charge here, so ask the boss for a coconut water then watch as one of her boys hacks at the fruit with a machete before handing it off to you with a straw. While you’re drinking it down let Mamma show you the rest of her fruit:  plantains, baby banana, cassava, breadfruit, lemon, lime, and curiously conical pineapple. If you’re lucky she’ll also enlighten you to the fact that she’s no Rastafarian – her family are Maroon, from up in the hills. When you ask about the Maroons she’ll tell you something else you didn’t know: the Maroon were runaway slaves who banded together and took to the hills, establishing a communal hunter-gather society. On other Caribbean islands the runaways were quickly overcome by white settlers and hunters, yet in Jamaica Maroons thrived and grew powerful enough to fight the British colonists to a draw, eventually signing treaties which not only freed them a good half-century before the abolition of the slave trade but also guaranteed them autonomy. Their continued isolation has essentially kept the Maroon separate from mainstream Jamaican society to this day, which is why you might struggle to understand Mamma’s patois yet still grasp her sense of pride.

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