When most people think of Jamaica, they conjure up rum, reggae and jerk. However, as someone who has spent more than half a century traveling there and who actually weathered a Category 5 hurricane on the island (Gilbert in 1988), I know that the adage, “We’re more than a beach—we’re a country”, is oh so true. It’s so true in fact that it was at one point a tourism advertising slogan. It’s true in the diversity of Jamaica’s geography. It’s true in Jamaica’s architecture and multiplicity of cultures, and it is oh so very true in the island’s food. Jamaican food is a gustatory mix of all of the influences that have been felt on the island.
Escovitch fish, the dish that means Jamaica to me, tells a different story of Jamaica. It tells the tale of Jamaica’s food’s connections with the Spaniards who eat a similar dish known as escabeche. Historically challenged as most of us are, we little recognize that Jamaica’s history, like that of most of the Caribbean, is a complex mix of colonial cultures. In fact, before independence in 1962 Jamaica was a colony of Great Britain and before that, from 1494 until 1655, it was a colony of Spain. Etymology suggests that the Spaniards had also borrowed the dish. They had for 700 years been colonized by the Moors who came from North Africa and the Middle East. In their culinary baggage they had brought with them a taste for vinegared things, recipes for marinades that used vinegar, and the word skibaj in the Arabic dialect of Spain that became the Spanish escabeche.
In Jamaica, the vinegar was replaced or enhanced by fresh lime juice and the marinating liquid was flavored with allspice along with fresh thyme and slices of bell peppers and onions. Often, strips of carrots and chayote were added to the marinade, and there was always some of the hot chile pepper known in Jamaica as Scotch Bonnet for its resemblance to a tam-o’-shanter. The marinade is poured over warm cooked fish or chicken or shrimp and the dish is left to marinate for a bit before serving. It’s a perfect way to serve leftover fish, but it is also just so delicious that it’s worth making at any time.