When conjuring up images of Jamaica, too often people envision patches of “safe” resorts peppered between territories riddled with violence. Before finding an inexpensive flight to Montego Bay, my travel companion and I were a touch nervous, having succumbed to the common perception of the sunny island. After hemming and hawing, we decided we would risk it and booked ourselves into hostel. Thank heavens we did, because we would have missed out on, well, pretty much everything.
Once we arrived we saw the parade of folk headed towards their walls of safety; every adventurous bone stamped out of them. Fortunately, we tucked into some fantastic, non-resort food that won’t leave you disappointed. Here’s a wee guide for the adventure seekers and resort haters eating in the Montego or MoBay area.
For starters, there’s the national dish is ackee and saltfish.The biggest mistake people make when whipping up the dish is cutting into the fruit before it opens naturally, which, in the worst cases, can end in death. Ackee fruit hails from the same family as the lychee and it grows on evergreen trees in pod clusters.When ripe, the pods become red in colour and will split open naturally, exposing the soft creamy flesh. The unripe, still-green ackee contains a poison called hypoglycin; if cut, the poison still permeates all parts of the fruit.
Death by fruit aside, chances are you will be safe in a resto known for serving ackee and saltfish; we were told that premature prep of the fruit is a deadly mistake often made by amateur home cooks. The dish itself is reminiscent of scrambled eggs, with flecks of saltfish distributed throughout the ackee so as not to overwhelm its gentle flavour. Ours came with a side of tasty sautéed leafy green callaloo, and some boiled dumplings.
A Casual Affair
It would be wrong to go to MoBay without heading to Scotchies. Recommended by everyone, including Craig Wong of Toronto’s hot-to-trot Patois, this casual roadside eatery is the place in town to eat Jamaica’s most famed dish. Order by the entrance, pay, and drop your receipt off by the mammoth pits: one side chicken; the other pork. My main squeeze was the chicken, which arrives parceled up in tinfoil.
Unwrap and tuck into the protein (they’ll ask which part you’d like); it’s incredibly juicy and tender on the inside with layers of spice enrobing the exterior. I was expecting more of a heat wallop, but the spicing is built up carefully and the result raises a few alarms but has a sweetness and depth of flavour. As for the sides, order up some daily soup alongside some festival-a delicious cornbread fritter- and, if in season, breadfruit. Festival is basically a cornbread fritter.
All the Stops
Next it’s a short road trip down the way to the Sky Beach Grill an incredibly charming spot on the water.
Each party was sat in a different hut complete with a thatched roof, a mammoth wooden table and real heifers of chairs. Two lanterns were brought out, adding to the ambiance. We scoured the extensive menus to determine how we’d like our fish. Having yet to check escovitch fish off my list, I went with that paired with some conch soup, pumpkin rice (amazing) and, of course, more festival. My lionfishwas marinated in a spicy vinegar mix and cooked on the grill before being loaded up with a medley of onion, cho cho (a tropical fruit with quite the stellar moniker) carrot and scotch bonnet pepper. The food paired with the view make this spot Heavenly.
Even if you do stay in a resort, be sure to brave the real Jamaica and sample some food outside the walls. You won’t regret it.