What's Cooking?

Jamaica offers clients a variety of regional rarities

By: Laurie Baratti

For most travelers, a journey to Jamaica means indulging in sun, sand and surf, along with the opportunity to relax in one of the most paradisiacal climates on earth. But relatively few consider Jamaica’s rich and colorful native culture, born from its unique location and diverse history, which over the centuries has led to the creation of a distinctly delicious local gastronomy.

The intermingling of Western, Eastern and native culinary traditions in combination with local ingredients has produced a flavorful fusion cuisine found nowhere else. European settlers improvised versions of their traditional diet utilizing native crops, while valuable spices of the Orient made stopovers here, leaving an indelible imprint of Asian and Indian cooking techniques on the island.

Until recently, some of the gems of Jamaican cuisine have remained well-kept secrets known only to locals, while visitors to many resorts which cater to Americans and Europeans have been presented only with more familiar fare. Now, international gourmands and local producers alike are taking an active interest in promoting these treasures to the rest of the world.

Industry giant Sandals Resorts took the lead in 1992 by bringing in chef Walter Staib, one of the foremost experts on Jamaican cuisine, to reconceive food and beverage operations at Sandals and Beaches Resorts.

Since the mid-1980s, Staib has immersed himself in the history and methodology of Jamaican cuisine, researching the roots of local culinary traditions at the University of the West Indies in Kingston. He delved into working alongside authentic Jamaican cooks in jerk huts and food stalls at Faith’s Pen, in the Blue Mountains and St. Elizabeth, and even out in the remote bush, preparing Sunday dinner in local homes. Indigenous ingredients are equally as important to dishes as preparation, and so his education also included visiting markets, fruit and spice orchards and molasses, rum and coffee plantations.

Thanks to Staib’s efforts and the commitment of Sandals’ founder and chairman Gordon “Butch” Stewart, the inclusion of authentic Jamaican cuisine is now an integral part of the Sandals experience at its seven Jamaica properties.

Since the island’s climate and fertile soil can support the cultivation of nearly any crop, all of the food needed by the resorts is grown by local farmers, giving growers a steady flow of employment. As a result, fruits and vegetables at the hotels’ dining facilities are incredibly fresh, with the deepest colors and richest flavors possible.

While Jamaican resorts are endeavoring to introduce international visitors to the local cuisine, Jamaica-based companies are working to bring some Caribbean flavor to international markets.

Walkerswood Caribbean Foods is one such uniquely successful local producer of specialty Jamaican cooking sauces, spices, seasonings, preserves and canned vegetables.

Founded in 1978 through the efforts of a small group of locals to bring employment to their rural community near Ocho Rios, Walkerswood initially sold traditionally jerked meats to local restaurants. As visitors to the island began to acquire a taste for this flavorful and spicy fare, demand for the seasonings spurred Walkerswood to become the first company to bottle and export jerk seasoning from Jamaica.

Now, the employee-owned company exports a line of 20 authentic products to the United States, U.K. and Canada, each made with ingredients grown on the Walkerswood grounds. Visitors are welcome at the production facility, which features a new visitor’s center, gift shop and eatery, along with “Jerk Country Tours” of its gardens and factory, and will soon offer on-site cooking classes.


Concepts by Staib: www.staib.com
Sandals Resorts: www.sandals.com
Walkerswood: www.walkerswood.com