It was my first visit to the Western Hemisphere. I was to serve for 6 weeks as a volunteer dentist and oral surgeon in Jamaica. I was on an early morning flight from New York to Montego Bay. That morning, I was so hungry I could eat anything…at least until I saw two men kissing on seats across the aisle. The middle aged balding man unabashedly petted and fondled an effeminate youth with a brush moustache. I had never seen two men kissing openly before. The scene was a culture shock that took away my appetite.
It was therefore a rather hungry young man who landed in the small and informal Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay. Mr. George Palmer the local coordinator received me and dropped me off at the house where I would stay for the next few weeks. I then met the formidable Irma who would be my cook, bodyguard, advisor and babysitter. She was referred to generally as Irma the maid. I first shocked her by emerging from my room with a lungi. She would always refer to me as the guy from India who wore a skirt. She had not cooked lunch. How would she know what a brown guy in a skirt would eat!!? We often laughed about it later. In any case I was to eat in a nearby restaurant the first day. My first lunch was in the neighbourhood local restaurant where I ordered what I was told was the ‘national dish’- Ackee and Salt fish. It was a disaster. The ackee is some kind of fruit that tasted like nothing I had eaten before. It came with a steamed, peeled, raw banana which reminded me of something we don’t talk about at a dinner table. The fish was salty as promised but certainly not to my taste. I had a forkful of each in deference to Jamaican sentiments about their national food and went back to the house. Later that evening I was informed by a friendly neighbour that unripe Ackee could be dangerous and one could die if it was not cooked properly. I decided that I would not like to die on a sun kissed Caribbean island 10,000Kms from home with undigested raw Ackee in my system. I would see plenty of it over the next month. Never ate it again.
I sat Irma down the next day to plan my meals. We agreed about avoiding Ackee at all costs. She told me a list of things she liked making. She was not what you would call an imaginative cook. The good news for her was that I had no food restrictions. I knew I would survive. I returned from work the first afternoon to what she called a beef soup. It was the most elaborate soup I have had. There were vegetables, dumplings and various other ingredients, some floating and some sunk to the bottom of a large bowl that could feed a small family and their pet dog. For the next few days it was roast lamb or chicken and rice. It takes some time for South Indians to get used to the idea that rice can be eaten without some kind of gravy. I never thought I would ever crave for Sāmbhar in my life. I meekly mixed my rice everyday with Tabasco sauce.
I met Kishore Gopal about a week into my assignment. He was a dentist from Thirupathi working for the Jamaican Government. We met through a common friend, a nurse who worked in one of the clinics I visited. After introductions we started speaking in English. She insisted that we should feel comfortable and speak in our native language. I spoke English, Malayalam and Tamil. He spoke English and Telugu. Both of us had only a vague familiarity with Hindi. English was our common language. The nurse insisted that we speak in our native tongue. She could not believe that we came from the same country and knew several languages but English was the only common one we could communicate in. Gopal, whose wife was away on vacation, introduced me to the Red Stripe Jamaican beer and Jerky pork. When he first suggested Jerky pork I could not dismiss from my mind the recurring imagery of a convulsing pig jerking in a barbeque pit. I later learnt that Jerky came from the Jamaican use of the word Charqui which means dried meat in the language of the Arawak Indians (The original inhabitants of Jamaica). Jerky Pork or Chicken with the accompanying sauces made from one of the spiciest chili sauces became our standard dinner. This was invariably washed down with six pack cans of Red Stripe beer or Jamaican Rum Punches. The world famous Appleton estate rum was distilled just a few kilometers away from where I stayed. Jerky pork or chicken or beef is actually dried meat marinated in spices and pimento sauces and cooked over a smoking pit of wood charcoal. One could actually stand at the edge of the pit and select portions.
The Jamaicans were a happy people who danced, drank and ate with gay abandon. They happily went about eating their Ackee and salt fish without any major disaster. Nobody else I talked to had heard about an ackee death. However, I later came to know about scientific reports of death caused by severe alkaloid induced hypoglycaemia from the raw ackee (which was brought to Jamaica by the slaves from West Africa). The Jamaicans have a very eclectic cuisine borrowed from various ethnic groups that have settled in the country over the years.
It was on my last evening in Jamaica that I was introduced to the very popular local dish called curried goat. It tasted every bit like a typical south Indian mutton curry, replete with ground coconut and spices. In fact it entered Jamaican cuisine through the relatively small ethnic Indian community who came to Jamaica more than 150 years before as indentured labour. They were sometimes derogatively referred to as ‘coolie’ Indians. I was once called that by an irate driver in a traffic jam. They mostly lived in a county called Westmoreland near Montego Bay. On my last day I was happy to taste a bit of India on the happy dinner table of the joyous people of Jamaica. They truly epitomized the national motto “out of many one people”. Where else would you find traditional Arawak Indian Jerky pork, West African Ackee and Asian Indian Goat Curry at one table?