Jamaican and Chinese Food Has More in Common Than You Think
Coconut shrimp toast and callaloo wontons, anyone?
Tamarind, five spice, and jerk seasoning aren’t typical smells wafting up from the back patio of Brooklyn spot Kings County Imperial. But this past June, Jamaican-born chef and three time Chopped winner Andre Fowles teamed up with Tracy Jane Young and Josh Grinker, owners of the modern Chinese restaurant, for a multi-course Jamaican-Chinese pop-up.
Melding Caribbean and Asian flavors comes naturally for Fowles, and at places like Flamin’ Wok in the Bronx, pop-up restaurant Uptownn in Harlem, and long-standing soul food spot Patois in Toronto. While fusion cuisine has almost become a cliche term in the restaurant world, there is a rhyme and reason—and a distinct history—for why we’re seeing Jamaican and Chinese ingredients and technique come together on the plate.
“Jamaican cuisine is a nucleus of different peoples and cultures coming together to create the food we know as Jamaican food,” Fowles says. “There’s a strong Chinese influence in Jamaican cooking.” After slavery was abolished in Jamaica in 1834, the British began seeking a new labor force. That was the beginning of Chinese immigrants in Jamaica who were brought over as laborers on plantations in the 1850s.
“My entire life, I would tell people that my parents come from Jamaica and we’re Chinese as well, and they would immediately say, ‘I don’t believe you’ or ‘Did they get off the boat at the wrong stop,’” says, Craig Wong, chef and owner of restaurant Patois in Toronto. Outside of Jamaica, many are still unaware of just how multicultural the tiny island is, that there is a long history of Chinese-Jamaicans, like chef Wong’s family who first moved there three generations ago.
Patois is a mixture of Caribbean food and Asian soul food with menu items like Jerk Pork Belly Yakisoba and his personal favorite, Jerk Lobster Nuggets, which include wok stir-fried lobster, tater tots, and jerk butter. For Wong, this style of cooking runs in the family. “My grandmother had two canteens in Jamaica,” he says. “She made Chinese food with Jamaican ingredients and she would make Jamaican food with Chinese ingredients.”
Over time, Chinese ingredients and techniques became important components of Jamaican cuisine. Jerk paste or jerk marinade, which is probably the most well-known facet of Jamaican cuisine, is a prime example. “When I did research into the history of jerk, I was reading about how pig’s blood was the main liquid in a jerk marinade, but as time went on and people moved away from cooking with animal blood, they started to turn toward soy sauce,” Wong says.
Soy sauce was the perfect substitute because it’s salty with an umami flavor profile and dark in color. However, jerk is just the tip of the Chinese influences prevalent in Jamaican cuisine. “People don’t realize that rice and peas came from Chinese people who came to Jamaica,” says Fowles, who explains that rice was not a staple in Jamaica before Chinese immigrants arrived.
Chinese cooking techniques transformed Jamaican cuisine, as well, introducing the island to quick sautés. “That’s how you see ackee and saltfish being sauteed up in 5 to 10 minutes,” Fowles says. “That’s how you see callaloo getting steamed on a high flame. They brought those techniques for cooking your food in a rapid way.”
When Fowles teamed up with Grinker and Young for the Jamaican-Chinese pop-up, the trio “knew it was going to be a great marriage of flavors,” says Grinker, who grew up in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn. “I’ve seen lots of Chinese-Jamaican restaurants in my time but they’re usually like chow fun on one side and patties on the other. It’s not like they really come together in a creative and thoughtful way.”
The team was excited to create a menu of dishes that reflected both cuisines in a new way. “When you pair authentic Jamaican food and strong Chinese elements, there’s so much room to be creative and to play with flavors,” Fowles says. “We were doing things like curry shrimp dumplings. We were doing tamarind hanging pork ribs and coconut shrimp toast.” Fowles and Kings are currently in the planning stages for their next collaboration.
Wong, who was discouraged by others against embarking on a Caribbean-Asian restaurant concept, is hoping to see more chefs bring this vision to life after seeing firsthand how much people enjoy this style of cuisine—for its bold spices, variety of textures, and a natural reflection of his past.
“My uncle would always take us out to the beach and, while we would spend the day swimming, he would hire a fisherman and, no matter what the fisherman caught, my uncle had to buy the entire lot,” Wong remembers. “The fisherman would make a fire on the beach and cut open these fish and he would stuff them with water crackers, butter, and jerk paste, and he would seal the whole thing up and roast it right there over the fire. They weren’t using anything exotic or expensive, but they were the best food memories.”