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Chef's Dictionary

ACKEE is the national fruit of Jamaica and is one of the main ingredients in the popular breakfast dish "Ackee and Saltfish." Ackee is not indigenous to Jamaica but was imported from West Africa during the 18th century; the name is derived from the West African name "Akye Fufo". Although the tree is grown in many countries, it is only known to be cultivated for food in Jamaica. The ackee tree grows to about 30 ft. high, & bears bright red fruit. The fruit ripen to reveal pods of yellow edible ackee, each with a black seed.  Ackee is usually prepared with salted cod fish & onions. The flavor & texture is somewhat like scrambled eggs - delicious! It is important that ackees are not picked until the skin has opened up as the flesh contains toxins up until this point. 

BATATA is sometimes called the tropical sweet potato. Considered a cross between a baking potato and a sweet potato in flavor in flavor and color, it has pink to burgundy colored skin and a white or cream colored flesh.  Batatas are also much drier and fluffier and less sweet than orange or yellow sweet potatoes.

CASSAVA is a vital staple for more than 500 million people worldwide. Nutritionally it compares to potatoes, except it has more than twice the fiber content and a higher level of potassium.  Cassava can be grated to make pancakes, dried and ground into tapioca flour or sliced into snack chips.

CHAYOTE is a member of the squash family.  It is sometimes referred to as a ‘vegetable pear,‘ and the flesh is quite crisp, something like a water chestnut. Chayote is known by various names, including christophene, merliton, ishkus and chow-chow.

CURRY is a variety of recipes originating in the Indian subcontinent that use a complex combination of spices or herbs, often including ground turmeric, cumin, coriander, ginger, and fresh or dried chilies. A culinary tradition around the world, the precise selection of spices for each curry is a matter of national or regional cultural tradition.

GINGER has a characteristic root shape, but it is in fact a rhizome, or underground stem. Early harvests are primarily used for ginger syrup and candied ginger and are milder in flavor. The longer the ginger stays in the ground the spicier and hotter it gets and the more potent its medicinal effects. The late harvest group is the fresh ginger found in the grocery store. Ginger is commonly used in the Asian cuisine and is native to Southern Asia. It made its way to the United States during the Columbus era in the 15th century. Ginger also became popular in the Caribbean, where Jamaica is a large producer of the root.

GINGER BEER is a nonalcoholic, noncarbonated drink similar to ginger ale but flavored with fresh ginger root, cloves and brown sugar.  Jamaican ginger is prized for its strong, perky flavor, and this island currently provides most of the world's supply, followed by India, Africa and China.

JERK is a style of cooking native to Jamaica in which meats are dry-rubbed or wet marinated with a hot spice mixture called Jamaican jerk spice. The word jerk refers to both the spice rub and to the particular slow grill cooking technique. The origin of the term jerk varies. One theory relates to the process of cooking: during grilling the meat or seafood is turned (jerked) over and over again until it is fully cooked. Another origin is linked to the poking (or jerking) of the meat with a sharp object, producing holes which were then filled with the spice mixture. The term jerk is also said to come from the word “charqui”, a Spanish term for jerked or dried meat, which eventually became jerky in English. The origins of jerk can be traced back to the pre-slavery days of the Cormantee hunters of West Africa through the Maroons, who were Jamaican slaves that escaped from the British during the invasion of 1655. These indigenous people developed this method of smoking their meats to allow their food to be easily transported and sustained for long periods of time.

PLANTAINS are a close cousin of bananas. Plantains are bigger, firmer and lower in sugar content than bananas. This vegetable-banana can be eaten and tastes different at every stage of development. The interior color of the fruit will remain creamy, yellowish or lightly pink. When the peel is green to yellow, the flavor of the flesh is bland and its texture is starchy. Green plantains are excellent when prepared as a crispy chip or fried, mashed and topped with sautéed garlic. As the peel changes to brown or black, plantains have a sweeter flavor and more of a banana aroma, but still keeps a firm shape when cooked.

SORREL is a member of the hibiscus family. The leaves of the Sorrel plant turn a reddish crimson color when mature. Dried sepals are cleaned, brewed and sweetened to make Sorrel drink — a unique, tart, cranberry-like flavor among the most popular beverages in the Caribbean.

SUGAR CANE is a tall, perennial grass originally native to tropical Southeast Asia. It was brought to the West Indies by Columbus during his second voyage to the New World in 1493.  Sugar cane was, for centuries, Jamaica’s most important economic crop; the sugar islands of the Caribbean being at one time the most important possessions in the British Empire and Jamaica the ‘jewel in the crown’. Cane is harvested by cutting down the plant stalks, which are then pressed several times to extract the juice. The juice is concentrated by evaporation into dark, sticky sugar, often sold locally. Refined sugar, less nourishing as food, is obtained by precipitating out the non-sugar components. Almost pure sucrose, it is the main commercial product. Byproducts obtained from sugarcane include molasses, rum, alcohol, fuel, livestock feed, and from the stalk residue, paper and wallboard.