I recently had the privilege of attending the 25th Anniversary of Red Stripe’s Reggae Sumfest in mid-July, featuring some of the most notable names in dancehall and reggae, along with a host of local chefs serving up their own specialties. Upon my return, the immersion in island life and hospitality was ample inspiration to explore the many ways Jamaican cuisine and culture can be found right here in Brooklyn.
Jamaicans are not shy about their love for great music, dance and of course, food. It’s an indulgence and relaxed spirit anyone can admire, and they readily share it.
Though Brooklyn is quickly filling with some of the city’s top “dining destinations”, it’s important to break from that orbit often to seek out and patron the many unpretentious local spots that have been serving communities day-in and day-out. Walk almost anywhere in neighborhoods like Crown Heights and Flatbush, and it’s hard not to stumble upon Caribbean eateries dishing out hearty jerk, curry, and oxtail. Good flavor and word of mouth are often their only PR.
More than just food, Jamaican culture has had a big impact on the borough over the last century, from rappers and DJ’s of Jamaican heritage like Kool Herc (who performed at this past June’s Northside Festival), The Notorious B.I.G. and Busta Rhymes, to the millions that attend and masquerade at the West Indian Day Parade each Labor Day weekend, which is celebrating it’s 50th anniversary this year.
Though we’ll have to wait for the parade and pageantry, here are a few ways to celebrate Jamaican culture this weekend:
Of the many Jamaican staples, the centuries old technique of jerk is the most well known and everyone has their own take on it. For some, it’s all about the heat, driven by pimento berries (allspice seeds) and a variable dose of Scotch Bonnet peppers. This is contrasted by deeply charred bits of a tangy sweetness derived from brown sugar, cinnamon, thyme, garlic, soy sauce, ketchup and occasionally tamarind. Traditionally grilled on pimento wood in Jamaica to infuse the marinated meat with woody, almost bay-leaf flavor, I’m not aware of any Brooklyn establishment that does this. Regardless, Jerk’s spicy, sweet, and charred flavors are a winning combo.
For years, many of flocked to Peppa’s Jerk Chicken (with locations on Flatbush and near Nostrand), which also boasts a mean oxtail. A few blocks down, Gloria’s Caribbean Cuisine offers a broad selection of roti, curry, callaloo and juices. Newer spots like the Food Sermon create more modern and visually-driven Island Bowls in a more fine-dining context, or as at Likkle More Jerk in Dekalb Market, attract the lunch crowd with both traditional elements like patties and with playful jerk burritos and salads. For those who can’t leave Williamsburg during brunch hours, Sweet Chick’s sister restaurant, Pearl’s, is known for their jerk ribs and a shaded back yard that fills up each weekend.
Photo Credit – Skkan Media Entertainment
Having good vibes is hard work and sometimes the only thing that will soothe the fire of pepper sauce is a sip (or two) of beer. Back in college, whenever bringing a 6-pack of beer to a house party was required, somehow I would always land on the classic labeling and compact brown Red Stripe bottles, or “stubbies”. Why does Red Stripe still use these short bottles? Well, apparently, it’s because the bottle does not topple on the line during production, but at this point, it’s clear they’re also just set on the style.
Once again brewed in Jamaica and supporting the local community in Kingston, after a brief period of being brewed in Pennsylvania of all places, the brand has made an effort to return to it’s roots; supporting the Sumfest in July and now also the upcoming Caribbean Carnival Week in Brooklyn. Red Stripe has also started integrating local cassava root as a sweetener for the beer, mostly just to give Jamaican farmers more business, since it does not change the flavor.
Just like the way many New Yorker’s claim a bagel can’t taste the same without NYC tap water, Red Stripe USA’s senior brand manager Andrew Anguin notes that “a typical beer is comprised of 95% water — some believe that our secret ingredient is our Jamaican water,” and added, “I’m tempted to say our Jamaican vibes and passion is what gives us our tried-and-true taste.” Though not available in the US quite yet, in Jamaica you can find both lemon and sorrel (or hibiscus flower essentially) flavored beers in cans, which decidedly offers a bit more sweetness than the light hop found in the lager.
Sean Paul and Chi Ching Ching at Red Stripe’s Reggae Sumfest. Photo Credit – Skkan Media Entertainment
Music and Dance
Well fed and a little tipsy, it’s time to dance. Sean Paul, one of the headliners at Sumfest in Jamaica, will appear in Brooklyn Labor Day weekend at Hot 97’s On Da Reggae & Soca Tip at the Ford Amphitheater at Coney Island Boardwalk. That weekend will be packed with pride, culture and heritage at the New York Caribbean Carnival Weekend 2017, culminating with the 50th year of the West Indian Day Parade.
The Brooklyn Museum’s caribBEING House celebrating Caribbean heritage also kicks off this weekend, featuring art, movement workshops, films, masqueraders and a soca dance party with Ting & Ting featuring Kitty Cash this Saturdayeve. And for those who like it loud, Dub-Stuy Records is keeping Brooklyn sound system culture alive at every party they can with a custom-built 15 kilowatt system run by French-Vietnamese DJ Quoc Pham. Though a far cry from the cultural movement that dancehall and sound systems represented in Brooklyn in the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s, good underground parties are still out there.
Photo Credit – Dub Stuy Records