Lent is a time for fasting, and Christians around the world do tend, at the very least, to give up meat on Fridays. Meat was and still is considered a luxury in parts of the world, so abstaining from meat is a way of sacrificing to the Lord. In its place, many will eat fish, though some will simply consume solely vegetarian food. Either way, it has become part of Western culture to have fish on a Friday during Lent.
This is the second week in a row that Thursday Life has been exploring the seafood options on supermarket shelves, and we are discovering that people in Jamaica really do love fish, even if their only option is to buy the frozen kind.
Our latest expedition was to HiLo supermarket in Barbican, Kingston, where the meat and fish supervisor, Lincoln Mullings, told Thursday Life that: "The bulk of our seafood comes from Rainforest, but on occasion we get silver snapper, which is my favourite, and snook from Nation Choice. That said, our main supplier of silver snapper, which is the fastest seller, is still Rainforest, and we sell it at $621.73 for a kilogramme. Snapper fillets are the next fastest seller at $669.41 per kilogramme." In general the frozen shellfish is not as popular, except "the small and medium-sized cooked shrimps, which sell at $793.59 and $851.90 for a 14oz packet, respectively," he went on.
Mullings then took Thursday Life over to the service counter, where customers can choose their own frozen fish, rather than just picking up a packet. "There are some people who want to pick their own fish fillets and whole fish," he reasoned, "so we have to give them the choice."
According to Mullings, "The cost of fish has been pretty stable as Rainforest is holding back from raising the prices. But customers have complained that our prices have risen. But it's not that they have risen, it is a case where people simply have less money to spend, so the perception is that we've upped the prices."
The bulk of HiLo's seafood, some 300kg per week, arrives on a Monday, and if they get through it quickly, they'll order another batch for Thursday or Friday, in time for the weekend. "Rainforest also sends their own merchandiser twice a week to help with the packaging, and to straighten things up and check inventory," Mullings revealed.
As we wrapped up our interview with Mullings we spotted noted horticulturist Ancile Gloudon, the husband of veteran broadcaster Barbara Gloudon and uncle of the Trinidad & Tobago High Commissioner to Jamaica, Dr Iva Gloudon. Originally from Trinidad and Tobago, Gloudon, who grows orchids, was browsing near the fish. "My wife does most of the shopping," he told us. "So it's unusual to see me here." Well, it was a stroke of luck to run into Gloudon, as the 80-something-year-old used to be a food technologist, and therefore knows quite a bit about fish and how to prepare and cook it in order to get the most integrity out of its flavours and textures.
"We'll buy fish once every couple of weeks," Gloudon informed us. "I especially like big slices of sea trout, king fish and parrot, and also whole tilapia. I like to put garlic, escallion and vinegar in my fish," he continued. "Vinegar is an important ingredient as it reduces the rawness and prevents it from spoiling too quickly. People in general don't know how to season fish. It really must marinate overnight so that the flavours can penetrate the flesh," he continued. "Take for example, salt fish. I used to salt my own shark and grouper. They are the best kind of fish for that, due to their thick flesh, meaning you will get more yield for what you are using," he concluded.
After a few pleasantries, including some exchanges of foodie tit-bits, and the discovery that Gloudon knew my grandmother Marjorie Davidson, a pioneer in agronomy in Jamaica, we parted ways like old friends.
Thursday Life made another coup when we came across two well-seasoned (pardon the pun) ladies from Barbican who almost looked at me as if I was joking when I asked them if they liked and cooked fish. "Of course," Molly Nichols replied. "I love fish. Doctor fish, snapper fish, goat fish, parrot fish, pargie fish, and sprat. I fry the sprat and steam the rest of them, and sometimes brown-stew them too," she enthused, barely giving me a moment to get a word in. "Oh, and fish tea is the best. I make it with the fish heads, carrots, green banana, okra, Irish potato, sweet potato, yellow yam, all in a big pot," she continued. Nichols owns a little food shop right in Barbican, where she used to sell fried fish and corn dumpling, steamed fish and green banana. Nichols usually gets her fish heads from the seaside, but sometimes she will buy from HiLo and Loshusan, where the prices for the fish heads are very good. This 63-year-old does not look old enough to have great-grandkids, but they are among the many family members she cooks for.
Shopping with Nichols was her friend Maxine Ebanks, who makes jewellery. "I love to steam the fish head with vegetables, and I tell you that Loshusan is the best place to get the fish heads. First, they sell at very reasonable price, and second, they will split the fish head in half so that you can get all the flesh out of it when you cook. Their fish heads actually have plenty fish in them, and not just bone," she told us.
The pair prefer to buy fish fresh from the seaside, when "you can see the eyes are clear and bulging", said Molly.
"The flesh is slimy from the sea," I interjected.
"And the gills are bright red," added Maxine.
"And the body is stiff," we all chanted in unison.
"Also," I added, "if it smells too fishy, it is not fresh."
"True," Molly agreed.
Smiles all around, but big hesitation to break up the flowing commentary on fish; we all had to get on with our day, and I had to get back to the kitchen to work on a menu for this week.
No beach for me, but thanks to Best Dressed, I have been able to cook the most delicious recipes at home, using their whole tilapia, which they have kindly donated for my recipes.
A Bouillabaisse-Inspired Fish Tea
2 tbsps olive oil
1/2 cup chopped celery
1/2 cup chopped escallion
5 medium-sized Best Dressed Tilapia
fish heads and tails
or 2 whole Best Dressed Tilapia fish
1 lb pumpkin (skin included),
chopped into thin slices
1 lb cho cho, peeled and chopped into
1/4 lb turnip, peeled and sliced
1/4 lb tomatoes, sliced
1 tsp paprika
1/4 tsp saffron threads
1 whole Scotch bonnet pepper
1 tsp sea salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
Scotch Bonnet Baked Bammies:
1 pack small bammies
4 tbsps olive oil
1 Scotch bonnet pepper, halved
1. Soak the bammies in salted water for an hour.
2. Heat the olive oil in a small pot, add the Scotch bonnet pepper, and leave to infuse for at least 30 minutes.
3. Preheat the oven to 350F.
4. Remove the bammies from the water and place on a baking sheet.
5. Pour the infused pepper olive oil on the bammies, and coat really well.
6. Sprinkle with a little more salt and bake for 40 minutes in the oven.
7. Heat the olive oil in a large pot, add the celery and scallion, and cook until just softened.
8. Add the fish, pumpkin, cho-cho and turnip, and sauté for five minutes, adding a little water so they don't burn.
9. Stir in the tomatoes, paprika and saffron, and cook for a couple of minutes.
10. Add the Scotch bonnet pepper, salt and pepper, and just cover all the ingredients with water.
11. Cover, bring to the boil, and turn down to a simmer for 20-25 minutes.
12. Turn the heat off and leave to infuse all the flavours.