Happy 50th Birthday, Jamaica!
I tasted Jamaica before I knew Jamaica. I am from the UK's Jamaican Diaspora -- my grandmother came from the Windrush generation and sent for my mother, who left after Independence. My father left before Independence. My parents met in the UK, a part of the large Jamaican community there. I am first-generation British, but was always told that I am Jamaican, too, and was lucky to move here as a teen to fully immerse in the culture and know where I came from. I felt blessed to have had a great Jamaican experience before I left for many years, then returned a few years ago. Even though my existence is a duality straddling two cultures, I feel so proud to have my roots come from one of the world's richest cultures. Wherever I have lived or travelled in the world, I have made sure to spread the Jamaican warmth. It is my hope as we enter into the next era that some Jamaicans will begin to realise what a magical place they belong to and not just during this special anniversary or the Olympics, but on a daily basis.
I grew up exposed to cosmopolitan flavours, but Jamaican food was always present. One of the Jamaican treats I fell in love with as a child was grandmother's coconut drops. The just-right-sized coconut chunks with a caramel and crystallised texture with bits of ginger were so delicious. She took joy and pride making her drops, making sure she found prime coconuts at the market, usually from an Asian vendor as, at the time and still today for the most part, they carried the produce that was familiar to fellow Asians, and African and West Indian minorities. Going shopping with my grandmother in those days I was familiarised with the fruits and vegetables of my Jamaican culture. The coconut, for me, was symbolic of Jamaican food. Yes, sometimes coconut cream was bought for our rice and peas, but I loved to watch my grandmother crack the coconut, cut it into chunks and grate it, squeezing out the milk to add to a special dish.
I remember being introduced to Busta sweets, "coconutty", with that sweetness of molasses, hint of ginger and toffee-like consistency as you chewed and it got stuck in your teeth -- a real exercise for the jaw. I also fell in love with the gizzada, with its buttery crust and shredded coconut filling with brown sugar, laced with spicy nutmeg and cinnamon. Grater cake was also a delight; I think the pink layer attracted me at first, being so girly, with its dense, almost fudgy consistency, vanilla lurking in the background. To my surprise there was no taste of strawberry or cherry, the pink colour deceiving me; it then dawned on me the colour was just for contrast and appearance's sake. I fondly recall her making another sweet treat, toto, the dense coconut cake; to tell you the truth, she would confess it was one of those fiddly recipes that was either a hit or miss.
Another big fave of mine is sweet potato pone which has an addition of grated coconut and luscious coconut cream pie. My grandmother also used to make a coconut and pineapple drink which was creamy and fruity and for me, the taste of paradise, especially when it was cold, grey and dreary. The coconut is high up in my esteem. From its healthy water, the jelly and the flesh which is so multi-faceted in its uses, as well as the oil which is flavoursome and great for cooking. Before vegetable and olive oils, it was coconut oil which Jamaicans used traditionally. It has now been proven to be a healthy fat. So for me today, as I write this piece on Independence day while drinking Blue Mountain coffee and eating hominy corn porridge enriched with coconut milk, it became obvious to me that I should start the first in a series of articles on Jamaican retro flavours in honour of our 50th anniversary, on the humble yet versatile coconut.
This very sweet treat is very indulgent; a little goes a long way. Once again, it is very easy to make and consists of simple ingredients. This recipe is for one batch that you will have to do twice to make the coloured batch, therefore will need double the ingredients stated below.
2 cups grated coconut
3 cups granulated (white) sugar
1/2 cup water
1 tbsp vanilla (optional)
Pink food colouring for second batch
Lightly grease baking pan and set aside.
In a thick-bottomed saucepan add coconut, sugar, vanilla, if using and water.
Cook over medium heat until the water evaporates and the mixture is sticky. Remove from heat and mix with a wooden spoon until the mixture can hold together for about a couple minutes.
Add mixture to prepared pan and press down mixture with back of the spoon.
Next prepare the second batch using a couple drops of food colouring and then spread on top of the original batch.
Once set, cut into squares.
I don't think my coconut drops will ever taste as good as my grandmother's or mother's, but it was always a part of my care package when I resided abroad. When I bit into a piece, it always made me feel loved and gave me comfort. This is a basic recipe, some people grate in some nutmeg as an optional ingredient.
1 large dry coconut, broken, drained, flesh removed from shell, cut into small chunks
1 large piece of ginger, washed, peeled, and roughly chopped 500g/2 cups brown sugar
2 tbsps vanilla 750ml/ 3 cups water, plus extra if needed
In a large saucepan, pour in water, add sugar, vanilla, coconut chunks and chopped ginger and bring to a rapid boil on high heat.
Reduce heat to medium and continue boiling until the mixture begins to thicken. Keep stirring to prevent sticking and burning.
Stirring will become more difficult as the sugar begins to caramelise. This is when you have to lower the heat and watch it carefully until it's nice and thick.
Lay out some greaseproof paper or aluminium foil on the counter.
Use a spoon to scoop out the mixture and drop on the greaseproof paper or foil to cool down and set.
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