Nakia McDonald is making history in Xian, north-west China. Once the terminus of the Silk Road and the abode of emperors and poets, the historic city is where McDonald, a poet herself, teaches English. Since 2020 the small-town Victoria resident has also hosted the only Jamaican food festival in the dynastic region. Her journey to China started with food.
“I was already a teacher in Jamaica for five years. One day I was at KFC having lunch with my friend. Someone I knew walked in and started telling me about another friend living and teaching in China and that they were looking for more people. That was it,” McDonald’s grin fills her face. The new beginning came with a bittersweet goodbye to her ailing father, whose last words to her were “If you don’t see me again, take care of yourself. Make sure nothing happens to you.”
McDonald honours his memory by carrying on their culinary traditions in her new home.
The father and daughter loved cooking together. McDonald often showcased her talents at church events and food festivals in the parish of Saint Catherine. “My dad loved ackee and salt fish with fried dumplings,” she reminisces.
For the past two years, the Jamaica Food festival has been hosted in Victoria at a Chinese-owned café where her father’s favourite dish is showcased. It is a state requirement to find a Chinese sponsor. In itself, this is a win. The food festival gives expats and local Chinese residents a taste of Jamaica through popular dishes like jerk chicken, escoveitch fish, rice and peas and curry rabbit.
Curry rabbit is a crowd-pleaser. Xian has a meat-based culture with the use of heavy aromatic spices. By contrast, Jamaica packs a Caribbean punch with a base of spicy flavours. The leaner, dryer and gamier meat is first roasted in pimento seeds, Scotch bonnet pepper and yellow curry powder and then slowly cooked. The result is a hearty dish with tender-tasting meat.
In 2021, a little under 70 people made the restaurant look like a shoebox. “People kept asking me if they could come to my restaurant,” she says with a laugh. Even shoeboxes need room for a Jamaican deejay. A Caribbean carnival happened as much on guest plates as on the dance floor. McDonald is known as the “Chocolate teacher” who introduces Jamaica to the locals. When she first got to the city, the new author experienced mixed reactions.
“I had one child cover his nose because he had never seen a black person, and I said, ‘please remove your hand from your nose, young man.’ This boy ended up getting so attached to me. People fear what they don’t know and don’t understand. That’s why I appreciate my role as a teacher.”
She released a poetry book, Black Face, because of experiences like this. “I found it necessary to share what true black faces look like. There is a lot of ignorance surrounding race and class. A lot of beauty is found in being a part of the change.”
China is changing, and Jamaicans can be proud that Nakia McDonald is architecting a new culinary direction for the people of Xian.
To contact McDonald, please visit her Instagram account @nakia_wordamouth
— Bridgett Leslie is an internal auditor by day and a media correspondent by night. She is passionate about Caribbean flavours and the community around this culinary cuisine. She is currently finishing her undergraduate studies in gastronomy at Le Cordon Bleu.