Need a little va-va-voom in your exploratory foodie fest? Delight in the twist on traditional Caribbean fare at Sugarmill Restaurant in Montego Bay. A culinary staple in Jamaica since 1969, appetizers include delicious crab, papaya and cucumber timbales served with a seductive grapefruit Scotch Bonnet vinaigrette. Broiled lobster dipped in a passion fruit garlic butter sauce acts as one of the many palette-pleasing entrees.
The newly adopted medley of flavors stretches beyond a marketing ploy geared to inject new life into the long revered establishment that sits on Half Moon’s resort property. The play on distinctively diverse tastes is nothing new to the islands. Growing accustomed to familiar options- ala jerk chicken and curry goat- Half Moon’s executive chef, Stephen Sowa, sensed the need to spice up Sugarmill’s menu staples. The influence of regional events, such as Taste of the Caribbean, and the mobilization of Caribbean based culinary associations, he attests, has fueled culinary artists’ creativity as they compete for bragging rights.
Experimentation amongst these circles gave birth to the concept of contemporary Caribbean cuisine. While the formal setting of Sugarmill Restaurant, accompanied by their exclusive wine collection, sets the tone for upscale dining in Montego Bay, the laid-back design of Push Cart restaurant in Negril celebrates a local street vending model. Their contemporary Caribbean offerings include hot peppered shrimp, as inspired by roadside vendors in St. Elizabeth that package spicy seafood in clear plastic bags. Round Hill Hotel & Villas, the location used to film “How Stella Got Her Groove Back,” invites guests to get their ‘epicurean feet wet’ by dining oceanside. Using pimento wood, an material indigenous to Jamaica, Round Hill’s grill holds the secret to their contemporary edge by preparing meat with a smoky sweet fullness apparent in each delectable bite.
While the objective of a newly dubbed ‘contemporary Caribbean cuisine’ was crafted by seasoned chefs to stir up one’s senses, those within the African Diaspora acknowledge that the root of island food- a historical mix of African, East Indian, Amerindian, Chinese and European influences was born out of struggle. Initially referred to as “peasant food,” enslaved Africans implanted into the region by European colonists were forced to create dishes based on their innate knowledge of spices, local plants and vegetables combined with the table-scraps they were given. Once Indian and Chinese indentured workers contributed to the labor force, they added to what is now considered a masterful blend of dishes.
As with the birth of soul food staples like collard greens, fruits and vegetables such as yams and papaya lie at the crux of traditional Caribbean cuisine, historically due to their availability. Flavorful additions, like rice and curry followed suit. Savory sweets also act as a mainstay. The abundance of sugar plantations made sugarcane sticks and eventually pure sugarcane juice an unduplicated dessert. Sugarmill Restaurant’s dessert listings today, after over 40-years in the industry, indicates a pull from the past that simultaneously teases modern taste buds. Dessert menu highlights include sorrel ice cream, banana ginger bread pudding, sweet potato mousse and salted caramel ice cream.
With fearless chefs at the helm of the contemporary Caribbean cuisine movement, they are bound to blow the lid off of traditional by tickling it’s boundaries; awakening the cravings of local foodies and island visitors for years to come.
Chie Davis is a TV host, producer and writer that lives in Los Angeles. She’s contributed to media outlets including CBS, The Huffington Post, Brooklyn Review, WZBN-TV and is the co-creator of Ocean Style TV, a travel & lifestyle show with a Caribbean Essence. She loves flipping her workout routines-from kettle bells to aerial yoga and drinking a different flavor of tea daily.