Food and Drink: There's more to island cooking than jerk spices

There's more to island  cooking than jerk spices
A green table lantern cannot obscure the hue of brown stew chicken at Koolrunin Yardi's in Jefferson City. [Dave Faries]
Dave Faries

Chef Ronald Jackson doesn’t mind sharing his recipe for brown stew chicken. There’s chicken, of course, thyme, onions, ginger, some peppers and a number of other ingredients.

“I can show you how I do it,” he explained. “But if you cook it, it will be different.”

Jackson owns Koolrunin Yardi’s, a new Jamaican restaurant in Jefferson City. He points out that while most people relate the island’s cuisine to jerk spices, brown stew chicken is its soul.

It’s a homey dish and one relatively easy to master given the time. The meat marinades and cooks slowly, easing into fork tenderness while seasoning the pan.

What follows is a gravy so engaging that conversation softens until silence envelopes the table.

The flavor is intense, but not bold. There’s a rustic, bittersweet and earthy frown teased by hints of tropical sweetness. Herbs, ginger and garlic hem and haw, catch your attention then distance themselves again. And all of this turns into a joyride for a restive heat that tips and swerves like a child running through a living room gathering.

Yet the impression is also subdued. The peppery bite plays quietly, allowing the many voices to mingle.

So there’s no single moment when your heart flutters and your senses explode. There’s just the overwhelming notion of comfort.

The dish is not unique to Jamaica. It can be found throughout the Caribbean and has roots in western African cooking. Jackson prepares brown stew chicken in a very traditional style, with chunks of meat on the bone. It comes plated with a mound of rice and beans swelling with contentment.

But, the chef says, there is more to the dish – and all Jamaican cooking – than a recipe.

He shares kitchen duties with chef Rupert Smith. Jackson explains that with the same recipe, regulars can tell if he made the stew or his kitchen partner.

“What you are tasting is the hand,” he said.

Whether chef or home cook, brown stew chicken responds to the touch, the care and devotion put into it.

It is soul food.


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