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Jamaican Food Stories: How I buy fish in Jamaica

Port Antonio Fish Market Courtesy of Jason

My mom grew up in a rural fishing village in Jamaica. As a child, she mostly ate seafood, all seafood. The only fish I remember her not eating was Barracuda and Jack. Mom didn’t eat them as they are sometimes poisonous (Ciguatera poisoning) and she required us to do the same. It was open season on every other seafood species, and we did or part to keep the Jamaican fisher folk in business.

We ate it all, Octopus or “sea cat” as we call it in Jamaica. “sour sop” fish or Balloon fish, which I found out much later in life can also be poisonous when caught from some regions. “Cunny-buck” or smooth Trunkfish which is a favorite of mine. Shark, Couch and Stingray. I have eaten them all at some time. My mom really liked doctor fish or Surgeon fish which she believed had some health benefits. I also enjoy this fish that is considered by most a trash fish. This fish is disdained by some housewives and sophisticated shoppers but is held in high regard by most fisherfolk. Doctor Fish is best cooked outside as its aroma tends to linger. It is a fish with a lot of bones but is delicious and has a reputation for being very nutritious. Doctor Fish is well worth the trouble if you are versed in the art of eating bony fish.

If you have never eaten freshly caught lobster or fish, cooked fresh from the sea without any refrigeration. Just salt, black pepper and a dollop of butter for seasoning. I dare say that you have never tasted the true flavor of that seafood and when you do, I guarantee it will be an eye-opening experience.

Mom knew the seasons when different seafood would be prevalent, not just when it was legal to catch lobster and Couch but what time of the year the fisherman would be most likely to catch a particular fish she liked, and trust me she was always right. Sadly yours truly had neglected to commit much of this valuable ancient knowledge to memory and is the worst off for it, now that mom is no longer with us. Her knowledge of fish seasons was similar to how most Caribbean people would know when it is mango or ackee time. She would call me and say, “son it’s peel skin ( Triggerfish ) time now, we have to make a trip to the old district”. It was then left up to me to arrange the time for us to make that trip in short order. This was a ritual that happened every few months. Most times we made the trek together my mom and I and sometimes my brother came along.

Doctor Fish ( Ocean Surgeon )

This was not her only source of purchasing seafood as she would buy seafood boat side weekly from fishermen in the town where she now lived. We went back to her village because we could buy fish cheaper in larger quantities and get a wider variety and better quality. This was where a lot of the vendors went to purchase fish.

These trips with my mom were joyous occasions for me. I always enjoyed going out with my mother and trips to the fishing village were my favorite. She would also regularly request to be taken to “The Bath Fountain” which is a natural hot spring in St Thomas. There she would purchase the crayfish soup when available after enjoying a soak.

My mom and I shared the same disdain for tardiness, so it always brought a smile to my face when I would pull up promptly at the agreed time, and she would be seated on her veranda in her colorful hat, ready to go with her obligatory food basket in tow. We would be off to the fishing village chatting all the way. She catching me up on the latest happenings and telling me about old times. Buying fish at the village required a lot of waiting, as boats would arrive from half hour to an hour apart. Each boat bringing with it a potential surprise. These fishermen used fish pots or fish traps. Laying in the bottom of the fish trap was usually some rare fish or crustacean that some of the other customers had never seen, most did not want, and others did know how to prepare.The fishermen usually took those home. My mom always knew what they were and how to cook them. We would offer to buy them, and those were our surprise treats.

Peel Skin ( Trigger Fish )

While waiting to purchase dinner fish: Snapper, Parrot fish, and Butterfish. The best way we found to pass the time was to start a small cooking fire on the beach. All this took were three large stones, pieces of dried driftwood that were always available at a fishing beach and some matches. Sometimes we would borrow a piece of metal sheeting from the fisher folk, but usually, I would have a bit in my car trunk along with my igloo. We would start roasting fish on the beach while we waited. If it were the lobster season, we would place lobsters on the metal sheet left in their shells. Trunkfish was the other favorite for this method. Triggerfish is especially delicious prepared this way, and even regular dinner fish is a treat made in this fishermen style.

To cook fish in this method, the fish is placed on a metal sheet over the fire with scales and all, just as it comes from the sea. Roast on one side then turn. It may look charred, but only the scales will be burnt, if done right. The fish will cook in its own juices. If you are on a beach with pristine water and feeling adventurous. Take your charred fish and dip it in the seawater. This will season the fish and allow the charred skin to be easily striped away. No utensils, no problem Jamaican seaside beaches are littered with Jamaican almond trees, which are different from almond trees in North America. Pick an almond leaf to use as a plate. Enjoy, eat like a Jamaican fisherman. Give it a try, next time you visit a Jamaican fishing village.

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