“Money mi a look fuh, come buy mi sinting nuh!” “Come bruk mi ducks my gal!” “Right inna yuh bag!” “Suga pine, suga pine mi a sell!”
Before I even set foot inside of the market, I’m greeted by higglers’ shouts as they proclaim their wares, the sight of carts piled high with vibrant produce and a variety of fragrant smells as they waft through the air (could be nice cooked food, ripe fruits or urine – depending on the time of day). I have yet to walk away from the market without a new story.
The Browns Town Market is one of the largest open-air markets on the island. Fridays and Saturdays are the major market days, though the market is open 6 days out of the week. With vendors coming from all over the island to sell items ranging from fruits to shoes, it always attracts a crowd.
Inna di country, grocery stores don’t generally sell produce. Imagine going to Trader Joe’s for all of your non-perishables and then buying all of your lettuce, tomatoes and bananas at a farmers’ market.
Because of climate change, growing seasons have become longer for certain crops, but the availability of certain items still largely depends on what’s in season.
See some things you recognize? Much of what’s available in Jamaica is also available in the US. In fact, much of the produce sold in the market is actually imported from the US – things like tomatoes and cucumbers, despite ease of local cultivation, are not grown in large enough quantities to meet demand.
This heavy dependence on imports is a frequently discussed topic in Jamaican media, and the various ministries that pertain to Agriculture have pledged to help promote and incentivize more local cultivation.
The vendors, also called sellers or higglers, are predominantly women. Most often, the people selling the produce are not the same ones who farm it.
I spoke with many vendors who traveled from St. Mary, about two hours’ distance from Brown’s Town, to sell bananas and coconuts. The banana industry in Jamaica is not as large as it once was, but St. Mary is still largely considered the banana parish and the versatile fruit is still one of the major exports in the country.
Ground food is – you’ve got it – food that grows under the ground. The Jamaican plate is usually comprised of a meat + a starch with a smallish serving of vegetables. When ordering food from a cook shop, you’re given the option of rice and peas or boiled food, aka boiled ground food.
Trelawny, the parish I call home, is well-known as yam country. Many of the yams on the island are grown here.
Did you get your greens in for the day? With such a wide variety of vegetables available, it’s pretty easy to eat a well-balanced, healthy diet here.
I have encountered a few vegetarians here, many of whom are Rasta, though generally speaking Jamaicans don’t eat nearly as many vegetables as health-crazed Californians do.
True Rastas are vegetarians. “Eat yuh medicine, yuh medicine yuh food” is an element of Rasta philosophy, meaning we can keep our bodies healthy by putting in nutritious (vegetarian), vitamin-rich foods. Your body is a temple, after all.
Chocho, seen above at center, is a relative of cucumbers, melons and squash. It grows on a vine and is usually boiled and eaten in soups. It’s got a very crunchy texture and will leave a sticky residue on your hands if you don’t coat them in oil before chopping. I love to throw it into curries and stir fries.
Major benefit of living in a hot, humid climate? Lots of tropical fruit!
“We never buy apples!” giggles my host mom each time I come home with a bag of them. Fruit tends to be expensive in Jamdung, and because there are lots of fruit trees in much of the country, neighbors often just give them away.
Naseberries (pronounced “nez berries” or “knees berries”) are like little balls of sugar. The texture is a little grainy and they are extremely sweet. The skin slides right off of the very ripe ones. If you’re looking for an easy dessert, one of these ought to do the trick!
Jamaicans call avocados “pears.” It’s a little early for pear season (hello climate change!), but much to my delight, they’re slowly starting to reappear in the market.
Melon is very expensive in Jamaica, but it makes for a very nice treat for special occassions. A quarter of a melon, like the bags pictured above, could cost as much as J$450 ($3.89 USD).
The seville oranges grown here are actually more of a greenish-yellow color than their namesake color. They’re perhaps even sweeter than the oranges I’ve had in America and their leaves make a wonderful tea that tastes a bit like fruity pebbles.
Now that the time is heating up, smoothies have become a pretty regular item in my weekly rotation. I play the “what color will this be?” game each time I turn on my blender.
Seasonings are what take a dish to the next level. What would rice and peas be without thyme, coconut milk and escallion?
Escallion is a mainstay in Jamaican cooking. People use it to season their meats, soups, rice and just about everything else you can imagine.
Looking for a quick way to spice up a can of tuna? Try heating it with onion, gaalic and tomato in a pot with a little coconut oil and serve over rice. Dinner in 5!
Scotch bonnet peppers are so spicy that it burns to touch them while chopping. I once got some of the juice in my eye and then proceeded to hop about my house screaming “I’m gonna die!” Their taste, though, is unmatched. One likkle toops inna di pot and your meal with light up with flavor.
Many of my favorite spices are actually grown in Jamaica, turmeric root being one of them. I’ve heard Jamaicans call it “orange ginger” and “curry root,” both being pretty accurate descriptions. Grate it into your pot to make a flavorful curry dish or into some hot water to make a detoxifying, anti-inflammatory tea.
Likkle dis an dat
People also go to the market to buy various other goods, like clothes, household items and electronics. While walking around on Saturday, I stumbled upon this woman who was weaving thatch to make a basket.
Her fingers were moving with lightning speed! She explained to me that she buys the thatch (a palm leaf) from someone in the hills of St. Mary, removes the “bone” (tough piece that runs up the center), then weaves it into these long strips. After she’s finished, she sells the strips to someone in Ochi, who then stitches it into a basket and sells it in the Ocho Rios craft market.
Traditional crafts like weaving are an element of culture that is sadly fading. I was so pleasantly surprised to see this woman working on her craft right before my eyes. She manages the stall to her left and does her weaving while she waits for customers.
Getting to know your local market and market people are great ways to feel more integrated into the community. Even though Brown’s Town is about 15 minutes from my home, it’s where most of my community shops and socializes, and a few of my community members actually sell at the market too.
Introducing myself to the people I’m buying from has its perks too. Sometimes you can get brawta from vendors. Brawta is a free likkle sinting (little something) that a vendor might add to your bag if you buy nuff nuff tings or if they like you. I think this action says a lot about the personal, warm nature of Jamaicans.