An appetite for travel

Rosemary Parkinson cooks her way round the country in Nyam Jamaica. Bridget van Dongen followed hungrily in her footsteps

  • Pages from Nyam Jamaica
  • Norma’s Jamaica Ackee Dip with Sweet Potato Leaves. Photograph by Rosemary Parkinson
  • Shirley (right) with her good friend Rosemary Parkinson
  • Norma Shirley’s smoked pork. Photograph by Rosemary Parkinson

Nyam is the Jamaican word for “eat”, and as the title suggests, Nyam Jamaica takes a comprehensive culinary tour of that island.

Parkinson, who has deep Caribbean roots, explains in her introduction why she wrote the book: she arrived in Jamaica in 2001 – and couldn’t leave. She includes a short history of the country and its cuisine, including its culture and traditions, even translations of Jamaican patois, all serving to introduce the reader to the essence of Jamaica, before launching into the actual journey – a roller-coaster anti-clockwise ride that begins in the parish of St Thomas to the west, finally arriving in St Andrew and Kingston, the hub and capital of the island.

We follow Parkinson with her friend Norma (the famous chef Norma Shirley) on their brave and sometimes crazy adventures around Jamaica, stopping and eating at shacks and restaurants along the way. Cookie Kinkead adds her photographs to those captured by Parkinson, who has a way of bringing to life with her stories the people and characters they encountered. At least two or three spreads, which include recipes, are devoted to each parish, and Parkinson pays special tribute to local manufacturers, showing an undying passion for agri-tourism.

Stunningly laid out, the book is heavy at 5.5lbs – not something you can easily take to bed with you. It is also too beautiful to be brought into the kitchen and used as a cookbook – it’s more of a coffee-table book – but I did copy out some of the recipes and tried them with great success.

As for the recipes, Parkinson explained that they were all given to her by the characters she met along the way. Where there was no one to cook, for instance when visiting a historic house, Shirley and other chefs gave recipes in their honour. They include, of course, most Jamaican favourites, such as how to make proper jerk and festivals, and even real Jamaican patties from the famous Tastees.

Nyam Jamaica received the Gourmand Award for Jamaica in 2008 for Best Design, Best Photography and Best Easy Recipes, and in 2009 received a Gold against all world cookbooks at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards in Paris.

It would make a great gift for any foodie, or anyone wanting to learn a thing or two about Jamaica.

Nyam Jamaica Rosemary Parkinson
(Rosemary Parkinson, ISBN 978-976-8215-80-2, 460pp)


Norma’s Jamaica Ackee Dip with Sweet Potato Leaves

Cook 1 dozen cleaned ackee in water until soft.

Heat one tablespoon each vegetable oil and butter in a frying pan. Add ackee, 1 tablespoon curry powder. Add 1/2 teaspoon scotch bonnet pepper, 1 clove garlic (both finely minced), salt & pepper to taste. Puree in blender.

Serve warm as a dip accompanied by thinly sliced deep-fried sweet potato.

Norma Shirley


Death of a Grande Dame

Rosemary Parkinson mourns her friend and collaborator

Norma Shirley, often referred to as the Julia Child of the Caribbean, passed peacefully on November 1, 2010, and the Caribbean has yet again lost an irreplaceable icon.

Born in Jamaica in the 1930s, Norma began her career as a nurse and midwife in Scotland. Self-taught when it came to food, she catered for American Vogue and famous photographers like Hiro, Irving Penn and Jean Pagliuso.

Returning to Jamaica determined to make her mark on Caribbean cuisine, she insisted on taking local produce up a notch, using unique blends, island colours, and unimaginably fabulous tastes. Her plates were works of art.

A complex personality, generous and loyal to a fault, a hard task-master, Norma Shirley, the perfectionist, did not suffer fools gladly and was indeed a storm that raged and a light breeze that calmed.

She was filmed for the Food, Travel and Discovery channels; an hour-long programme, At the Table With Norma Shirley was shown on the Canadian Food Network to some three million viewers; and she received many awards at the yearly Observer Food Awards in Kingston. Her biggest accolade, in 2008, was the Prime Minister of Jamaica’s Award, Medal of Appreciation, for service to Jamaica.

Shirley, the grande dame of Caribbean cuisine, exited this life far too early, just as she embarked on a new journey – the Grog Shoppe, at Devon House in Kingston.

Her biography, started by this writer, will be finished in 2011.


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