Cool Jerk

No doubt the name causes many people to do a double take: Sango Jamaican and Chinese Restaurant. Jamaican and Chinese? Does the place serve General Tso's jerk chicken? Natty Dread egg rolls? What gives? A little history goes a long way toward understanding how national cuisines evolve, and in this case, why it isn't peculiar that Sango, a Jamaican restaurant located in the Colonial Plaza mall in Perrine, also serves Chinese dishes.

In the 1830s African slaves, who had earlier been brought to Jamaica by the British to toil in the sugar cane fields, were emancipated, replaced by what were called "indentured laborers" from India and China. When Chin Sang (Sango) arrived from the latter country in the late Forties, he was able to make a living as a cook in one of the numerous Chinese restaurants that had become popular on the island. His daughter Rosie Hollingshead immigrated to South Florida from Jamaica in 1980, and ten years ago she opened the restaurant that bears her father's name.

Like its strip mall neighbors -- Marie Patties and the Caribbean Delite Restaurant (which specializes in West Indian roti dishes) -- Sango does a huge take-out business. Its main room has been set up to accommodate this take-out trade: a white-tile floor empty save for an ice cream freezer, a flyer-laden table, a yellow-top Formica counter where food and money slide back and forth, and half a dozen chairs lined up against a storefront window.

Don't let the emphasis on take-out deter you from dining in, though; there's a small alcove with mustard-yellow walls off to the side, where bare wooden tables provide seating for sixteen. The same rules apply to eating in as taking out, which means you order at the counter and pick the food up yourself in large Styrofoam containers, which come with plasticware wrapped in a napkin. It's a hefty load to tote to your table, the portions being, as the Rastafarians would say, "I-normous." The prices, I think anyone would say, are more than reasonable, mostly in the six- to eight-dollar range.

A distinct separation between Chinese and Jamaican selections exists at Sango. Printed on one side of the menu are the Chinese dishes, a straightforward recital of Cantonese favorites such as wonton soup, spareribs (which make a spicy and superb starter), and various versions of fried rice, chow mein, and chop suey. Rosie still uses her father's recipes for many dishes, some of which are decidedly different variations on those usually found in Chinese restaurants. One such entree is pork lo mein, with firm, spaghettilike noodles studded with an almost absurd abundance of roast pork nuggets, all of it perked up with a piquant sauce that's flavor-intensive with green peppers, onions, and spices. Sango also serves a roast pork main course: moist, thinly sliced medallions coated with a throat-tingling gravy infused with ginger, garlic, and a mix of Asian spices. But the vegetable egg foo yung is awful: bean sprouts and snow peas enveloped in a thick, oily omelette. The egg foo yung notwithstanding, Sango's Chinese items satisfy on a basic level, but there are numerous places to get better Chinese food -- and few places to get superior Jamaican fare.

Jamaica's original settlers were the Arawak Indians, who sailed to the island 2000 years ago from South America. The Arawaks were adept at fishing, farming, and hunting wild game, and would grill meat and fish on wooden grates called barbacoas, the forerunner of today's jerk pits (and what we call a barbecue pit or grill). Not long after Columbus's arrival in the Bahamas, Jamaica (along with the rest of the Caribbean) was colonized by Spain. The Spanish brought with them tamarinds, ginger, citrus, plantains, coconuts, sugar, bananas, and the concept of frying foods. They also exploited and enslaved the Arawaks, most of whom died as a result of war or disease. Africans were imported as replacement slaves, and they too contributed to Jamaica's developing "fusion" cuisine, introducing beans, pigeon peas, yams, okra, taro, and callaloo (also referred to as taro leaves) to the island.

Eventually Britain challenged Spain's supremacy in the Caribbean, with the English taking control of Jamaica in 1655. (The Jamaicans gained self-rule in 1944, complete independence in 1962.) Very likely the British contributed their unique culinary sensibilities; I'm not certain how the islanders reacted to shepherd's pie and puddings, but they enthusiastically adopted the breadfruit, black pepper, and mangoes that eighteenth-century British traders brought from the South Pacific. They especially took to the ackee fruit, introduced to Jamaicans by Captain Bligh, and they are still the only people in the Caribbean to eat it. (Perhaps this stems from the ackee's poisonous potential if ingested when underripe.) Its pear-shape scarlet pod bursts open when ripe. Cooked ackee has the bland texture, color, and flavor of scrambled eggs and is eaten in Jamaica primarily as a breakfast food. African slaves combined the fruit with salted fish (which, in accordance with British rule, was given to them at least once a year) to create what would become the Jamaican national dish: ackee and codfish.

Ackee and codfish may be the national dish, but to much of the outside world jerk is considered the signature cuisine of the island. Its origin can be traced to the Seventeenth Century, when French pirates supplemented their primary source of income (looting Spanish ships on their way through the West Indies) by capturing wild pigs on Caribbean islands, curing pork on large barbecue frames, and selling it to other ships -- presumably the ones they weren't pillaging. The French freebooters were called boucaniers, from the term boucaner, meaning to cure meat. The cured meat was dubbed jerk. The word buccaneer nowadays refers to a pirate, not purveying pork, and jerk no longer indicates the cured meat but rather the assemblage of assertive ingredients that make up the spice rub itself. Jerks can be wet, dry, or the guy who lives next door, but the first two examples always share the same core seasonings: scallions, intensely flavored English thyme, fiery and fruity Scotch bonnet peppers, nutmeg, cinnamon, pepper, coriander, ginger root, and Jamaican pimento (a potent allspice).

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