In Chinese-Jamaican families, the best recipes are kept under lock and key. Everything from how to dry-roast chicken to cooking greens is held close. Nothing is promised to any family member, even one who hopes to become a chef.
"They teach you something and then say, 'You'd better not tell anybody,'?" says Marcia Chang. "My sister-in-law found out I was teaching a friend her recipes, and that was it."
Indeed, there's a page in Marcia's yellowing notebook where secrets scrawled in
Since the restaurant opened in 2009, the cooking inside this compact eight-seater has been handled by 65-year-old patriarch Maurice. He and Marcia married in 1971 and lived in Jamaica until 1979. That year, the country's swelling tide of violence hit close to home when Maurice's brother was murdered inside his bakery. After relocating to Miami, Maurice found work as a line cook in greasy spoons across the city. But in 2008, the economic downturn shattered the family's status quo. Marcia lost her job at an insurance agency, and Maurice, after heart surgery, was laid off from a management gig at Einstein Bros. Bagels. It turned out to be just the push he needed to put his food on the pedestal it deserved. "I remember I saw a woman I worked with years ago, and the first thing she said to me was, 'Is your husband still making that fried rice?'" Marcia says.
Maurice's Chinese father and Jamaican mother taught him to make magic in the pantry at his home in Manchester Parish, near the island's southern coast. "I had the best of both worlds," he says. Today he has no problem producing a plate of unctuous oxtails cloaked in velvety brown gravy. Alongside Jamaican standards like spicy, piquant escovitch fish and curried goat is an array of his own creations. Pasta laced with shreds of spicy jerk chicken is tossed in an artery-clogging cream sauce amped up with scallions, tomato, and onion. A loaf of coco bread is split open and packed with plump jerk shrimp, greens, and more of that creamy sauce.
Yet those plates pale in comparison to his Chinese-Jamaican specialities like goat with lime leaf. Its availability depends upon whether Maurice can get ahold of the pungent, thumb-size leaves that lend a citrusy snap to the rich sauce and gamy, fork-tender goat meat.
These kinds of dishes are rooted in nearly two centuries of Chinese migration to Jamaica. It began in the 1800s, when the British government recruited a few hundred Hakka people, mostly from southeastern China, to cross the Pacific for plantation work in the Caribbean. In the decades that followed, thousands more came in waves. Indentured servants, families looking for a better life, and misanthropes trying to escape the past all arrived on the island's sun-bleached shores. "The merchant ships came from China, and whoever was willing to work could come, get off at a port, and start a new life," says Jason Panton, a regular with a beehive of dreads teetering atop his head. With them came some of China's staple recipes and ingredients, adding to Jamaican cuisine a new branch that thrives today.
Jamrock's plates include not only the goat and lime leaf but also sui mein, a kitchen sink of thin yellowish egg noodles topped with Chinese roast chicken and crisp verdant bok choy. Depending upon what's available, there's also shrimp or beef cha saa cooked in a spicy sha cha sauce. It's a preparation that relies on dried shrimp for a funky tang redolent of Hong Kong's XO sauce. It's all capped with an egg roll nothing like those found tucked inside wax paper envelopes. Chang spreads a thin yellow egg batter on a griddle, and as it firms up, he lays down a slick of ground pork fortified with garlic and ginger. It's rolled, cooled, and sliced to reveal umami-packed disks adorned with pinwheel patterns.
The same egg rolls come standard in choy fan, along with a few slices of roast chicken and a heaping pile of scallion-studded fried rice. The rest is an unpredictable rotating list of Chinese-Jamaican plates that seem impossible to find anywhere else. Some days, it's that ubiquitous roast chicken stir-fried with shiitake mushroom shards for a dish called dun goo. Other days, it's foo gaa, a hollowed-out bitter gourd stuffed with ground pork and fermented black beans.
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These are simple dishes consisting of little more than two or three intensely flavored ingredients chosen for maximum flavor. Still, Chang is frustratingly elusive when asked about the touches that help accent each plate. Most bites make clear there's soy sauce, ginger, and some garlic. What's obvious is that none comes with the trademark greasy sheen commonplace in even the best Americanized Chinese restaurants. Pressed on the matter, Chang offers little more than a shrug before returning to a vegetable patty doused in hot sauce. This is one mystery better left unsolved.
12618 Kendall Dr., Miami; 305-598-7625; jamrockcuisine.com. Tuesday through Saturday 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., Sunday 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.