Whenever I go to Jamaica, I always pack light so that I can stuff the corners of my suitcase with all my market finds. On one of my last days at wherever I’m staying, I visit the places where the locals shop. I grew up in the Caribbean, so bargaining is in my blood, but if you’re nervous about the practice, ask someone from your hotel or rental house to come with you. Just make sure they don’t take you to a grocery store where the tourists shop.
At the local markets, I pass by all the glistening piles of tomatoes and mangoes and go straight to the spice lady, where I buy at least a few ounces of fresh allspice berries, which Jamaicans call pimento. I have a dedicated pepper grinder at home for these and add a dash or two of the complicated spice to curries, beef stew, and even banana bread. I also buy a plastic bag full of the fresh leaves of the spice, because my favorite way to evoke the flavor is to line the bottom of a cast iron pot with the fragrant leaves, sprinkle a copious amount of the fresh berries on top of the leaves, lay down a fresh filet of fish, cover it up, and steam the fish until it flakes. To add to my cache, the spice lady also always has an array of freshly ground jerk rubs and curry mixes, neither of which should be missed.
Then I ask who has fresh coconut oil. I bring home a bottle or two, then slather it on after a shower or drop a capful into the bath. During the summer, I coat my hair with it before going to the beach. The smell is delicious and nothing moisturizes my skin or conditions my hair as well. The only problem is that sometimes you have to soak the bottle in warm water to make the oil pourable.
Last spring I also purchased two bottles of Jamaican honey, garnered from honeycombs found high up in the mountains. The honey was darkly sweet and rich, and I drizzle it over eggplant slices before grilling them until the honey caramelizes. Plus, my granddaughter likes the honey even better than maple syrup on her pancakes.
Of course, who could go home without a pound or two of the full flavored Blue Mountain coffee, and a bottle or two of rum, either Appleton or Myers? I love making rum cake and drizzling the liquor over vanilla ice cream.
And last, how about a peck of pickled peppers — the island's fiery Scotch bonnets — or at least a jar or two?