July 20, 2005
Thirst Quenchers and Man Drinks
By KIM SEVERSON and JULIA MOSKIN
JAMAICAN drinks can sneak up on you. Ginger beer is a good place to start, the slow burn of the ginger acting as a cooler in hot weather. From there it's an easy jump to spicy, ruby red sorrel punch tart enough to stand up to the delicious fat in a meat patty.
But read to the bottom of the menu at New York's Jamaican patty stands and juice bars. Suddenly you're in beverage territory that goes beyond quenching thirst. Here, true believers can tap into the strength-building properties of sea moss elixir, or the performance-enhancing capabilities of a cup of Stallion Daddy or All Night Long, brewed from dandelion, comfrey and a host of Jamaican roots.
The drinks are part of a weekly, if not daily, routine for many of the nearly one million immigrants from the West Indies who live in New York.
But among fans of Jamaican food who have incorporated jerk chicken, goat curry and meat patties into their repertories, the drinks have been slower to cross over, said Vincent HoSang, a founder of the Royal Caribbean Bakery, which expanded into Caribbean Food Delights, the largest Jamaican food wholesaler in the country.
"Their popularity hasn't reached the mainstream market yet because people don't know what sea moss is," said Mr. HoSang, a Jamaican immigrant who started selling meat patties and drinks from a little shop in the Bronx in 1978. "The Caribbean people know it has a lot of nutritional value, but you can't make other people see that yet."
The world of Jamaican drinks can be divided into two camps. On one side are lighter, fun drinks that offer some nutritional value but are designed for refreshment, not healing. On the other are a host of complex tonics and juices aimed at promoting good health and curing specific ailments, many of them sexual.
Spicy ginger beer, which like root beer is rarely alcoholic, is the biggest crossover success. A crisp homemade version of ginger beer is simple to put together: fresh ginger in large quantities, steeped for several hours and then sweetened. Some traditional recipes use honey, cloves and other spices. Others include rice, chunks of potato or yeast to help the drink ferment.
Our version only requires steeping. A bay leaf adds depth, and lime or lemon juice mixed in at the end provides bright notes.
Sorrel punch, which is often on the Christmas table all over the West Indies, is equally refreshing and easy to make. The main ingredient is not the slightly sour green herb that chefs pair with salmon in the spring. Rather, Jamaican sorrel is a type of hibiscus, a flower that turns up in tea in countries including Mexico, Egypt and China.
Steeped for several hours with a little ginger and clove and sweetened with simple syrup, the dried hibiscus becomes a sweet-tart tea that blends well with rum and lime.
In many parts of the Caribbean and especially in Jamaica, drinks provide more than refreshment. Rastafarianism, a Jamaican faith that worships the late Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie and his vision of a unified Africa, includes many tenets about eating, among them: "Let your food be your medicine, and medicine be your food." The vegan, holistic diet observed by strict followers is called Ital.
"Traditionally, for people in Jamaica, healing is all herbal," said Netfa Hamanot, 23, who sells a variety of tonics and smoothies at Rases of Adwa, an Ital store and cafe in Prospect-Lefferts Gardens, Brooklyn. "If you have something wrong, you just go to the backyard and make something up."
Whirling in a series of blenders at the back of his shop are grasses and greens like parsley, aloe and wheat grass, along with fruits like pineapple and banana. Powdered herbs, roots and flowers are mixed in, creating drinks like the "deep cleanser" or the "mighty green." Bottles of medicinal plant-based tonics are sold for a few dollars.
"We call them bush teas or roots drinks," Mr. Hamanot said. "Every plant has roots, so the drinks take you back to your roots." The word "roots" is powerful in Rasta culture, with resonances of the earth and Africa.
Sea moss, also called Irish moss, finds its way into many health drinks. The seaweed is common in the waters surrounding the Caribbean islands, and is sold in powders or dried in West Indian grocery stores. Before it can be blended into a drink, it has to be boiled. It offers more texture than flavor, adding a gelatinous thickness to drinks.
The healing properties Ital followers ascribe to sea moss are endless. Some herbalists recommend it for ulcers, blood diseases and respiratory problems. Others suggest it can help with hangovers and building physical strength.
"Your body serums, basically blood and other fluids, have a similar biochemistry as sea water," said Junior Blake, an herbalist at Vegan's Delight in the Bronx, where he sells his own Healthee brand of healing elixirs. "That's why seaweeds are so important to diet." Especially, he says, for men.
"It's a tradition based on maintenance of reproductive energy," Mr. Blake said. "Your reproductive energy and your creative energy go hand in hand."
Many male potency drinks are especially thick, often including both Irish moss and oatmeal. Usually flavored with vanilla, nutmeg and cinnamon, they have the taste and texture of banana cake batter.
There are a few roots drinks for women, but sorrel, ginger beer and carrot juice are preferred to a tonic. "Women don't need it," Mr. Hamanot said. "It's for older men or men with a lot of work to do." Enid Davis, who works the jerk counter at Danny's Jerk Express just down the block, agreed. "You don't drink a man drink," she said firmly.
But do they have any effect?
At any number of the New York stores and restaurants that sell the drinks, women tend to roll their eyes at the question, and men smile and nod.
In Brooklyn, at Angel Flake Patties on Nostrand Avenue in Flatbush, the manager, Leslie Hewitt, put things into perspective.
"It's all about your mind," Mr. Hewitt said. "If your mind is not there, no drink is going to help."
July 20, 2005
Island Flavors in a Yellow Envelope
By JULIA MOSKIN and KIM SEVERSON
LONG before the BlackBerry and the PlayStation Portable, New Yorkers loved their hand-helds. The folded pizza slice, the hot dog and the crusty knish have a built-in mobility that lets hungry New Yorkers eat on the street, and enough density to carry them through to the next meal.
New immigrants have added to the on-the-go family, introducing Colombian arepas, Mexican tacos and Uzbek samsas. But the hand-held with the best shot at making the list of classic New York noshes is the Jamaican beef patty, a rectangle of flaky yellow crust filled with ground beef shot through with onion, thyme and the inimitable heat and perfume of Scotch bonnet chili peppers.
The patties are familiar to New Yorkers who order bland commercial versions sold at numerous pizzerias. But they cannot compare to the fresh, handcrafted patties found at a handful of Jamaican bakeries here. The flakiest crusts are still made with a hefty percentage of beef suet, and the most memorable fillings are unabashedly hot.
"That little country pepper takes you right back to Jamaica," said Ronald Patterson, a customer at Buff Patty in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, using a Jamaican term for the Scotch bonnet chili pepper, which has a fruity, almost floral taste that balances its considerable heat.
Since the 1970's, Jamaicans have been among the largest immigrant groups in New York City, with many arrivals settling in Brooklyn. There are large Jamaican communities in the Wakefield section of the Bronx and (coincidentally) in Jamaica, Queens. But the city's best Jamaican food is concentrated in Brooklyn, along Flatbush, Nostrand and Utica Avenues.
"We use Black Angus beef and fat from the caps of the prime rib," said Desmond Patterson, an owner of Jamaican Pride Bakery in Prospect-Lefferts Gardens, Brooklyn. There, Mr. Patterson and his crew turn out 2,000 patties from scratch every morning and bake them throughout the day.
Jamaican Pride's ground beef filling combines plenty of black pepper and Scotch bonnet, and a whiff of fresh thyme and allspice (Jamaicans call it pimento), two signature seasonings in Jamaican cooking. It is slightly soupy, not unlike a sloppy Joe. Patties at most New York shops tend to be drier, with the meat pastelike, in the traditional style.
Patties, it turns out, are an immensely personal matter. Preferences for meat texture, crust style and spicing levels are often determined by how and where one was raised.
Jamaican cooking combines local ingredients with an overlay of Spanish, British, Indian and Chinese influences. The patty could be a descendant of the empanada or of the meat pasty, the traditional lunch of miners in Cornwall in southwest England, who needed portable lunches that they could take deep into the mines.
Other islands with British influence make patties. In Trinidad a distinct curry flavor reflects that island's many Indian cooks (try the patties at Al Cholo Bakery in the Bronx); the bakers at Shaborn Juice Bar, a Guyanese bakery in Flatbush, make round patties no bigger than the palm of a hand. The filling is flavored with a little basil, and the crust is rich and crumbly.
The Jamaican patty is served wrapped in coco bread, which is like an oversize, slightly sweet hamburger bun. It is called coco bread not because it contains coconut (it doesn't), but because you split it open like a coconut. Although the combination first appears dauntingly starchy, the soft sweetness of the bread nicely offsets the spicy filling and the crisp crust.
"You eat it with the coco bread to soak up the spice and the juice," said Shana Bennett-Reid, who works at Angel Flake Patties in Flatbush.
In different times and places, the distinctive yellow-orange color of the classic patty crust has come from palm oil, annatto seeds, yellow food coloring and turmeric. Some upscale patties bear a natural pale-brown crust, rather than the traditional yellow. In developing a recipe for home cooks, we found that using turmeric and a bit of West Indian curry powder added a pleasant pungency and the classic yellow color. We also found that although vegetable shortening makes a perfectly good crust, beef suet makes a spectacular one.
Not all patties are spicy. Vegetable patties in a whole-wheat crust may seem like an American health food invention, but they are authentically Jamaican. Many Jamaicans are at least part-time vegetarians because of the dietary laws of Rastafarianism.
Jerk chicken patties, a relatively new creation gaining popularity here and in Jamaica, can be hot or not, but they are always heavily perfumed with allspice and thyme, the classic jerk spices. At Jamaican Pride, one popular patty is filled with ackee, a soft, slippery-sweet fruit that resembles scrambled eggs when baked inside a crisp crust.
Besides coco bread, the squeal of brakes seems to be a constant accompaniment to patties; many of the best patty shops are near bus and subway stops. At any time of day, customers rush in holding two dollar bills, the usual tariff for a patty in coco bread.
"In Jamaica people eat patties first thing in the morning and last thing at night," said Patrick Anthony, whose father owns the One Stop Patty Shop on Amsterdam Avenue in Harlem. "Every neighborhood has its own patty shop, and every patty shop has its own recipe."
Kingston, the capital of Jamaica, is the hotbed of the country's patty wars, with chains of Tastee Patties and Juici Patties battling for dominance.
"I have heard of people making a living buying Tastee Patties by the case in Kingston airport and flying them to Miami, just going back and forth," Ronald Patterson said. His favorite patty shop, Buff Patty, carries Royal Caribbean patties, a local commercial product that stood out in our tastings. They are sold nationally under the Caribbean Food Delights label in Costco stores and in other large grocery chains.
Caribbean Food Delights, Tower Isle and Golden Krust, which sells its patties to hundreds of franchisees, are the big players in the market. The companies, which turn out hundreds of thousands of patties a day, are determined to make patties as popular as hamburgers and pizza.
Vincent and Jeanette HoSang, who founded Royal Caribbean, import Scotch bonnets and thyme from Jamaica so their patties will taste the way they do on the island. "But everyone buys them," said their daughter, Sabrina, the bakery's director of operations. "Not only Jamaicans, but Caucasians and especially Hispanics - a patty is a lot like an empanada."
Or a lot like a calzone, a samosa or even a knish. But no matter what your roots, the patty travels well. Especially through the streets of New York.