WATCH: A Jamaican eats "turkle" meat in Cayman for the first time
A plate of "turkle" meat
“But Cayman have some nerve serving rice & peas and… Turkle? Turkle!” This was my reaction to an exquisite dinner that I recently enjoyed at Cayman restaurant, The Lobster Pot.
There are few things more traditionally Jamaican than a plate of rice and peas on a Sunday evening; however, we are accustomed to seeing our most beloved side dish served with familiar meats like brown stew chicken, curry goat, oxtail or even beef. The waiter delivered my plate, and as I inspected its contents, I couldn’t help but admire the tiny example of a marriage of cultures curated for my culinary delight.
Every so often we hear about how deeply Jamaican culture permeates the Cayman Islands but I was intrigued to see what is considered local Caymanian fare paired with traditional Jamaican cooking.
Rice and peas is meticulously made with white rice, red kidney beans, coconut milk, herbs and seasonings and like so many Jamaican foods, this dish has its roots in Ghana, formerly the Gold Coast. There it is known as Waakye (pronounced Watcheh) made with rice and red beans but flavored slightly differently.
People of African descent are also responsible for the tradition of enjoying rice and peas, mostly on Sundays. Enslaved Africans would get a break from hard labor on Sundays and they would use this time to prepare elaborate meals of which rice and peas was always included.
Turtle used to be to Cayman what rice and peas is to Jamaica. It is said that Christopher Columbus first named the Cayman Islands “Las Tortugas” because of the many sea turtles that inhabited the shores of the islands. Not only was sea turtle consumed in a variety of dishes such as stews and pies, it was also an integral part of the economy before Cayman became known as one of the world’s leading business centers.
Given its endangered status, sea turtle has been banned from sale at most dining establishments around the world. Cayman is one of the few places where you can still purchase turtle meat at a restaurant. Local restaurants purchase their meat from the Turtle Center, which is the only place in Cayman authorized to breed and sell turtles for consumption.
Turtle meat sale, trade and consumption are controversial to say the least and my experience is not meant as a promotion for consuming sea turtles. As a chef and lover of cultures I believe a big part of our identity is hidden in the foods our ancestors consumed; how we look at those same foods today is a portrayal of our growth as responsible citizens and how we perceive our duty to the planet.
Jamaicans are notoriously biased in favor of their own food; delicious and familiar pairings on dinner plates provoke nostalgia and unlock memories connected to strong culinary and cultural experiences.
Unfamiliar culinary pairings also have the power to evoke emotions about the power of culture, the migration of our people and how resilience, tolerance and social responsibility show up in places where we least expect it— like at the dinner table.