The hit of incense as I walked in the door and the bouncy reggae music on the radio put me in the mood for something sunny on the plate. The Friday special at Boswell's was saltfish and ackee, a bright red fruit that, when ripe, bursts open to reveal three coal-black seeds surrounded by soft white flesh. I had never tasted ackee, which in the United States is only available canned, but the photographs I had seen of the strange fruit intrigued me. Saltfish and ackee, I discovered, was mild rather than bold, and the ackee tasted more like scrambled eggs than a fruit. On the side were several kinds of starches: a pale, hockey puck-shaped dumpling; a plain unripe plantain; and fried slices of sweet ripe plantains. I felt ungrateful for not enjoying what many consider Jamaica's national dish, but I had to admit that I found the saltfish and ackee bland and unexciting.
Jerk chicken is the Jamaican dish I know best, and Boswell's menu includes several kinds of jerk chicken and pork. The origins of the term 'jerk' are unclear, but the dish involves slow-roasting meat rubbed with a spicy mix heavily seasoned with allspice. Europeans first discovered allspice in the Caribbean, and the spice grows profusely in Jamaica. The jerk chicken at Boswell's, prepared with jerk sauces imported from Jamaica, was less spicy than I had expected, but sprinkling on some drops of hot sauce from one of the bottles scattered around the room added plenty of heat. Boswell's served the jerk sandwiches almost like a hamburger with mayonnaise, mustard, tomatoes, shredded lettuce and a slice of American cheese. Instead of a bun, the restaurant used freshly baked coco bread with a hint of coconut.
The dishes with the most heat and flavor were those that showed the influence of Indian cooking on Jamaican cuisine. In the mid-19th century, when most of the English and French colonies in the Caribbean ended slavery, large numbers of indentured servants arrived from China and India. Jamaica continues to have a substantial Indian population to this day, which explains the frequent use of curry in the island's cooking. Boswell's has several curried dishes, including a tasty goat curry with chewy cubes of meat in spicy brown gravy. The gravy, made with curry powder and Scotch bonnet chilies, had a subtle heat that built with each bite. By the time I cleaned my plate, every corner of my mouth was burning. The vegetarian patties, turnovers filled with a mix of lightly curried vegetables, reminded me more of Indian pakoras than the empanadas common throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.
The dish that actually made me sweat was the escovitch fish, a kingfish steak rubbed with spices, fried and topped with vinegar-marinated slices of onions and green peppers. Escovitch, or escabeche, is Spanish in origin, although it's been adopted throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. The medley of tangy, marinated vegetables was one of the better dishes I ate at Boswell's, and it was only marred by the fish being a little overcooked.
The simple vegetables at Boswell's were the dishes I enjoyed most. The rice and beans, known as 'rice and peas' in Jamaica, were scented with coconut. The callaloo greens, the leaves of taro root, had a sharp mustard bite. A medley of green peppers, onions and cabbage, a side included with most of the platters, was slow-cooked to draw out the sweetness of the vegetables. The Ital Plate ('ital' being a Rastafarian word for a pure diet free of processed food and meat) combines these vegetables with a salad and a bun of coco bread. Every time I ate at Boswell's the tables were full of people who seemed to be regulars. The lack of enough menus for all the tables was a sign that most people knew what they wanted before walking in the door. Boswell Atkinson moved to New Orleans to work as an engineer, but became interested in cooking. When friends complimented him on the dishes he prepared from his native Jamaica, he decided to open a restaurant in 1998. Over several visits to Boswell's, I got a crash course in Jamaican cuisine. I first went expecting food that would remind me of lazy days in the sun sipping fruity tropical drinks. The flavors at Boswell's were milder than I had expected, but the Jamaican dishes revealed subtle traces of the cultures that share the island.