Motherland: a love song to Jamaican cuisine

Karen Hardy
November 29 2023 - 5:30am
Peanut and sweet potato stew. Picture supplied
Peanut and sweet potato stew. Picture supplied

Motherland is a cookbook that charts the history of the people, influences and ingredients that uniquely united to create the wonderful patchwork cuisine that is Jamaican food today.

Running through the recipes are essays from Melissa Thompson charting the origins and evolution of Jamaica's famous dishes, from the contribution of indigenous Jamaicans, the Redware and Tano peoples; the impact of the Spanish and British colonisation; the inspiration and cooking techniques brought from West and Central Africa by enslaved men and women; and the influence of Indian and Chinese indentured workers who came to the island.

Motherland does not shy away from the brutality of the colonial periods, but takes us on a journey through more than 500 years of history to give context to the beloved island and its cuisine.

  • Motherland: a Jamaican cookbook, by Melissa Thompson. Bloomsbury. $52.
Motherland: A Jamaican cookbook, by Melissa Thompson. Bloomsbury. $52.
Motherland: A Jamaican cookbook, by Melissa Thompson. Bloomsbury. $52.

Peanut and sweet potato stew

This dish is unashamedly West African, where peanut stews are common. Yet I've included it here because the movement of peanuts around the world tells of the trading routes that saw food, goods and people cross the Atlantic through the Columbian Exchange and beyond. The Spanish are said to have taken them back to Spain following their exploration of the so-called New World, where they were planted. From there they were taken to Africa, probably through trade, before being returned to the Americas during the transatlantic slave trade.

Today, peanuts grow throughout Jamaica, especially in St Elizabeth. So while this isn't a Jamaican dish, it's one that draws on the West African influence that has inspired island food.


  • 1 onion, chopped
  • vegetable oil
  • 2 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 2.5cm piece of ginger, finely grated
  • 2 tsp ground turmeric
  • 1 tbsp ground cumin
  • 1 tbsp ground coriander
  • 1 tsp ground fenugreek seeds
  • 2 sweet potatoes, peeled and chopped into 2.5cm cubes
  • 400ml vegetable stock
  • 400g can of red kidney beans, drained
  • 2 tbsp peanut butter
  • 2 mature bunches of spinach, washed and roughly chopped, coarse stalks removed
  • sea salt
  • boiled rice, to serve


1. In a Dutch pot or large saucepan, fry the onion in a little oil. After eight minutes, add the garlic and ginger and cook for another couple of minutes before adding the spices, mixed with a little water to prevent them burning. Stir and cook until the spices become aromatic.

2. Add the sweet potatoes and stir to coat, then pour in the stock and add the beans and peanut butter. Put a lid on the pot and cook for 10-15 minutes until the sweet potatoes are soft.

3. Remove the lid, mix in the spinach and leave for five minutes until cooked through. Taste, then add salt until seasoned as you prefer.

4. Serve with boiled rice.

Serves 4-6.

Ginger beer prawns

Ginger beer prawns. Picture supplied
Ginger beer prawns. Picture supplied

"Shrimp", as they are called on the island, have been a mainstay of the Jamaican diet since our knowledge of human history there begins. They were eaten by the indigenous Jamaicans; the Taino are recorded to have fed Columbus a meal that included them. The sea and rivers remain a source of the crustaceans to this day.

My idea for this dish came from Japanese tempura: the sweet prawns encased in a light, crispy batter is a dream combination. While tempura calls for soda water, ginger beer is a great alternative. It brings both delicate flavour and sweetness, while the bubbles make the batter as light as air.


  • 16-24 shell-on raw king prawns
  • 1 garlic clove, crushed
  • 2.5cm piece of ginger, finely grated
  • vegetable oil, for deep-frying
  • 50g cornflour
  • 50g plain flour
  • 120ml ice-cold ginger beer (not diet)
  • sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • lime wedges, to serve


1. Remove the heads and shells of the prawns, leaving on the tail sections. (You can also use shelled prawns, as long as they are raw.) Mix in a bowl with the garlic, ginger and some pepper and leave for 30 minutes.

2. Pour oil into a medium-sized saucepan, following all the usual precautions for deep-frying and heating to 180C.

3. Mix the flours in a bowl and pour in the ginger beer. Stir loosely, as vigorous mixing will get rid of the bubbles you want to keep; don't worry if there are some lumps.

4. Just before cooking, season the prawns with a good pinch of salt. Holding a prawn by the tail, dip into the batter, then drop into the hot oil. Cook until the batter puffs up, about two minutes. Repeat to cook all the prawns, frying them in small batches so as not to overcrowd the pan.

5. Drain on a wire rack placed over kitchen paper, not directly on kitchen paper or the batter will go soggy, and serve with a squeeze of lime.

Serves 4 as a starter.

Toasted corn fritters

Toasted corn fritters. Picture supplied
Toasted corn fritters. Picture supplied

Sweetcorn fritters are one of my favourite things. With an egg and a side of avocado salsa, they make the best breakfast. Apart from ackee and saltfish, of course.

A few years ago, I experimented with browning corn in butter before adding it to fritters. It gives a lovely, subtly toasted corn flavour that reminds me almost of popcorn. It's a little extra effort, but one that's worth it, I think.


  • 150g plain flour
  • 1 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten
  • 150ml milk
  • 200g sweetcorn kernels
  • 75g unsalted butter
  • 1/2 red onion, finely chopped
  • 3 spring onions, finely chopped
  • 1/2 red capsicum, finely chopped
  • 1/2 yellow capsicum, finely chopped
  • 1 tsp sea salt
  • 1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • vegetable oil, for frying
  • To serve: avocado salsa and poached eggs


1. Mix the flour, baking powder, egg and milk together to form a stiff batter. Leave to rest while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.

2. Toast the sweetcorn in a dry pan for a few minutes over a medium heat, then add the butter. Fry the sweetcorn until the kernels start to brown and the butter begins to smell nutty. Remove from the heat.

3. Mix the onion, spring onions and red and yellow peppers into the batter along with the toasted corn and season with the salt and pepper.

4. Add enough oil to a deep frying pan so it's 2.5cm deep and heat over a medium heat until a piece of batter dropped into it will sink and then rise, bubbling, after a couple of seconds.

5. Scoop a heaped tablespoon of batter and drop into the oil, then another, working in a clockwise direction round the edge of the pan and not overcrowding it.

6. Cook for four minutes, then turn in the order they were added and cook for another three or so minutes. Remove the fritters, again in the order they were added, and place on a wire rack, with kitchen paper underneath to soak up the oil.

7. Repeat until all the batter is used up. You may need to add a bit more oil.

8. Serve with avocado salsa and poached eggs.

Serves 4-6 as a light meal.

Guinness punch pie

Guinness punch pie. Picture supplied
Guinness punch pie. Picture supplied

If you like custard tarts, you will love this. I first had the idea for it a few years ago, while drinking some Guinness punch and wondering if it would translate into dessert form. The answer was a resounding yes. The flavours work really well in a tart and you can adjust the intensity of the Guinness flavour by using slightly less or more. And if you don't drink alcohol you can use 0% Guinness: it works, I've tried.

Stout is a really popular drink in Jamaica, with Guinness and Dragon Stout cornering the market. Guinness followed the British Empire - it is also huge in Nigeria - and the company first exported a West Indian porter from Dublin to the island in 1801, with the first export of proper Guinness going out in 1830. The slight bitterness of stout is softened by sweetness here, while the spices in the custard are really reminiscent of the stout itself. The tart makes a brilliant centrepiece, and will bring smiles of contentment to fans of the drink, as well as to everyone else.


For the custard:

  • 400ml Guinness
  • 7 egg yolks (freeze the whites for another time)
  • 405g can of condensed milk
  • 250ml double cream
  • 1/2 tsp grated nutmeg, plus more to serve
  • 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract

For the pastry:

  • 125g unsalted butter, plus more for the tin
  • 250g plain flour, plus more to dust
  • 45g golden caster sugar
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 30ml water


1. In a saucepan, simmer the Guinness until it reduces by about two-thirds. Leave to cool.

2. Meanwhile make the pastry. Using your hands, rub the butter and flour together until the mix resembles breadcrumbs. Mix in the sugar and egg yolk and then add the measured water a little bit at a time, until the dough comes together. Don't knead any more, just wrap in cling film or greaseproof paper and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

3. Preheat the oven to 160C. Butter a 20cm tart tin and remove the pastry from the fridge. Dust your worktop with flour and roll out the pastry into a circle roughly 28cm in diameter. Coil the pastry around the rolling pin and uncoil over the tart tin. Carefully push the pastry into the corners of the tin and leave the edges rising above the edge. Prick the base of the tin with a fork all over, then line with greaseproof paper and baking beans or rice. Bake in the oven for 15 minutes. Take out the greaseproof paper and baking beans and bake for a further five minutes. Remove from the oven and leave to cool.

4. In a bowl, gently beat the egg yolks with the condensed milk, trying not to get too much air or too many bubbles into the mix. Stir in the double cream and reduced Guinness, then stir in the remaining ingredients.

5. Pour the custard into the pastry case and bake for 40-45 minutes; it should still have a wobble in the middle. Remove and leave to cool.

6. Grate extra nutmeg over the top and chill before slicing.

Serves 8.

Karen Hardy

Karen Hardy

Canberra Times lifestyle reporter

I've covered a few things here at The Canberra Times over the years, from sport to education. But now I get to write about the fun stuff - where to eat, what to do, places to go, people to see. Let me know about your favourite things. Email:

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