A Journey Through Jamaican-Chinese Cuisine At Patois In Toronto
Image Credit: Jerk Chicken | Image Credit: Pexels.com

Jamaican-Chinese cuisine is a niche fusion cuisine that features flavors and techniques from two incredibly different cuisines. The arrival of Chinese indentured laborers in Jamaica in the late 1800s is often cited as the beginning of this unconventional pairing. Most immigrants were quick to switch professions after just a few years, owing to their inability to work tough manual jobs in the country’s tropical heat. These immigrants opened up restaurants and grocery stores all over the country, serving Chinese cuisine made with local produce. Restaurateurs would eventually incorporate traditional Jamaican flavors into their menus in order to make food that appealed to the local populace. This follows a long lineage of Chinese diaspora cooking. A large proportion of Chinese immigrants in any country are restaurateurs, who follow a linear path of transitioning from serving authentic Chinese food that features local ingredients to inventing entirely new cuisines with equal weightage given to both Chinese and local flavors.

The Chinese diaspora in Jamaica is an epitome of a community that followed this unwritten rule. Immigrants brought a bevy of ingredients and techniques to the country, changing native Jamaican cuisine forever. The locals took incredibly well to this foreign cuisine and were quick to incorporate elements of Chinese cooking into their own, thereby completing the circle. Jerk chicken, a traditional Jamaican dish made with a spicy blend of herbs and spices, was given a Chinese twist by adding soy sauce and hoisin sauce. This fusion of flavors gave rise to the now popular dish known as "Jerk Chinese," which can be found at many Jamaican-Chinese restaurants today. Restaurants owned by both communities now began to feature ingredients and flavors from the other: Chinese restaurants featured dishes that included pimentos, ackee, and tamarind, while Jamaican restaurants began to use condiments such as soy sauce and MSG and techniques that centered around wok cooking.

The two distinct fares eventually merged together to form what we know as Jamaican-Chinese cuisine today. The cuisine has several unique staples with no equivalent in either part of the whole, such as jerk chicken, chicken-in-the-rough, cha chee kai, et al.

The popularity of Jamaican-Chinese cuisine has spread beyond Jamaica's borders and can now be found in cities around the world, including Toronto, New York, and London. It's a delicious example of how two cultures can come together and create something truly unique and tasty.

The most famous establishment that is based on Jamaican-Chinese cuisine is undoubtedly Patois in Toronto, helmed by head chef and owner Craig Wong. Wong’s take on the cuisine is rather unique since he comes from a traditional French culinary background. Most dishes on the menu are Jamaican-Chinese staples, served with contemporary twists. Chef Wong believes that fusion cuisines should be respected with a degree of authenticity but not as much as more traditional cuisines, as the very spirit of the former is centered on flexibility and improvisation.

Wong’s CDC (chef de cuisine), Nicholas Beckford, shares the same beliefs. Beckford’s input was deemed crucial for the many dishes on the menu that feature heavy Jamaican influences, such as the jerk pork belly yakisoba and the prosperity jerk lobster. Both chefs also believe in a more playful approach to fine dining, using everyday ingredients and techniques that are usually not seen in restaurants that operate on a similar level. Ritz crackers, a popular grocery item that chef Wong grew up eating, are used in the prosperity jerk lobster. The jerk chicken and pork, too, benefit from unconventional cooking techniques. Both meats are cooked in a smoker, as opposed to a grill in conventional Jamaican-Chinese cuisine. The cuts used are also different: traditional jerk chicken is prepared using cut pieces of chicken with the skin on, whereas Patois serves the whole bird without the skin; the jerk pork served at the restaurant uses just the belly.

The concept of fusion is central to the atmosphere at Patois as well. The restaurant's decor reflects the blend of cultures, with colorful murals and artwork inspired by both the Caribbean and China. The atmosphere is lively and welcoming, with reggae music playing in the background and the aroma of spices and herbs filling the air.

The intersection of cultures at Patois goes beyond just the food and decor. The restaurant has become a hub for the Caribbean and Chinese communities in Toronto, a place where people from different backgrounds can come together and enjoy a meal. It's not uncommon to see families and friends from both communities dining together, sharing stories and laughter over plates of oxtail and jerk chicken chow mein.