Jamaican chef Oji Jaja will cook alongside international food superstars at NyamJam Festival’s culinary and music bazaar on Saturday, November 14th. It’ll be a highlight of a career that started long ago: From the time he was six years old, Jaja stood beside his father cooking family meals. “It beat doing the dishes,” he says. Jaja was raised in a vegan household, which taught him to be creative with food. (Vegan jerk oxtail is no easy feat.)
After graduating from Jamaica’s culinary arts school Runaway Bay Heart Academy, Jaja worked with the Ritz Carlton, in both Jamaica and Naples, Florida. During his decades-long career, Jaja has prepared meals for Michelle Obama, Tom Cruise, Katie Holmes and Drake. He now runs local catering company Ashebre, and plans to one day open a restaurant that celebrates and elevates Jamaican cuisine.
Jaja feels that it’s time for traditional dishes like curry goat and oxtail to rise above street food status and be served on china, rather than in styrofoam containers. In his view, Jamaican food is just as legitimate as French, Italian and Japanese cuisines, and should be taken as seriously. “Italian cuisine came from peasant food, and now people pay $300 for those simple dishes,” he explains. “I don’t see why we can’t do the same thing with Jamaican cuisine.”
Until he opens his own restaurant in Jamaica, Jaja recommends visiting Ortanique in Miami or Grand Cayman, where chef Delius Shirley—son of the late Jamaican cooking icon Norma Shirley—cooks high-end traditional dishes, such as jerk-rubbed foie gras and Cornish game hen marinated in traditional spices and topped with a brown stew sauce.
Here, Jaja shares his recipe for a traditional chowder, which is simple yet impressively flavorful.
Total time: 45 min
1 large onion, diced
1 carrot, diced
1 celery stalk, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 pounds fish bones (ideally snapper)
2 cups gungo peas (also called “pigeon peas”), soaked overnight
5 okra pods, sliced
1 potato, diced
1 cup diced sweet potato
1 cup diced pumpkin, or butternut squash
2 bay leaves
4 sprigs of thyme (discard stems)
1 Scotch bonnet chili pepper, chopped (discard seeds)
1 cup coconut cream (the creamier portion at the top of a can of coconut milk)
Salt and pepper