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Taste the islands

In every culture, the food people eat is influenced by a number of factors. There’s the agriculture. There’s the influence of other nationalities that bring their ways of cooking and ingredients to an area. Mix those with necessity and a need to survive on whatever is available and you can identify an area’s food culture.

So what do you get when you combine the influences of two Native American tribes — the Arawaks and Caribs — with British, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Danish and even West African fare?

The answer is Caribbean cuisine. The food of the islands is a true melting pot of ideas, spices, ingredients and cooking techniques. Going as far back as the days of Columbus, who introduced sugar cane to the natives, the Caribbean has been a virtual mixing bowl for a style of cooking that is the essence of eclectic.

With all these influences at play, one can’t help but expect a Caribbean dining experience to be full of flavor, spice and unlike any other food experience.

Among the common ingredients in Caribbean cooking are onions, garlic, plantains, okra, pigeon peas, coconut and cilantro. Mixing these ingredients with island fruits like guava, pineapple and passion fruit makes for a unique island flavor.

Foodies in Suffolk can get a taste of the Caribbean at establishments like Jammin’ Jerk BBQ, located off Godwin Boulevard on Burnetts Way. Daring patrons are treated to a menu that includes everything from cocobread to jerk chicken to curry goat, all prepared under the lighthearted leadership of owner Dorothy Lovell.

Lovell, a native of Montego Bay, Jamaica, has lived in Suffolk for the past five years. She takes pride in serving the locals the exotic, yet hearty, dishes of her homeland. What keeps the non-islander natives of Suffolk coming back for more? “You have to woo them. We like to let people sample what we do to get them interested.”

Lovell likes to stress that the food at Jammin’ Jerk is not necessarily spicy.

“Most people think the food will be spicy but we don’t cook it spicy. We let you add the spice to suit your taste.”

Lovell’s favorite fare from her restaurant are the original Caribbean smoked barbecue — from an in-house smoker — and her delicious oxtails.

“We use allspice, and we cook everything low and slow,” she said.

It wasn’t easy to keep her Caribbean cuisine machine moving after a tornado ripped through Suffolk in April of 2008. The Plaza, where Lovell’s restaurant sat, was one of the many structures in Suffolk severely damaged. Rebuilding Jammin’ Jerk BBQ was a long and hard process.

“It was very hard. It was definitely a setback. But we struggled through and with the help of some publicity and marketing, we’re getting stronger again. People are coming back to us,” she said.

Since reopening, Jammin’ Jerk has remained strong, building a crop of regulars who enjoy the savory mix of cultural influences that is Caribbean food and the fun, playful staff. Or they can’t resist the allure of the in-house smoker, cooking up succulent ribs, chicken, and pork in hybrid style that is both Caribbean and good old Southern barbecue.

For whatever reason, people keep coming back, and Lovell says running Jammin’ Jerk BBQ is still a joy.

“I love people. And I’m building a staff that loves people too. Because good hospitality and listening to what people want is really what makes a true Caribbean dining experience.”