Monday, May 26, 2008
UCLA Reggae Fesitval
The annual student run Jazz Reggae Festival at UCLA is in its 22nd year serving great food with friendly folks and outstanding music. I only attended the reggae day and so I can't speak much to the jazz day, but the atmosphere of the festival was a great place to spend Memorial Day afternoon. Of course this is my food blog, so I primarily hit up the food vendors. But besides the steep $35 entry fee, I wouldn't mind setting up a lawn chair and soaking in the culture.
White tents of Rastafarian paraphanelia lined the Western edge of the field. Colorful clothing dyed red for blood, green for Earth, gold for the sun and black for the African people. I didn't spend too much time in these booths, but I noticed the Jamaican support for Barack Obama.
The opposite end of the field more held my interest, especially for this blog. More than a dozen tents serving a variety of foods, each with particular smells and aromas attracted my attention. Seeing as how this was a reggae festival and my knowledge of Jamaican food was rather limited, I tried a variety of dishes at various Jamaican booths. Of course the common carnival fare funnel cakes and deep-fried foods were tempting. I suppose the tropical smoothies were slightly more appropriate, but I don't know what set the two lemonade stands apart. Coincidently, I actually had a can of "Jamiacan lemonade" last night that was just lemonade made with sparkling water. Strangely enough, there was also Greek, Belizean and Cajun food.
After surveying the different tents, I chose People's Jamaican Restaurant for my first taste. Long I have heard of the famous Jamaican patty, a flaky turnover stuffed with savory ingredients. I asked for a recommendation and received the beef patty. Unfortunately my picture doesn't show the filling too well, but it was thick like a stew or chimichanga filling (which actually originated in Tuscon, Arizona). For $4, I got a hearty, piping hot pastry satisfyingly spicy and good for a snack or a meal. I will now consider storing some frozen patties in my freezer after hearing they store well and heat up nicely in a toaster oven. It definitely beats a pop-tart.
I wandered over to Jucy's Jamaican Food, but unfortunately they didn't serve anything smaller than a dinner plate. Knowing that I was going to try several different things, I refused to commit myself to such a large dish. Walking back, I came across Aunt P's Jamaican Kitchen. They were nice enough to serve me a side order of stewed oxtail for $5 off-menu. Handing over my U.S. tender, I got back a lip-smacking dish of slow-cooked beef. Oxtail is a relatively common Chinese ingredient, but I've usually only had it in soups. This Jamaican oxtail had all the elements of a good braise. The meat, fork tender, fell off the bone and into my mouth. Immediately I felt a rush of umami as my tastebuds touched the unctuous sauce. Slightly spicy, this dish was a good example of balanced flavors.
Finishing my oxtail, I felt like trying out something more common. And by common, I mean the teriyaki chicken of Jamaican cuisine--the jerk chicken. I settled on Stone's Jamaican Cuisine Home Cooking for my chicken. $7 for a thigh and leg of a grilled chicken, I was looking forward to this popular dish. Sadly, what I got was an overcooked piece of dry chicken with hardly any flavor beyond the charred exterior. I won't completely discount a food just because it is slightly burned, but when the rest of the chicken had nothing special to set it apart, I felt cheated. The sauce disappointed me the most. I have never heard of jerk chicken served in any type of barbecue sauce, much less a bland and thin sauce. The jerk seasoning, created by the native Tainos, is a combination of allspice, Scotch bonnet peppers, and a variety of other ingredients that goes on the meat as a dry rub. The meat is then grilled in a barbecue to produce a smoky flavor. Considering that this place had to supplement its chicken with a sauce shows that they didn't know how to properly cook a good chicken. Refer to my entry on Pollo a la Brasa for an excellent example of rotisserie chicken.
Lastly, I managed to avoid the seductive funnel cake and try the banana pudding instead. I'm not entirely sure how authentic banana pudding is to the Caribbean, but I know there is potato pudding in Jamaica and obviously bananas as well. It wasn't so much the authenticity that attracted me as it was the person in the banana suit handing out samples from Nana Queen's. After watching Arrested Development it's just too hard to refuse a person in a banana suit. Eschewing the caramel and strawberry flavors, I ordered the "O.G. Nana" pudding for $5. It was a good size, maybe 6-8 ounces. Luckily I shared it with my girlfriend, otherwise it would have been my just desserts. Although delicious in sample sizes, the full size was too sweet. The vanilla wafers gave it slightly different textures that was refreshing. Also, the real banana pieces was reassuring.
I didn't stay very long at the festival; after all, I was there for the food and not the music. Although once I got inside, I realized how I could easily spend the day there if I had some good company. Getting involved in these cultural events is a great way to find new cuisines.