Last year around this time I went on an off-the-beaten-path tour of Jamaica for the London Sunday Times Travel magazine. Jamaica has always been one of my favorite Caribbean islands because I’m so readily drawn in by it’s uniquely strong culture (of course with a serious skew toward the food). We all know and love jerk, some of us maybe even ackee and saltfish, breadfruit, and callaloo. But after traveling to Jamaica on three occasions, I still had never encountered the famous cornmeal porridge of which Bob Marley sings. This time I made a point of seeking it out in the sleepy parish of St. Thomas at a small hotel called Whispering Bamboo. It’s like a cinnamon-y polenta, (this one) creamy with coconut milk, just sweet enough, filling, and as an added bonus for me, naturally gluten-free. In the warmth of that Jamaican morning, all I thought of was how I’d be making this breakfast treat all winter long. And hopefully, so shall you.
My recipe comes from the hotel’s cook, Henry Cooper, who is probably all of 19 years old and makes it the way he grew up eating it. His use of coconut milk is pretty unusual as you’ll generally find sweetened condensed milk and/or cow’s milk in most recipes. I love the extra bit of island flavor and don’t miss the dairy one bit.
Serves 2-4 (depending on how much you like to eat for breakfast!)
4 cups water
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1 cup fine yellow cornmeal
1 cup coconut milk
1 tsp vanilla
2 Tbsp light brown sugar (you can play around with the type of sugar used, this is just my preference)
1/2 tsp cinnamon
grated nutmeg, to taste
In a medium saucepan, bring the water and salt to a boil. In a medium bowl, use a fork to combine the cornmeal and coconut milk until they form a smooth paste that does not contain lumps. Turn the heat to medium and stir the paste into the boiling water using a fork. Continue stirring for 2-3 minutes. Cover and cook for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally and lowering the heat a bit if porridge begins to stick. Stir in the vanilla, brown sugar, and cinnamon. Cover and cook for 3-5 minutes more. Ladle into bowls and serve with a bit of grated nutmeg over the top.
I’ve read that it’s not traditionally cool to put fruit or nuts into this dish but I do love to add sliced banana and walnuts to make for a more nutritious breakfast. Henry suggests using a blender to combine your porridge with 1 green plantain and I suggest (since I don’t always have a green plantain on hand) doing the same with a ripe banana.