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Roast Yam on the Road to Ocho Rios
On my most recent trip to Jamaica, I and my friends Trevor and Sandy drove to Dunn’s River Falls, a totally touristy attraction near Ocho Rios. These falls are so spectacular that we don’t mind the crowds. (Though we also lucked out: No cruise ships had landed there that day.) Just before Ochee—as the natives call Ocho Rios—we pulled over next to a roadside truck whose hand-painted sign simply stated “roast yam.”
“This guy makes the best roast yam; he leaves on the crisp skin” Trev, a native Jamaican, told us. We peered into the open truck to see a man with thick protective glasses tending blackened yams over a wood fire. The man said he'd also made roast dumplings, which Trevor had never heard of. Trevor didn’t seem enthusiastic about the dumplings, but I said, "Let's try them." As we placed our order, the man keep nodding and saying, “Respect, yes, respect.”.As he gave us our food, he repeated,”Respect, respect.” He kept looking at Trevor to give the respect back, but Trevor’s a more straitlaced, traditional Jamaican, so I said, “Respect and thank you.”
For each order, the man would use the flat edge of a large knife and scrape off the blackened layer of a large yam, then place it in a take-out container . He cut it into pieces and added two charred dumplings, cutting them in half. The dumplings looked like overdone bread rolls. He dotted margarine on the yams and dumplings, then ladled salt-fish stew over the whole thing. We sat on broken, wooden boxes and proceeded to wolf it all down. A man in a small car pulled up next to us and opened his trunk. Inside, he had a cooler with chilled drinks. Trevor bought a soda, but Sandy and I didn't: We had brought along a sorrel drink, and it was a tad early for Red Stripe beers. The yams indeed had a smoky, crunchy crust, and though Trevor didn’t care for the roast dumplings, I thought they were great— kind of burnt, hard and crunchy. The salt-fish stew was mildly spicy, saucy and savory, perfect with the nutty yams.
As we got up to leave, I asked the yam man how long it takes to roast them, wondering if he starts them the night before or early in the morning. He grew serious and said it was a spiritual thing, he knew in a spiritual way when the yams were done. “Wha?” said Trevor. “Everything’s spiritual now.” I gave yam man one last "respect" and we drove on to Ochee.