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Jamaican Run-A-Boat Cooking
I have always tried to explain what ‘run-a-boat’ means without showing the vast impact this common
type of Jamaican cooking practice has had on the island and the rest of the world, too….Yah Mon!
If you think I am being presumptuous, think again; or, if I am wrong I stand corrected. But the fact that
so many Jamaican restaurants are plentiful all over the world, you would think that we have more than
an ample supply of well-trained chefs available at anyone’s beck-an-call, you know. In fact, what we
have are cooks galore: from the types who water-down the ‘bikkle,’ fry festival dumplings by the
beach, jerk chicken on the side of the road, cook in the open marketplace, to those who can only hot
water to boil eggs.
This is not a phenomena or anything new, too. It’s been like this for a very long time. As a result, most
people who cook are affectionately called chef, cook, cookie, foodie, and so forth. In addition, these
‘professional’ names make some ‘cooks’ walk with a sense of purpose and pride; especially those who
toil endlessly to eke out an existence on Jamaica’s roadside, cooking and roasting food for the public’s
Many of these cooks, however, did not receive any formal training in the culinary arts or attend
established cooking schools on the island. Apart from a first year high school cooking class in home
economics, some of these cooks are virtually self-taught or home-trained. Also, to perfect their craft,
they merely persevere because of the many circumstances which cause them to adjust to their
Well, there is also an informal cooking college that exits in Jamaica’s sub-culture; Run-A-Boat College
provides Jamaica and the world with some good one-style cooks, drink-making masters, and Ital chefs.
This institution not only brings people together to cook-up food, but also helps ‘bredren-an-bredren’
(friends) form lifelong bonds. While they make the process look simple, the professors at this informal
cooking college are the masters in Jamaican free- style cooking, who create some of the most delicious
Jamaican food and drinks under extreme conditions. The students, however, are sometimes a mish-
mash of pre-puberty young men and adults who, for one reason or another, serve as great
knowledge-sponges in the informal Jamaican cooking tradition, maintaining their apprenticeship status
for future use when situations arise.
Now the way it works when we ‘run boat’ is each man contributes whatever cash in order that the
boat can ‘sail’ (cook). For example, if ten men contribute one hundred dollars each, the ‘boat’ has
enough money to feed everyone with a variety of foods which includes ‘the salting’ (canned fish,
beef, chicken, cooked vegetable). When the food is ready, the cook shares the food according to the
amount of money each man contributes; less money, less food. And, of course, women eat free when
they turn-up at the cooking site…Yah Mon!
As some‘boats’ are ‘run’ outside in the bushes in the rural areas of Jamaica, the cooking utensils used
in run-a-boat cooking vary from conventional types to the more creative varieties: dasheen leaves,
banana leaves, coconut bowls and cups, coconut oil cans, butter pans, among other things. When a
‘boat’ is ‘run’ in a house, however, the cooking takes on the regular conventional cooking methods
which involve the regular rules of Jamaican cooking; also, fewer people are involved in the ‘boat. ‘
The one drawback to ‘running-a-boat' is no one criticizes the cooking methods, because when you’re
‘raw’ (hungry) no one cares about being a food critic: this makes it difficult to determine a cook’s
improvement, though. On top of that, the scarce resources and limited access to some ingredients
make some cooks become creative with their cooking skills while others remain just ‘so-so-suh’-
conventional. Even if the food is not be palatable, one gets a pass because it’s all fun when we ‘run-a-
boat.’ With that said, many cooks learn to adjust their style if/when they notice there is no demand
for their cooking when the next ‘boat’ sails…Indeed!
Although our world famous Jerk Chicken, a recent invention, is not a run-boat food, it came from our
bush cooking tradition which was started by the Jamaican Maroons: our first freedom fighters. The
maroons, despite their predicament, had to cook food out in the bushes while fending off England’s
invasion forces back in the 17thcentury…True dat. This bush cooking style, however, is now done on
Jamaica’s roadside, in backyards, and in hotels all over the island.
Over the years, ‘run-a-boat’ and bush cooking have been so mingled together that it’s sometimes
difficult to separate them. Today, this comingling of styles is even prevalent in many Jamaican
restaurants all over the world. And, if you don’t know the difference, you may not even recognize the
bush cooking from the run-boat styles. One give a way, usually, is the size of the dumplings; run boat
dumplings are little bit smaller than bush cooking dumplings. In addition to that, bush cooking
dumplings look rough because Jamaican bush cooks don’t leave the dough to proof before cooking.
This practice makes boiled dumplings look like a big oatmeal cookie. ..Yah Mon!
Don’t think that I am berating the Jamaican run-boat or bush cook because, in truth, I am one of them.
I only learn to hone my cooking skills in 1994 when my wife and I open our first restaurant. As a result,
my wife showed me how to make Jamaican food and drinks for the public and not only for my friends.
However, I still love run-boat cooking…Yah Mon!
So the next time you are low on funds and you still feel like making some Jamaican food, try ‘run-a-
boat’ with some friends instead of the same ‘ol same ‘ol. Cool? Yah Mon!
Alright…mek wi run-a-boat…inna di house.
Boiled Dumplings and Dutty Gal:
½ lb. All purpose Flour
1 cup Water
½ tsp. Salt
Mix flour and salt together in a cooking bowl. Add half a cup of water to the mix, and then use your
hand to knead the flour.
The flour will look like crumbs; when this happens add a little water each time, and knead until the
dough is made. If you need to add a little bit more water please do so, but do not let the dough get
sappy and soft.
Now tear off pieces of dough about the size of a golf ball and place them in the same bowl.
Take the golf ball size pieces of dough and roll them between your palms to make them feel smooth. If
you are right-handed, use the right heel of your palm to press the piece of dough until it is flat.
You may leave a dent in the middle of the dough: I suppose the Jamaican dumplings will cook faster…I
don’t know why, it’s been that way forever. You may choose otherwise, as well, to leave the
dumplings as they are without the dent in the middle. Since this is bush cooking, you don’t have to
leave the dough to proof. And, in the real bush cooking style, you don’t have to worry about the
dumpling being smooth, too.
Bring a pot of water to boil and then add the flat pieces of dough to the pot. Cook for 25 minutes.
Dutty Gal :
1 can Mackerel in Tomato Sauce
1 Large Onion
1 tsp. Black Pepper
1 oz. Oil
Sauté onion until slightly opaque and then add all other ingredients. Turn fire to medium and then
simmer until mackerel is soaked in oil. Serve with the boiled dumplings…Yah Mon!
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