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A delicious Caribbean vacation for your taste buds

by Rebecca Milner

“There are no palm trees. It looks like a typical Caribbean restaurant. Like home, not the beach,” says Petra Laptiste, a Canadian of Caribbean descent, describing her favorite Caribbean restaurant in Tokyo, JamRock (1-21-15 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo; 03-3478-2364; www.jamrockcafeonline.com).

JamRock doesn’t peddle hackneyed images of Caribbean life (no Bob Marley posters on the wall); it specializes in authentic, home-style Jamaican cooking. Case in point: The most popular item on the menu isn’t that tourist favorite, jerk chicken; it’s oxtail and butter beans.

Jamaican expat Yvonne Goldson opened JamRock in 2010, after retiring from her job as a legal secretary (she’s been in Tokyo for 17 years). The menu, she explains, is a list of “all the things I eat.” It includes ackee and salt fish (ackee is Jamaica’s national fruit; the salt fish is dried codfish) and ital stew (a rich and creamy vegetarian stew made with coconut milk). Her personal favorite — if she absolutely has to choose — is escoveitch fish (fried fish pickled in vinegar and spices).

Laptiste, on the other hand, adores the mango chicken. Another authentic Caribbean taste not to be missed, she says, is the sorrel juice, made from a plant similar to hibiscus and spiked with cinnamon and cloves.

JamRock also serves a curious Jamaican cocktail called Tan Up, a combination of Guinness, carrot juice, rum and condensed milk (“tan up” is Jamaican patois for “stand up”; it’s a drink for, err, men). According to Goldson, Guinness is considered a health tonic in Jamaica. Who knew?

Everything at JamRock is cooked fresh to order. All the spices employed in the tiny kitchen are imported, even though many — such as thyme — are available in Japan, as Goldson insists they’re not the same. “The thyme in Japan is weak,” she says. “In Jamaica you can smell thyme from a mile away. You could follow your nose to the market.”

While JamRock is “home” for Laptiste, she also recommends Aalawi (1-26-13 Ebisu, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo; 03-5793-5027). “It’s run by a Japanese guy who lived in Jamaica and brought back the food,” she explains.

Aalawi is a popular, lively place dishing up many of the same classic Jamaican dishes as JamRock. It also has an amazing summer special of grilled corn topped with lime, cayenne pepper and Parmesan cheese.

Laptiste, who runs Carifrique, an agency that promotes Caribbean culture in Japan, also hosts cooking classes specializing in dishes from Trinidad and Tobago (for more information, visit www.carifrique.com/caribbean-cooking-lessons) Naturally, she can tell me where to find plantains, the “cooking bananas” ubiquitous in Caribbean cuisine. Nozawaya (4-7-8 Ueno, Taito-ku, Tokyo; 03-3833-5212) in the basement of the Ameyoko Center Building — that slice-of-brie-shaped structure in the middle of Ueno’s famous market — usually has them. Call ahead to check; ask for Sato Katsuharu, who speaks English and Spanish. Also, Demiko (www.demiko.com) ships them by the carton to anywhere in Japan.

And if you’re wondering where to get oxtail, Goldson gets hers (along with goat for curries) from Pakistani market Al-Flah (Ohnoya Bldg. 4F, 2-41-2 Ikebukuro, Toshima-ku, Tokyo; 03-3985-9784; www.al-flah.com). Recently, she notes, the Ikebukuro branch of Hanamasa (3-9-5 Nishi-Ikebukuro, Toshima-ku, Tokyo; 03-5951-2941; www.hanamasa.co.jp) has started carrying it, too.

Rebecca Milner is a freelance writer in Tokyo and coauthor of Lonely Planet’s travel guides to Tokyo and Japan.