A new locale for Helsinki’s Jamaican flavours.
PIDGEONS, grey office buildings, a Lidl at the corner, a busy street swarming with busses and pedestrians. Dark windowed bars waiting to open their doors for the early birds. The location is as Kallio as you can get. Yet stepping in to Jamaican Mamas I suddenly feel far away from the notorious Helsinki district. A beach hut. A soft Bob Marley ballad. The smell of cinnamon and spices, and happy chatter coming from the corner. A green, black and yellow flag is on the wall. Am I still in Finland?
Since love brought Jamaican Hazel Brevett-Tirronen to Finland 13 years ago, she has been dreaming of the day she would get to introduce Helsinki to the flavoursome cuisine of her home country. She finally realised her dream 11 months ago, when she opened Jamaican Mamas on Hämeentie, as featured in SixDegrees earlier this year. Since our last visit, the restaurant has relocated to Vilhonvuorenkatu, escaping Hämeentie’s small kitchen and restrictions on alcohol sales. The new joint has been open for two months.
Brevett-Tirronen was brought up with Jamaican cuisine. Her mama taught her to cook when she was just 11 years old. The name of her restaurant pays tribute to the Jamaican culture and all the mamas who teach their children to cook.
Flavours of Jamaica
Jamaican flavours haven’t previously surfaced in Finland. Jerk and its flavours are unique to Jamaica, with a “different spiciness” to what you’ll find elsewhere. Maintaining that authentic tie to the homeland is an important element for Brevett-Tirronen.
“This is as close to home as possible,” she says. “It’s all what my mom taught me, what her mom taught her; family recipes, little things that we add. Jamaican Mamas is all about traditional Jamaican cooking and keeping it real.”
Authenticity is maintained in many ways, spices being one. One spice that is traditionally used in Jamaican cooking is scotch bonnet, one of the hottest chillies in the world. Everything is also based on home cooking and fresh ingredients.
Other traditional treats found at Jamaican Mamas include a homemade ginger beer, a non-alcoholic soda. It’s composed of natural ingredients, among them lime, lemon and fresh ginger.
Without sandy beaches and the warm climate of Jamaica, some authenticity is difficult to hold on to. Traditionally, jerk is barbequeued outside. In Finland, it’s cooked in the oven. Yet “flavour-wise, it’s all there,” assures Brevett-Tirronen.
There are also some missing elements from the Jamaican plate, which can’t be found in Finland. What Brevett-Tirronen misses the most from the Jamaican culinary scene is ackee, Jamaica’s national fruit.
“Traditionally we cook it with salt fish. Salt fish and ackee is one of the oldest traditional dishes of Jamaica. Although they do have them in the tin, you just can’t beat the fresh ackee.”
A Christmas comparative
“It’s very much potatoes isn’t it, with Finns?” Brevett-Tirronen laughs, comparing Jamaican cuisine with the Finnish. The garlic variety, she says, has maybe inspired some of her cooking.
There is a world of difference between Finnish and Jamaican cuisine, the most poignant being the case of spice. Both the amount and variety of spices used are different, “it’s not just salt and pepper in Jamaica,” she observes.
Jerk is a good example of spices used, as it includes spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, lemon, and a lot more. “The Finnish dishes are a lot more simple. Finnish food can be tasty, but I think the spiciness is just missing from it,” says Brevett-Tirronen.
To suit the Finnish palate, Brevett-Tirronen says they’ve made a milder version of jerk. “We don’t want to blow anybody’s head off!”
The way the meat is cooked is also different; in Jamaica meat is marinated the night before and cooked on the bone, giving it a special flavour.
Something Brevett-Tirronen wishes Finns would embrace more are vegetables, particularly during the holidays.
“I just wish at Christmas that you’d have more fresh vegetables. I like the ham at Christmas - but those laatikot, I don’t like!”
A Jamaican Christmas looks rather different. Beginning with ackee, fried dumplings and plantain banana, and ending the day with curry goat and turkey – and a lot of fresh vegetables.
Like many Finns, I’ve never tried Jamaican food before. From the first course, Brevett-Tirronen’s love for vegetables was clear: there was cauliflower, broccoli, courgettes, garlic and vinegar making up a typical vegetable soup. On the side were dumplings, made from dough which had been lightly fried.
I was curious to try the Jamaican flavours and was planning on just a couple of bites of each thing on the plate. Tasting jerk for the first time was a wonderful experience. The ‘mild’ version Brevett-Tirronen served me had a perfect amount of spice. The sweet cinnamon sauce and the chicken it was dressed with just melted in my mouth. Although I typically associate cinnamon with Christmas porridge, it fit surprisingly smoothly in a salty context.
A few bites were not enough. I finished the whole piece.
The flavoursome jerk was a good complement to the creamy coconut rice and beans. The fried plantain was also a first, and delicious: a small crunch on the surface; warm and soft on the inside. Not to mention the coleslaw which was incomparable to any similar concoction I’ve tried before.
Finns no longer have an excuse not to have tried Jamaican food – with an authentic joint in a snug corner of Kallio, the next culinary adventure is waiting. Be ready to escape the dull cold outside and be transported to a cosy corner of Jamaica.
Text and images Alicia Jensen