“River shrimp sweet, spice wit pepper, cook wit heat.” Jomo Morris
Middle Quarters in St. Elizabeth is famous for its peppered shrimp. It’s a simple preparation, consisting of fresh shrimp paired with the fiery heat of local Scotch bonnet pepper. The juiciest examples of fresh shrimp, pronounced “swims” by the vendors who sell them, come from among the thick reeds and rushes that are characteristic of the Black River’s swampy morass. The Lower Morass consists of shallow estuaries, marshland, and mangrove swamps which provide a rich ecosystem for a broad range of fish and birds. Mangrove snapper, snook, mullet, egret, heron and osprey all abound here. Shrimp, though tiny in size, also thrive in this brackish water and bring a viable cottage industry to this part of the island. Fishermen still use bamboo traps – a method brought to Jamaica by African slaves – to catch the shrimp, which are then sold to vendors. The construction and appearance of the bamboo baskets still bear similarities to those used by fishermen along the Niger River.
St. Elizabeth is Jamaica’s breadbasket, and it’s easy to see why: everything planted in this rich soil grows profusely and in abundance. It’s no secret: pepper shrimp from Middle Quarters is delicious because the recipe is simple. The tastiest shrimp, cooked with salt and fresh peppers in a giant Dutch pot. Scotch bonnet peppers grown in St. Elizabeth are fiercely hot and have a subtle smoky and fruity flavor, unlike any other pepper.
It’s a scenic two-hour drive from Montego Bay to Middle Quarters, St. Elizabeth. By car, turn left at the stoplight by Reading, up Longhill, through Cambridge, past orchards filled with oranges and acres of sugar cane, make a left at the sign for Santa Cruz and Savanna La Mar. After passing through the town of Lacovia, keep your eyes open for Holland Bamboo, a beautifully arched arrangement of bamboo trees which shade the road for miles. These bamboo arches and its environs get their name from the Holland sugar estate. It is said the the owners planted these bamboo arches in the 17th century to provide gentle breezes in the heat of the St. Elizabeth savannah. The landscape changes as you approach Middle Quarters; rolling green hills give way to flat expanses of slow-moving water filled with water rushes. On the right side of the road, as far as the eye can see, the Black River seeps into and enriches the vivid hues and greens of everything it touches. Everyone wants you to buy a plastic bag filled with bright red river shrimp from them. It’s not unusual to see cars surrounded by a dozen or more women vying for a sale. It can be a bit intimidating to the casual observer. Bags of shrimp pressed close to your face, the gaggle of voices, the smell of pepper and spice, a mob of hands reaching for attention, will last only as long as your indecision from whom to buy. Pick a vendor; buy her shrimp and the crowd melts away as they move on to the next potential sale. In your hands, the prize: a bag or two of shrimp cooked in spices, bright red in color, delicious, salty, hot, and sweet. Pepper shrimp is a great bar snack and tastes even better with a glass of cold beer to wash it down.
Purists believe in eating the entire thing: head, shell, the whole caboodle. This method is not for everyone. It’s ok to remove the head and suck on the juices and then remove the shell and eat the tasty tail meat.
Pepper shrimp is easy to prepare at home as well. Buy 2 lbs. head-on shrimp from the farmers market. Wash shrimp, drain well and pat dry with several sheets of paper towel. In a very hot Dutch pot or cast iron skillet add 1 tbsp. oil and add shrimp. Season with ½ tsp. salt (you can add more if you like), 1 finely chopped scotch bonnet pepper (remove the seeds). Cover with a lid and cook for 3 minutes. Remove the lid and add ¼ cup plain white distilled vinegar. Replace lid and cook for another two minutes. Let sit until ready to serve.