Feeding People

by Tracy Hyatt

Warning: if you don’t have years of experience and knowledge about Jamaican patties, don’t get into a discussion with a Jamaican about which brand is the best
Warning: if you don’t have years of experience and knowledge about Jamaican patties,
don’t get into a discussion with a Jamaican about which brand is the best

Hidden among the maze of winding roads in Millwoods is a ubiquitous 1970s era strip mall. There’s a convenience shop, a drug store and a bank. Next to the 7-11 is Irie Foods, one of the city’s few Jamaican restaurants.

Wednesdays during lunch hour, the sparsely decorated 20-seat restaurant is standing room only. The vibe is happy. Reggae music pipes into the room from the kitchen. Most people are here for the $8.99 Wednesday jerk chicken special, but I’m here for something else. I am told that Irie Foods is where I can find the tastiest Jamaican patties in Edmonton—just like the ones “back home.”

Behind the counter inside a warming oven I spot a rack of half a dozen or so patties. The first thing you notice about a Jamaican patty is its brilliant colour. The signature yellow golden crust gets its hue from an egg wash of curry powder and turmeric. “People come from all over the city for these patties. The meat filling is not too spicy and not too greasy,” says Irie Foods owner Patti Ricketts in her Jamaican lilt. She tucks the yellow patty into a brown paper bag and I head off.

Back at work, I bite into the soft flaky patty. Everything is just right. The thin layers of dough, slightly thicker than Mediterranean baklava, fall apart in my mouth. The beef filling is a savoury moist paste spiced with plenty of black pepper and a hint of thyme.

These are the best patties in Edmonton.

Forty-seven years and many recipes ago in Kingston, Jamaica, the Chang family began mass-producing Jamaica’s most beloved snack—the Jamaican patty, a flaky hand-held pie filled with spicy curried beef. The Chang family did not invent the patty, but they did elevate the patty from home kitchens to the world stage. Their Tastee shops, located across Jamaica, serve thousands of patties a week, and the company also ships its product to convenience shops, grocery stores and restaurants around the world.

In four decades, the patty has become so popular there are now half a dozen or so large companies in North America manufacturing these savoury snacks, all of them professing to have the best tasting patty.

Warning: if you don’t have years of experience and knowledge about Jamaican patties, don’t get into a discussion with a Jamaican about which brand is the best. Next to jerk chicken, there’s no other dish in Jamaica that arouses such patriotism and love for the country. In some circles, Jamaicans will tell you that Juici is the best patty to be had, others will swear by Tastee patties.

Up until a few years ago Irie Foods sold Tastee patties, but the company stopped shipping to Western Canada, forcing Rickets to find another supplier. After sampling several products, she finally settled on Toronto-based TinNel, whose recipe comes close to the famous Tastee patty.

To understand the Jamaican patty, you must know the country’s history. Arawak Indians first inhabited the island, then the Spanish arrived in the mid-1400s. The Brits arrived in the 1600s bringing with them enslaved Africans. The Europeans brought plants, spices and cooking methods to the island until eventually Jamaica’s cuisine literally became one big melting pot. The country’s signature dish is jerk chicken, slow-roasted in a marinade of garlic, black pepper, thyme, onion, pimento and scotch bonnet peppers. Patties come a close second.

The Jamaican patty is a riff on the Cornish pasty likely introduced to the island by its British colonizers. But unlike the bland Cornish pasty filling, which failed to tempt black Jamaicans’ tastebuds, Scotch Bonnet pepper, black pepper, curry powder, allspice and thyme are added to the filling of a Jamaican patty.

Unlike Cornish pastys, the crust of a Jamaican patty is flaky, but “a good patty shouldn’t be so flaky that it falls apart before you get a chance to eat it,” says Ricketts. It’s labour-intensive work to get the dough just right, which is why most Jamaican restaurants in Canada don’t make them in-house.

Not even homemade patties taste the same. In Jamaica, family recipes are rarely written down and good luck finding a Jamaican cookbook at your favourite bookstore. You just have to learn to make your family’s treasured recipes by watching. My mother’s patties are mild but each bite is bursting with curried ground beef.

“The original recipe, the authentic patty, has a flakier dough and is much harder to replicate,” says Frank Scanlon, director of sales and marketing at Patty King International. The Toronto-based company is the largest manufacturer in Canada and their patties are known for the flaky crust that is favoured by Jamaicans.

On a Saturday night in downtown Edmonton when the bars close, you can find a queue of people at the Jasper Avenue 7-11. The convenience store has become the prerequisite stop for late-night munchies. For a couple of dollars, you can choose from pizza slices, corn dogs, chicken tenders, Taquitos or Jamaican patties. Patties are sold as a cheap counter snack or portable meal throughout the Caribbean, so it’s no surprise that one of the largest convenience store chains in North America sells them. But what irks most patty purists is the quality.
“Uh, uh, it’s not the same thing. The staff at 7-11 come here to buy patties,” says Ricketts. And so the patty wars continue.

I give 7-11 props for introducing Jamaican patties to the masses. Their patties aren’t as flaky or as spicy as Tastee, Juici or TiNel. But their Global Delights beef patties are good enough to pique people’s interest in Jamaican food.

Hey mon, if you find a 7-11 Jamaican patty too spicy, you can always cool your mouth off with a Slurpee. No problem.

Tracy Hyatt is the associate managing editor for Westworld magazine and is Jamaican. She thinks her mum’s patties are the best, better than Tastee’s.