When one is an immigrant, balancing the affection one has for native traditions against the nuances of the adopted country can be a tricky act. For the mother and son team of Gail Somers and Andre Clayton, the solution has been to bring a little of their homeland of Jamaica right here to Keene.
“We’ve been living in Keene for six-and-a-half years now, after moving from Philadelphia,” Somers explains. “I was born and raised in Jamaica and immigrated here in the 1990s. My son, on the other hand, was born here in the States but has remained very close to Jamaican culture, and even revisits his ancestral lands occasionally.”
The family’s love of their native culinary traditions has resulted in the opening of Yahso’s Jamaican Grille in May of this year, in an available space shared with Walpole Creamery. Here, local foodies can explore the unique tastes of the island.
“The name, Yahso, means ‘right here,’ with the emphasis on an important place,” Somers says. “Food is very important to Jamaicans, and is central to every celebration in some way.”
Somers originally came from Port Antonio, a tiny town well off the beaten track in Jamaica, but is well-known as one of the originators of that national staple, Jerk Chicken.
“I learned to cook at home from my mom, who was one of 12 children, and the cook of the house,” Somers says. “Everything that I learned from her, I carried back with me. My two boys, Andre and 15-year-old Alex, also cook, and they indirectly learned from me in the same way.”
Most of the entrees at Yahso’s are served with coconut rice and beans and Caribbean slaw. These include many of the Jamaican favorites, ranging from jerk chicken to beef oxtail. They also have jerk wings, and Jamaican patties (flavored with jerk chicken or beef), as well as vegetarian offerings.
For those unfamiliar with the dish, jerk chicken is a grilled-meat dish common throughout the Caribbean. “Jerk” refers to a style of cooking in which the main ingredient — generally, chicken, pork or beef — is coated in spices and slow-cooked over a fire or grill traditionally composed of green pimento wood positioned over burning coals. The resulting smoke is essential to the flavor of the finished product.
The Arawak tribe, who settled in Jamaica 2,500 years ago, used this technique as a way of preserving meat. When a group of escaped African slaves hid in the mountains, becoming known as “Maroons,” they adopted the cooking method, adding local spices. The word “jerk” stems from the Spanish charqui, meaning dried strips of meat, similar to modern-day jerky.
In Jamaica, jerk chicken is famous for its marinade, marked by allspice and Scotch bonnet peppers. Holes are usually poked into the meat to allow the marinade to spread.
“Jerk chicken is the bedrock of what we serve, with the chicken being marinated in a mixture of Jamaican peppers and spices, which we make all from scratch,” Somers says. “Our slow-cooked beef oxtail is also very popular.”
Somers says the restaurant also offers a number of weekend specials, such as curry goat, served with plain white rice and a mixture of broccoli and cabbage, and marinated shrimp. Fried chicken with coconut rice and red beans is another favorite, served up with fried ripe plantains.
Somers says the restaurant also offers several vegetarian options, which also reflect an important part of Jamaican tradition.
“Rastafarian culture is very important to us, and vegetarianism goes along with that,” she explains.
Yahso’s also offers many side dishes, including macaroni and cheese, steamed cabbage, fried plantains, festivals (fried corn fritters) and garden salad.
“We’ve been working with the Monadnock Food Coop for a lot of our ingredients, but we’re also aiming to locally source our food in the near future,” Somers says. “At this point, however, we have to get our goat meat from a supplier in Connecticut, as it’s very difficult to get around here.”
Somers feels that, even though she is many miles away from her sunny homeland, she is gratified to be able to share genuine Jamaican cuisine with the people of the Monadnock Region.
“We are a family at home away from home,” she says. “We have made New England our adopted space and love it here, but are also fortunate to have preserved some of our rich cultural roots in the foods we love to cook, share and enjoy with family and friends.
“We are excited to be featuring some bold new and unique food flavors, derived from family recipes which are near and dear to our hearts.”
Eric Stanway writes from Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire.
Yahso Jamaican Grille
149 Main Street
Keene, NH 03431
Hours: Tuesday through Thursday, 12 p.m. to 8 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 12 p.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 12 p.m. to 9 p.m.
For more information, visit facebook.com/yahsojamaicangrille.